President Barack Obama validated my feelings on Friday. When he spoke candidly about why African Americans viewed the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case in a specific light, my heart leaped for joy. From reading countless articles and being disillusioned at the way some pundits are using the homicide rate in Chicago as a political weapon against African American outrage, our president’s speech showed me that there was someone out there in our political system that got it. He understood why so many African Americans were feeling the way they were.
However, as I watched the speech unfold, I remained apprehensive. Were his words scripted? How in-depth would he talk about the situation? What led him to speak on this subject today? How long did it take him to form his opinion?
Yet as I saw the president open himself up to the country — and the world — about the persistency and very potent reality of racial profiling in America, I saw that his words did not just come to him today. Or last Saturday when the “not guilty” verdict was handed down. Nor did these words come to him in February 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed. It seems like the president’s words have been there all along. And that was the most eye-opening part of his speech for me.
There should be little surprise when I say that our president is an African American man. Yes, he’s mixed, but his experiences due to his skin color are that of an African American. Similar to what I know from times spent shopping with my dad, Obama’s recollection of instances when women clutched their purses closer to them when he walked by was spot on. It happens. It happens a lot.
Though I was excited to hear Obama give context to the nation about the African American point of view, I was still apprehensive, waiting for the floodgates to break. I knew regardless of what he said today, or what he says anytime he speaks for that matter, his message will be misinterpreted and diluted by those who choose not to listen. In the minutes after he spoke, Obama was called racist, divisive and stupid. Yet if we truly listened to his speech with an open heart and alert ears, Obama was none of these things. When I watched the speech I saw a man who was vulnerable. I saw a man who was burdened. He was pained.
By aligning himself with the African American experience (and not to mention the fact that he is a parent as well) Obama showed everyone who was watching that the death of Trayvon Martin was one that we should all be grieving. It is a national tragedy. It is a time for “soul-searching.” Trayvon did not have to die. Though as the president bluntly reminded us, it could have been him who was racially profiled when he was 17-years-old and ended up in a lethal confrontation. It was a somber realization that even when our president steps down from the podium and away from the political arena, he in fact joins the ranks of the other 44 million African Americans in this country that have had less than desirable experiences due to the color of their skin.
Yes, it has gotten better for African Americans. The same as it has gotten better for other minority groups in this country. There has been legislation passed to protect our rights and historic elections that have catapulted many African Americans to the country’s spotlight. However, when racial profiling occurs, it always serves as a reminder that inclusiveness does not equate to equality. Sometimes the unwritten laws are the hardest ones to battle. So once again, when Obama spoke, he was able to articulate the pain many African Americans have when they still have to say the phrase, “I can’t believe this is happening. I mean, it is 2013.”
Our president showed us today that though time ticks on, history follows closely behind. After decades and movements, amendments and wars, we have yet to solve all the problems concerning race in this country. That doesn’t mean we have to throw our hands up in the air and chalk it up as a loss. Instead, we must clearly recognize that there has been pain, there have been injustices within the legal system, there has been racial profiling that is not easily forgotten by the African American community.
Though President Obama’s speech was packed with nuggets of truths, ultimately, what I will always remember about his speech is that it wasn’t a sermon. Instead, it was an invitation for people to react slower with judgment and open themselves up to others that have different experiences. For our experiences shape our perceptions and influence our actions. I truly believe I witnessed something groundbreaking on July 19, 2013: our country’s first African American president simply speaking as an African American man while weaving his story — and that of all African Americans — into the often turbulent yet progressive American narrative. I don’t know how often I will be able to witness a frank speech given by such a highly-ranked politician again. But I’m just glad, that in the future, I will be able to tell my children that I listened to that. And hopefully they will think it silly that this was still a point of tension in our country. Even in 2013. Regardless of how our future will look, I will be able to say I lived through this moment, I listened to the president’s words and I learned from this whole experience.
And with that, I say, thank you President Obama.