Feel free to leave comments here .
On November 4th 2008, a little after 11pm EST I watched history happen. A man with a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya became the president elect of the United States of America. I was prepared for the impact this historic and monumental moment would have on the country and the world, but I was not prepared, in the least, for the effect it would have on me personally.
About two years ago, I discovered a politician from Chicago named Barack Obama who had a lot of the same ideals as I did. I saw him on the cover of Newsweek magazine with a caption that read something like, the face of purple. In the realm of politics, purple can be considered bipartisan behavior. It did not matter to me that this man was black, but that he talked about things that I felt were important to this country and myself. As I read through the article, I thought what an impact this kind of thinking could have on America.
To my surprise, a few months later, he announced his candidacy for the president of the United States. Out of the Democratic Party, he was the person I knew the most, even though Hillary Clinton had been the first lady for 8 years and I did vote for Bill Clinton, I did not know much about Hillary. The only other person I knew running for the office of President and respected was John McCain. In 2000 before Bush had been chosen to be the RNC’s nominee, I had intended on voting for John McCain. Unfortunately, that did not happen and Bush became the president.
Eight years later and I find myself with the possibility to vote for McCain again. Then Obama stepped into the ring. At that moment I had decided to vote for Obama should he make it through the primaries. He did, and I did too. As I sat watching MSNBC and my new favorite newsman, Keith Olberman, talk about the possibilities of the first black president I couldn’t believe it was actually happening.
Throughout my life, I have seen black “leaders” come through and try to get black people motivated to change their ways and work hard to get out of their situations. It was usually by blaming others for the problems of black people demanding to be treated differently. However, the acts of these “leaders” were not the best way to mobilize the black community. The black leaders after Dr King Jr. seemed to preach more about hate and exclusion than hope and inclusion. I often saw them on the news yelling about some injustice and tying to bully people into doing what they want by way of boycotting and going to the media. I had no respect for this behavior and often though Dr King would be ashamed of these actions.
My mother, born in 1950 in Paterson, NJ was a victim to Polio as a young child. Her grandparents were immigrants from Germany and the Netherlands. She was raised in a working class area where my Grandfather worked in a factory, as did my Grandmother.
My father, a black man, was born in the late 1940’s and was the oldest of 9 children in rural Darlington, SC. I did not meet my paternal family until a year before my grandmother died in 1996. My family in SC mostly still lives in Darlington, or just outside of it. They are descendants of slaves.
Growing up a mixed race child was very confusing at times. My father met my mother in 1971 a year after my middle brother was born. They were together for four years before I was born in 1975 in Passaic, NJ. My family was poor. Sometimes we didn’t have electricity, and if not for my maternal grandparents, I am sure there would have been times we did not eat. My mother hurt herself and could not work so we had to be on welfare until she was well enough to work again. When I was in 3rd grade we moved into a bigger house with most of my family living together. It was probably the best time of my childhood and I would often dream about those times and wish my family was still together.
I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents and they had quite an impact on me. My grandfather was a provider and I often heard stories of him working double shifts so they could afford to eat. My grandmother was the family Matriarch. In my opinion, she held the family together, and when she died, I knew my family would never be the same. I loved my grandparents so very much and think about them on an almost daily basis. My grandmother has been gone for 7 years, and my grandfather passed away in 1999.
My parents were never married and my father left when I was about 7 years old. At the time, I didn’t think much about it because there were plenty of people in my maternal family who did not have fathers in their life. I also had quite a few friends who had absent fathers. I spent a lot of time waiting for my father on a Friday night, only to be disappointed when he did not show up. Excited about spending time with him, but almost consistently disappointed by the man I referred to by his given name because my brothers (who had different fathers) never called him dad. When I was 13 my mother remarried a few weeks after meeting her new husband. I no longer shared a surname with my mother and felt like the odd man out, again.
Growing up without a father or my paternal family left an empty spot in my life that I was unaware of at the time. I remember making a conscious decision to call my father “Dad” when I went to meet my paternal family for the first time at age 21. It felt awkward but I felt calling him by his given name would be disrespectful to the family I had yet to meet. Upon meeting my uncles and aunts, I wanted desperately to fit in and be one of the family. Unfortunately, I felt like an outsider. Being that my parents never married, I carried my mothers’ surname, Collier. Yet another thing that distanced me from my paternal family. I did not share their culture or their family name. I was told, by some of my paternal family that there was a lot of disappointment when my father started a relationship with a white woman.
While I lived in Passaic, this was not so much of a problem. Passaic was truly a melting pot. In my classes I had children from India, Puerto Rico, China, Russia, and many other places, as well as white and black. I never felt out of place. This changed when my family moved to Clifton, NJ.
At that time, Clifton was primarily white. In fact there were only about 20 black people in my high school out of a few hundred students. This was when I really started to feel out of place in my world. The black people in Clifton were the stereotypical ghetto blacks that seem to frighten white people. They were not the people that I wanted to hang out with. So instead, I made friends with the white kids in school. I assimilated into the populous and became the only black face everywhere I went.
I remember so vividly something my oldest brother Robert said to me around this time. We had different fathers and he was 7 years older than me. He was someone I looked up to at the time because I considered him cool and was quite the ladies man. We were talking about some things going on in my family at the time and he said “We have to look out for each other. We are the only two that look like this.” He was referring to the fact that we both had brown skin while everyone else in our family had white skin. This comment reminded me of the times I heard about people in my own family that would not like me or my brother because we are black, or racist comments family members would say.
