When my husband, my daughter and I watched the amazing, historic, beautiful events of election night, I couldn’t stop thinking of the one family member who hadn’t stayed up late to watch it – our toddler son. Like Barack Obama, he is the child of a black father and a white mother. As my father has told me more than once, he can’t look at Obama without thinking of our son, his youngest grandchild – he always (half-jokingly) wanted one of his children or grandchildren to end up as President, and Obama’s victory has renewed his dynastic daydreams.
I know what he means; in my mind, Obama and my toddler seem linked, too. Maybe because Obama’s name has been issuing from his mouth since he first started talking (he’s only a few months older than the presidential campaign, after all), and a President Obama will be the first one he can realistically remember. And then, too, there’s the fact that Obama’s election has forever changed the landscape of possibility for all our children, especially, in my mind, my own little biracial boy. I love that there is now no ceiling on his ambitions (and I hope that within the next few elections the same will prove true for my daughter).
My identification of my son and Obama is such that, even though the President-Elect is older than I am by a few years, I can’t help putting myself into the mind of his mother, Ann Dunham (born Stanley Ann, to a father who evidently wanted a son and namesake). It doesn’t hurt that we’re both white women from Kansas – an election-season shorthand that cracked me up since I, much like Obama’s mother, don’t exactly see myself as merely an exemplar of heartland values – and that I, like her, see no limits to what my son can achieve. Dunham died in 1995, when Obama was just 34; I can only imagine how proud she would be, and how sad it is that she’s not here to see him reach this extraordinary pinnacle.
In his speech to supporters at Grant Park on election night, Obama invoked Illinois’ other great president, Abraham Lincoln. Like Obama, Lincoln arrived in office years after his mother had died (Nancy Hanks Lincoln passed away when her son was just nine years old). Although Ann Dunham lived long enough to see her son take on the adult world and achieve great things – he was a professor at the University of Chicago when she died, but hadn’t yet entered politics – Lincoln ‘s mother didn’t even see him grow up. The ghost of Nancy Hanks will forever be immortalized in the impossibly sappy poem bearing her name, which my own mother used to read to me and my brothers. It begins:
If Nancy Hanks
Came back as a ghost,
Of what she loved most,
She’d ask first
“Where’s my son?
What’s happened to Abe?
What’s he done?”
“You wouldn’t know
About my son?
Did he grow tall?
Did he have fun?
Did he learn to read?
Did he get to town?
Do you know his name?
Did he get on?”
Mom would make it to “Did he grow tall?” – that was when her throat would constrict, her voice would quaver, and my brothers and I would burst out laughing (even though I share her weepiness and would sometimes laugh with tears in my own eyes).
So here’s the thing. I still think it’s a ridiculous poem. I still can crack up my brothers, or even my mother, whose good humor has grown with age, by reciting that one line – “Did he grow tall?” – but now I can’t find it merely ridiculous. Now that I’m a mother myself, of a boy and girl whose future I can get teary dreaming about, I can’t help but cry reading it myself.
Ann Dunham (she dropped the Stanley part, though the man she was named for became Barack’s beloved “Gramps,” a vital figure in his youth) was a sentimental sort, too. In Dreams From My Father, Obama describes how her chin would tremble as she came near tears at the approach of any big emotion. It trembled when she told him about her courtship with his father, the Kenyan exchange student who left when Barack was just two and only saw him once after that. Left alone to raise this black son, Ann assaulted him with a barrage of positive images. As Obama writes, her message was as powerful as it was, in the end, incomplete:
Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.
That’s a lot to put on a kid, even one who will grow up to add his name to those illustrious rolls. As a white woman raising a black son today – and yes, he is both black and biracial, “and” being a much more useful conjunction when it comes to the complexities of identity than “or” ever was – I am far luckier than Ann Dunham was. I don’t have to craft a racial message on my own, especially one I haven’t personally lived. If I ever drift into the territory of racial oversimplification (“all black men are…”,”being black means…”), I have my black husband by my side to introduce notes of nuance, complication and truth. And both of us have our full extended families – black and white – to claim this little boy as their own. My son won’t have to journey, as Obama did, to Africa to see his black roots – he just has to come with us when we visit his great-grandmother in Lousiana. One meal at her table will tell him more about what it means to be black in America, the glories and the hardships, than any canned speech I could come up, even if it came with the best intentions.
But that’s not to disparage how Ann Dunham raised her son. Her best intentions, after all, were far better than most white people of her generation could even imagine, and her son clearly was the beneficiary of them. And now that he’s stepping into the White House, all of us mothers of black sons, whether we ourselves are black, white, or other, have a new example to place before them. Thanks to her son, now my son will grow up knowing that yes, he can do anything.
And so I want to address those lost mothers of lanky Illinois presidents: yes, Nancy, he did grow tall. And yes, Ann, he proved right your fierce determination to fill him with positive examples and your own example of courage and openness. I don’t know if you will be watching from anywhere ethereal when he takes the oath of office, but if it helps any, you should know that there’s a whole army of other mothers out there, especially mothers of black sons, looking out for him. One of the most popular T-shirts this election year read “Mama for Obama,” and I kept trying to buy one myself but they were always sold out. That said, I think they should have reserved a few for we whose sons are black. We’re Mamas for Obama in more ways than one.