The evening that Barack Obama was declared winner of the 2008 presidential election, I got a call from my brother. He was crying so hard I could barely understand him.
“Ijeoma. I could have been president. Why didn’t anybody tell me? Why didn’t anybody say it was possible?”
It was a day that many people of color never thought they’d see.
When we were children, nobody ever said that we could be president. It wasn’t mentioned by teachers, it wasn’t on television. Such lofty goals were just setting yourself up for disappointment.
This wasn’t because our parents didn’t believe in us. My brother and I, and all the other brown kids I knew, had parents who thought we were full of potential. They thought we were just as smart as the smartest kids around. But they were keenly aware of the obstacles we faced in this world. The primary goal was to get us through to adulthood alive, with maybe a decent job. They were busy protecting us, and themselves. They were busy trying to provide for us on meager paychecks or benefits.
Throughout American history, a strong black man or woman has always been a threat. You can be laughed at and mocked as “lazy” or “shiftless” by society, and while it definitely limits your opportunities for success and happiness in life, it also ensures that you will be mostly left alone. But to be strong, loud — then you become a wild animal, an unpredictable savage, a brute, the angry black man or woman. Our best chance of survival has always lain in our ability to adapt, to code switch, to become quieter, more docile. Play the game. You won’t win, but you might get a few points.
But today the world is different, even if the power structure tries to be the same. Our children have a black president; they want to be president too. The truth that it is possible is right there, plain to see. These kids know too much. Their eyes have a fire in them. And as a parent, I have pledged to do all that I can to keep that fire alive, to give my children space to become fully fleshed and powerful human beings. But I know that this comes with a lot of risk.
I want my children to be confident — arrogant even. I want my children to swagger. I want them to live fully in their own power. This is how many white children are raised. They are raised to inherit the future, to build a great tomorrow in their names. They are raised to argue, to demand. I want my kids to do the same. But when my older son says he knows that he’s talented, he’s viewed as uppity. When he says that he will be the best one day, he’s told not to brag.
When my younger son gets excited about having the correct answer in class, he’s viewed as disruptive. His enthusiastic yells are taken as hostile. His love of knowledge is often seen as showboating. This can cause problems in class and affect his grades. And yet I encourage him. “More!” I say, “Ask more questions! It’s never wrong to ask questions!”
I do this because I want my sons to be free. I am taking a risk right now in the hopes that it will pay off in the future. I’m not alone. Many brown parents I know are storming principal’s offices in their children’s defense, demanding new teachers when the current teacher refuses to treat our brown babies with the respect and kindness that all children deserve. They are forcing discussions about cultural differences between white families and families of color. They are ignoring the weird looks they get at PTA meetings. They are demanding that the system make room for their children, instead of molding their children to the system.
In a world that only wants brown people to succeed within the confines of the barbed wire fence it has built around us, we have to battle. When standardized tests are skewed towards white experiences, we not only have to prepare our kids for the test, but we also have to push for more inclusive questions. When we are told that our children have “attitude problems,” we have to confront the fear and hostility with which authority figures see our children and demand that it change. We must help them succeed on unfair terms, but we also have to change the terms. We will fight for every scholarship. We will fight for our children’s right to protest, to stand tall, to fight back.
And we know that our children will hit roadblocks. We know that we are setting them up for heartbreak, maybe even danger. A young black man who won’t bow down is viewed as hostile, painted as a thug. We know that telling our kids they don’t have to ever accept being dismissed by authority figures may mean they will lose a job, or get a lower grade. We know that telling them they have the right to be treated like human beings by the police can get them killed. We know that every day they will hear from the world that they could get more if they would just be less. And we have to continue to push them to be more, to claim their piece of this world.
We know that even if they succeed they will still have to battle. They will be called a thug like Richard Sherman. They will be called crazy like Kanye. They will be called bullies or animals like the Williams sisters. They will be called race baiters like Cornel West.
But we are not raising our children to give up, because we will not tell them that their dreams are too lofty, that their goals are unattainable, that the world isn’t ready. We will not stop at one black president. We will see our brown babies reach great heights. The strength that we have needed to get by will be the strength that they use to get ahead. We don’t care if the world is ready. The world will have to adjust.