Thursday, December 24, 2009

2009 in review

Sometimes things take a while to sink in. Reality changes, but we don't recognize the paradigm shift until much later.

I watched an interview last week with a mom and her two children who were a part of a larger group of African-American mothers and daughters who went to see Disney's latest movie, "The Princess and the Frog." This was the first Disney movie to have an African-American protagonist, and the mom discussed how important it was for her daughters to see a princess who "looked like them." It wasn't that she wanted her daughters to grow up and become princesses but that she didn't want them to grow up thinking that their options were somehow limited because of the color of their skin. She brought up the experiment, first conducted in 1939 but then replicated many times thereafter, in which little girls who were African American preferred white dolls over black dolls. How sad, she suggested, that they thought the doll that looked most like them wasn't beautiful.

But our reality is changing, and the moral arc of the universe is bending. Until this year, we only had one image of what an American President could look like (Morgan Freeman notwithstanding). I'm reminded of a Langston Hughes poem, written in 1925, called, "I, Too, Sing America":

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

When I hear the rhetoric about "Real America," the unfounded challenges to Obama's nationality, I also hear the echoes of those who sent Hughes to eat in the kitchen. I think, aren't they ashamed? But those voices are on the wrong side of history and will slowly become more obsolete. I look back at this past year and think Obama has accomplished a great deal; once (and if) the noise dies down, we'll better recognize that.

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