By now we’re all pretty much aware that Barack Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, is fairly ill, and Obama has headed back to Hawai’i to be with her. The funny thing is that I’d never seen a picture of his grandparents, or one that I really remembered seeing, until I was scanning through both Andrew Sullivan’s and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blogs at the Atlantic yesterday, and found the pictures of Dunham with her husband Stanley, and Stanley with Barack as a young boy. If you haven’t, please read Coates’ observations about the photo and come back before I give my own.
It is striking when faced with the severe resemblance that Obama has to his grandfather — that facial structure, that jawline, that I am faced with the amazing task that they simply decided upon when their daughter Ann, in the early 60s, met and married Barack Obama, Sr. at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, married, and had a son: they simply decided to love their daughter and theri grandson, despite opposing the marriage (as did Obama’s paternal grandparents). In the America of the 1960s, the right, and what seems to us, normal choice was not always the popular one regarding interracial marriages. Loving v. Virginia is not all that long ago. To embrace raising one’s half-black, half-white grandson in the 1970s, even in Hawai’i, is one small profile in courage.
I suppose it strikes me, like many other bi-racial children, that this picture is sort of a negative of my history. My skin is light. I’ve got blonde hair. If I’d been born 30 or 40 years earlier, I’d likely have faced a moral decision about whether to “pass” or not. When I speak, both my mother and aunt tell me it is my grandfather’s voice, and my smile comes from that side of the family. My mother and I are still used to jaws dropping or people being slightly stunned if we say we are parent and child in public. We still get laughs out of it, too.
This is probably part of why Obama has appealed to so many people: the back story is unique but common to what we see in certain areas of family stucture right now: this is the face of a changing America. It doesn’t mean we’ve solved the problems (not even close) that continue to divide; this campaign alone and some of the rhetoric reeking of racism has proven that. But there is a new American story to tell as times change, whether Obama wins on November 4th or not, and to see him on the main stage at this point is to see that change that is a part of every child who grows up in a world where we are increasingly, as I will crudely put it, “fuck until we’re all brown” without a bit of consideration outside of love, for whatever comes afterward.