What liberation is, and what it isn’t

"the American Revolution was, and remains, an ongoing struggle in the minds and hearts of the people."

"So, Baltimore, starting now, let's take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union"

Two quotes from President-Elect Barack Obama as he traveled to Washington by train three days before his inauguration.

I was hesitant about Barack Obama at first, because I knew him in Illinois and was not impressed with his willingness to take on tough issues, for reasons I've detailed in previous posts. I was torn in this election between my desire to see a woman or an African-American elected. Yet as the campaign went on I admired the way in which he managed and maintained a steady temperament. He grew, and grew, and grew before our eyes into this smiling, calm, resourceful person who makes us feel good by being in charge. I expect wonderful things from his administration, a chance at a real future for my son and all the younger generations, that did not seem possible this time last year. I am grateful to have had a small role in working against racism and proud for all of us.

But about perfecting that union . . .

Since I took on the "work of perfecting the union" as a young girl of 14 in the civil rights movement, and haven't stopped since, I found Obama's frequent lack of cooperation with women's struggle for justice in Illinois to be ironic, but far from unique. The same for his preference to ignore the sexism inherent in this last campaign, and his bone-headed decision to invite Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation. Like many people, he sometimes disrespects those who hold less power when it's convenient to do so. 

Many people prefer to ignore all the progress that has been made by feminists through long, long struggle–from gaining all women the right to own property in their own names in the mid-19th century, to, in the twentieth century, our successful struggles to get credit in our own name, to be paid the same wage as men doing the same job, to play sports on an equal basis with boys' teams in Little League, high school and college, to become astronauts, business executives, engineers, and politicians, whatever–and so much more. It is not fashionable at all to note that the first movement based on nonviolent civil disobedience in this country was not the civil rights movement, but the suffragists' movement to gain the right to vote.

It's not really the fault of many–over and over, teaching about women's rights, I learned that most people do not know that in the beginning of this country, no woman–no matter how white, no matter how rich–could own any property or gain the rights to her own children in divorce, much less vote or go into business on her own. Did YOU know that until 1948 a woman could not get a divorce in South Carolina without a special act of the state legislature? See what I mean?

It was very fashionable in this election to disrespect feminists, to disregard the sexism displayed by the media and by many Obama fans, even to deny its existence. I was very disappointed in Obama's failure to note that disrespect and to call it down, and to apologize for his part in it. And aghast at his invitation to Warren.

But whenever I–or anyone, from Campbell Brown to any person on the street–mention these things, it is considered a slur against the first African-American president. As if calling attention to the continuing need to perfect our union were an offense against those who feel they have finally gotten justice. Or maybe just an offending drag on their joy?

There are other groups who have yet to be liberated in any meaningful way–gays and American Indians come to mind. None of these is less important than the other. Obama's election will not end racism against Blacks, either, though it certainly represents progress.

We need to rejoice and we need to get a grip at the same time. It's complicated, folks. We have a lot of struggle yet ahead of us. In the future, I hope that a woman can run against a man–any man, of any color or persuasion–and not encounter the kind of disrespect we had to deal with this year. I look forward to the first openly gay president, to the first American Indian, Hispanic. We can't pick one liberation movement over another as more important.

Inevitably, Obama will disappoint us sometimes in the next eight years as much as he disappointed us with the Rick Warren honor, a clear miscalculation on his part. He is human. He keeps pointing this out himself. Are you listening? We can love him and chastize him at the same time. And, indeed, we must. Because you know what? Brilliant as he is, he needs our help to get it right everytime.

Tonight I heard a repeated refrain: I never thought I would see a Black president in my lifetime.

I did. I was certain of it. Because many Black people are brilliant, as is Obama, and sooner or later one would be so smart and so cunning that he–or she–would win despite the odds. One day a wise, cunning woman will do the same. And a gay person. And an American Indian. And an Hispanic woman or man. And a Gypsy. And a Jew. Whatever! I did not step off that curb and into the street with the bus boycott because I thought we should liberate only some people.

Because this is what it means to perfect the union: the next one may not need to be nearly perfect, just garden-variety excellent. And sooner or later–I hope not in my lifetime, but sometime–there will be a Black president, man or woman, who will not be a good choice and we will regret our votes, and have to give him or her the boot. The real test of ending racism, may be if we can do so without referring to his or her race, but only to his or her abilities.

But this one, this time? We gave ourselves a wonderful gift. Let's jump around and give ourselves high-fives and cry over every precious moment. I trust that he will be right much more often than not, but it is demeaning to expect that he be perfect. Starting Wednesday, let's get in there and help him by telling him when he's wrong!

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