Throughout the past year our family has been very involved in the presidential election. By the time you read this, you may not remember any of our work at Obama lemonade stands, or our lawn sign that you called our "Welcome Barack Obama to our house!" sign, or the numerous T-shirts I bought, or the super fun Obama-Biden magnetic bumper sticker you took great pains to place Just So on our car, or the fun we had back and forth as you declared your support for John McCain regardless of our Obamamania.
You may also not remember this, your first real MLK Day weekend. You just learned in preschool about the work of Dr. King, and you were clearly bothered by seeing photos of people having ketchup poured on them because they were sitting at counters reserved for people with white skin. Kids have an inherent sense of fairness and justice, and I can tell that you are struggling to understand and make sense of a world in which this was ever acceptable behavior for anyone--especially grownups. I reassured you today that I struggle to understand it too.
Which is why I am writing you this letter. I have wanted to write this to you since election night when your father and I sat on our couch the whole night watching the returns, and I choked up as CNN announced that Barack Obama had won the election. I have not written it because I wanted the elation to subside, I wanted to write this from a place of realism rather than celebration, and more honestly, I have not known how to begin to tell you why this election, this inauguration, means more to me than any I have ever experienced; perhaps because my primary reason is: YOU. You, my love, are the reason this is so special to me.
President-Elect Barack Obama kicked off his Inaugural festivities today with a whistle-stop train ride from Philadelphia to Washington DC. He and the soon-to-be First Family rode in a train car built in 1939, a year when a person with brown skin in America could never have been a passenger on such a car, much less have ascended to the Presidency of the country in which it was built. Even during the time of Dr. King--just a short 40 years ago--the very idea that a black man could be President of the United States was considered nothing short of lunacy. I would venture that even as recently as October 2008, a large portion of our country did not believe that a black man could ever win a national election for the Presidency. We proved those people wrong.
You and I have discussed many times about those days in the past when girls were not allowed to do things like become doctors or vote or fly into space. We discussed how Sally Ride and Sandra Day O'Connor and women like them across the country said (in your words), "Too bad! I'm going to do it anyway!" And in so doing, changed the world for all of us. This election is much like that, for people of all races. You are a woman; you cannot be told "you can't," because you will simply say, "Too bad! I'm going to do it anyway!" Likewise, you are a woman of color, and this election is one more sign that you--and all children of all colors and races--will be able to say when told that they can't be or do or become something, "Too bad! I'm going to do it anyway!" Barack Obama said, "Yes We Can." His supporters said, "Yes We Can," and together we changed the world. No, racism is not gone. Hatred has not been eradicated. Petty bigotry has not been erased from our society. I fear that you will encounter these evils regardless. I simply pray that by the time you read this letter, my elation that a man with brown skin--the son of a white mother and African father, the brother of an Asian sister, the uncle of Asian nieces and nephews--will occupy our nation's highest office, will seem quaint and sadly outdated.
That said, we did not vote for Barack Obama because of his skin color. We voted for him because he brings qualities to the office we believe our nation requires at this truly difficult time (our economic and military situations will require another letter entirely). He espouses policies that we believe benefit families and, by extension, benefit our country. Perhaps his words on election night in Chicago will tell you why we support him:
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down – we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security – we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.
For that is the true genius of America – that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.
She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.
And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.
At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.
When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.
When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.
She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.” Yes we can.
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves – if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?
This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:
Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.
Sweet Girl, I cast my vote in this election for YOU. For all the promise and potential and amazing power that is YOU. Because I want you to live in a strong, fair, proud and optimistic nation. Because I want you to have every opportunity in the world. Because I want you to live the American Dream just as I have. Because I never want anyone to tell you you can't do something because of your gender. Because I never want anyone to tell you you can't do something because of your skin color. Because I know that if they say you can't, you will answer with that "timeless creed," that voice inside you that says, "Yes I Can." You will say--as you always do--"Too bad! I'm going to do it anyway!"
Happy Inauguration, my daughter. I love you with everything I am and everything you will be.