On the first day of my junior year at college, I put on a tiny pair of purple shorts and flirted with the cable man connecting wires in the dorm room across the hall from mine. Without much bribing, the man hooked a cable to my television, and I got seven sometimes fuzzy channels. I watched Food Network the most, sometimes on mute while I wrote essays. The night Barack Obama became president, Maura and Kailey, who shared a room down the hall, burst into my room and said, “You have a TV, right?”
Our hall was on the tenth floor but I felt like the screaming victors parading down the street were in the next room, threatening to break down the barrier to include us as President Obama began his acceptance speech. Over his words, I heard shouts of My-president-is-black! and yes-we-did!. But my room was not a place for celebration. Maura and Kailey had an exam at 8 a.m. the next day and left right after he finished. And when I saw the faces of McCain supporters on the screen, I felt so uneasy that I almost wished he hadn’t won.
Hardly anyone knows I didn’t vote for him. I think now, if I could go back, I probably would have. But at the time, I had so many uneducated problems with both candidates that I took what I thought was the high road and voted for Bill Barr. It was the first time I’d ever voted, and I felt like I’d cheated. Like I was the only black student who didn’t want to yes-we-can.
I felt that if something terrible happened to President Obama, my life would change in more ways than if Mr. McCain had won. If all those cowardly internet racists on YouTube actually did to our president what they said they would, my life would never be the same. And somehow it would be my fault, because of a vote I didn’t even make. The difference between feeling scared of the future and embarrassed that I wasn’t elated blended into one long night of tossing and turning.
The next day my first class was American Slavery. Of course. My teacher was an African American woman who wore floral skirts with tennis shoes like other women on the street who I’d always assumed changed into black pumps or flats once they reached work, but she never did. She went to the barren dry-erase board and drew a happy face with three quick dabs. “That’s all I have to say,” she smiled, and asked for our homework. And I smiled back at her because I felt ashamed not to.
How could I not be incredibly happy for this woman? She looked around 65. I sat in class and imagined the injustices she may have once encountered, Whites Only signs she may have seen, or tiny lists of colleges that were accepting black students at the time she applied. I remembered when that awful movie Deep Impact came out, my family sat around the television and watched the trailer. Morgan Freeman played the president, and my dad said to my mom, “A black president? The world must be ending!” She laughed and playfully hit his arm. I grinned at my American Slavery teacher as if I shared in this joke as well.
I willed myself to feel pride, but I only felt guilty. I’d grown up in Arizona, and during my sophomore year of high school, we played Brophy College Preperatory, where one of Senator McCain’s sons attended. Word spread fast that he got a blow job from a ratty girl named Catarina who sat behind me in homeroom. During the game. Under the bleachers. I couldn’t possibly know this and still vote for his dad, right? At the time, this seemed to have more weight than his views on why he didn’t vote to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday.
It wasn’t until months after Obama’s election when I was babysitting that something started to stir. Four days a week I babysat Trudy and Lisa on East 51st street. Trudy was still in diapers and Lisa was a two-and-a-half-year-old teenager. A few weeks prior, Lisa had started to raise questions as to why I had dark skin. Why I didn’t get my hair fixed like mommy’s. Why my ponytail went poof. But I had dealt with this before, and I loved her and her mother dearly.
When the interrogation didn’t let up, I ineptly relayed this information to her mother one afternoon. Embarrassed, she urgently grabbed her computer and went to Amazon. The next day on Lisa’s floor were six new books; Black, White, Just Right!, If the World Were a Village: A Book About the World’s People, Colors Come From God — Just Like Me, and others alike. My favorite was one called Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp. This precious babe Liza Lou is a small clever girl with a tight afro and bare feet. Our small clever girl had hardly any hair but still enjoyed it, ripping the last two pages that we taped back together so we could read it again.
One day, Lisa, her mother and I sat making bracelets on the floor in the den. Lisa sleeps upstairs. A black man singing about his favorite McDonald’s breakfast item came on the television behind Trudy and she turned around.
“Obama!” she screamed. With pure delight.
Her mother blushed. “No honey, that’s not him.”
“He’s the president,” she told me. Trudy had more pride in her black president that I’d had for myself in months.
I realized that I was here, in New York City, in my 20s, at a time when any child born would see a black man, and think they were the president. On my way home I sat at the front of the bus, realizing for the first time, I was sitting wherever I wanted. Maybe it took feeling embarrassed about Barack Obama for me to learn to feel proud of myself. If the president was black, maybe I could be too.
Trudy and Lisa lived close to the United Nations, and when black town cars with American flags would roll down the street, we’d stand outside on their brownstone steps and wave at each one just to be sure Obama might see us. Trudy would tell me stories about her adventures with Obama, how he was actually coming over for dinner, and how he said she could stay up much later than Lisa. And when they misbehaved, I’d remind them that Mr. Obama’s daughters would never ever yell at bath time, and they would fall very quiet.