On Speaking at the White House, Thinking About Change, & the Myth of Superheroes
©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead
“There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”
–Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come,” 1963
In 2008, in the midst of a historic election, when I voted, I voted for the past. As a historian who specializes in the black documentary tradition, I am fully aware of the racial issues that we have been struggling with ever since our country shifted from being “a nation with slaves” to a “slave nation” and I know what it took to get our country to implement and enforce the Reconstruction Amendments. I understand how and why we struggled during the Civil Rights Movement and I have a good idea of why we are still struggling with race. At that time, when I voted for then Senator Barack Obama, I was not just voting for myself. I was voting for all of my ancestors who never saw the end of the American enslaved system and who died before Brown v. Board was decided. I was voting for my grandfather who died before Obama became the democratic candidate and for my grandmother who never had a chance to experience the joy that comes from having a black man sitting at the center of the American political system. I was voting, in some ways (and in my mind) to try and right some of the wrongs of the past. I was less concerned about Obama’s issues, his policies, and his speeches and more concerned about having a black family finally move into the White House. I remember the night that he won, when my grandmother called me, crying in disbelief that she had lived to see a black man run for President of the United States and win. Although she could not tell me one thing that he stood for, she felt that he represented everything that she had been fighting for all of her life. He was the answer to all of her prayers and because I wanted to believe in a new and better America, he was the answer to my prayers, as well.
When I voted last November, I voted for the future. In light of everything that had been happening across America over the past three and a half years—including the dramatic changes in our climate and in the environment; the ongoing conversations about my reproductive rights and my right to make informed decisions about my body; the rising illiteracy rates of children of color; the increased violence in our schools, communities, social spaces, and on university campuses; the gnawing feeling that I had that reminded me that even though the economy was getting better, my ability to provide for my family was becoming more difficult everyday; and, the ways in which we, as a nation, continued to struggle with issues around race—I voted for President Obama, hoping and praying that the world that I want to live in and that I want to leave to my children would come to past.
We are now two months into his second term, standing on the eve of sequestration, and I am now not completely convinced that things are going to change for the better. I actually believe in change, I advocate for change, and I voted twice for change but I am not sure if it is going to come as quickly as I would like. The arm of justice, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., moves very slowly and with this administration, it is a painfully slow process.
But there is hope: two weeks ago (February 19, 2013), in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the release of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the White House sponsored its first Black History Month panel. I was selected to present on the panel along with Drs. Jelani Cobb (Rutgers), Edna Bedford (Howard), and James Peterson (Lehigh), to speak about this year’s Black History Month theme, “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington.” It was (to say the least) an amazing experience and for the first time since President Obama has been in office, I felt like change was happening. I felt that I was in the midst of change and further more, I felt like a change agent. I felt differently about change on the day before the panel and I actually feel differently about it now. As I think about that day and about how I felt sitting at the White House and speaking about black history, I am beginning to question my definition of change. I have my own idea of what change looks like and perhaps that is the problem. Change happens in so many different ways and until I redefine or even expand my definition, I will never be able to recognize it when it is taking place. I get frustrated because change takes so long whether it is a change on a scale or a change in policy. It is painful and slow and involves incredible sacrifice but maybe that is what life is all about. Everyday we wake up convinced that we are going to change and do everything right and every night we go to bed convinced that we have not changed and have therefore done everything wrong (again). Maybe, life is simply about getting up everyday and doing one thing that gets you closer to where you think you want to be. I guess I want my leaders to do what I can not. I want them to be super(s)heroes and I want them to save the world and change it for the better. I must accept the fact that they are just like me, regular folks who wake up everyday and try to get it right. I must continue to believe that change will come; because change, quite honestly, always comes and it always takes a long time coming…
(from left to right) Drs. Claudrena Harold (moderator); Jelani Cobb; the author; Edna Bedford; James Peterson [photo courtesy ofhttp://www.aleliabundles.com/blog/]
Additional article on the White House’s Black History Month panel: http://loyola.edu/Media/News/2013/0221-kaye-whitehead-white-house.aspx