Spending most of my time among white people I became more and more separated from my black culture. I didn’t have any black friends and when I was around black people, I would feel uncomfortable because I felt I had nothing in common with them. They spoke differently, acted differently and listened to different music. I didn’t watch any of the TV shows or wear the clothes then wore. I started to look down on black culture and distance myself from it even more. I started identifying with white people and choosing, almost exclusively, white friends. This was especially hard when some of the people I hung out with used words like nigger or I was not allowed in their house because I was black. Living in this world would have an impact on me that I would never expect.
During this time, I never had a black person that I looked up to, or that I really considered a friend. In 2001, while working as a web developer, I began to work for a black man a few years older than me. Jamal was the first professional black man I met who I respected and truly wished to be friends with. He showed me you can keep your culture and still live and work in a white world. However, due to the bleaching of my heritage and my black culture, I had nothing in common with him. We didn’t like the same music, in fact I hadn’t even heard of most of the people he would talk about. We didn’t like the same movies or even the same kinds of food. It was frustrating, disappointing and somewhat saddening that I could not relate to someone, who looked like me, on any level.
Not being able to relate to my own race has been an issue in most of my adult life and I mostly just brushed it off and ignored the fact that I did not have any black friends or family I was in touch with. Going through the contact list in my cell phone, I had two phone numbers of black people out of over a hundred entries. One, Jamal, but I have not spoken to in years. The other is a coworker who I consider a friend. His name is Garfield and he was born in Jamaica. He has lived in the US since he was a young boy and has become my connection to black culture and I sincerely thank him for that. I forwarded him a text message I had received from the Obama campaign:
“We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion to this campaign. All of this happened because of you. Thanks, Barack”
But I did not feel like “we,” only me.
In 2001 I married a white Jewish woman from Fair Lawn, NJ. She is the shining light in my darkness. Without her I honestly believe I would cease to exist. Without knowing it, she gives me strength and courage. She helped me become a better person. We have two children and live in a modest house in Hawthorne, NJ. One of the reasons I chose and like this neighborhood is because of the lack of black people in my town and neighborhood.
I have trained myself to not want to be around people who look like me. I have trained myself to even fear people who look like me. Given the choice between spending time with a black person or a white person, I will always choose a white person and while I feel more comfortable, I am always reminded that I am still an outsider.
On Nov 4th 2008, a little after 11pm while sitting on my couch in the dark, I realized what I had done. I have distanced myself so far from the black community I could not connect with them at this most amazing moment in history. I sat on my couch and watched a man, who looked like me with a white mother and a black father, and I realized I have missed so much. I have almost erased any cultural resemblance of my heritage. I could not rejoice with my black brethren because I did not know any. I had no one to call. No one to celebrate with who would truly understand the importance of this moment. The next morning before leaving the house I hugged my and whispered congratulations as I tried to fight back tears. I thought about his future and that he will never know the world without a person who looked like him holding the most important position in the land. He will never feel like an outsider in his own country.
Throughout the day, I thought about my emotions and tried to pinpoint why I was so affected by the image of a black man giving a speech about what he will do as president. Watching him and the faces in the crowd, I wept. Listening to him and how he would be a president for all people, not just some people and I wept. Watching a man who looked like me, had the same ideals as me, and almost the same upbringing as me and I wept. I finally had a person of color I could connect with. I finally looked up and saw a face like mine looking back and I was not scared I did not feel like an outsider anymore. I felt like I belonged. Like I was part of a country I loved and that loved me.
Upon this realization, I wept. I wept hard. For almost a half hour I could not control my emotions. As I write this I can not contain my emotions. However, I can not feel joy, only utter sadness. My tears are for the lost identity that I have sealed in a box and made a conscious decision not to open. At the same time, I weep for all the people who have died to help Barack Obama get to this point who can not rejoice in the election of a black president. My tears are of sadness, not joy. I had emotions that have been buried for so many years that have all come to the surface in one instant and I had no idea they were there. I was happy that he had won, but I could not feel happiness. I was excited about the future of our country, but I did not feel excitement.
I only feel sadness. I now realize that I can not deny my heritage and I should not deny my heritage. I should embrace it and pass it on to my children. They should know their culture and how important Barack Obama is not only to the country, but to our family and our people. The people I have denied for so many years. The people I have worked so hard to separate myself from throughout my life. The people who are more likely to have life experiences like me than any of my white friends or family. My people.
I watched the speech of Martin Luther King Jr. had given on the steps of Lincoln memorial. It was the first time I have ever seen the entire speech. I watched it and felt sadness. Sadness because I could not be a part of that kind of movement because I felt like an outside in my own race. I watched Dr King and the people in the crowd and tried to imagine what it would have been like to live in those times. Even with the harsh realities they faced, they were able to join together for a higher purpose. I wept again. Tears of sadness.
Now what do I do? I have spent so much time trying to segregate myself; I don’t know how to connect. I recently went to a reunion of sorts, and it was all black people. Some from my youth and some I had not yet met. I truly enjoyed myself, but I felt out of place. How do I bring black culture back into my life? How do I pass on something I have been hiding from for almost 20 years? I learned, in recent years that, when race was option on a form that my mother filled out, she would mark me down as white.
Recently I started listening to NPR and discovered a talk show called, “Tell Me More” hosted by Michel Martin, a black woman. I have made it a point to try to listen to the show on a daily basis by subscribing to her pod cast. She often has black panelists and they discuss their views on politics and the world. They discuss how certain events affect black people and their culture, but it is not only about black culture. It is the first time I heard a group of black people together talking about issues and not blaming or pointing fingers. They talk about real problems and real possible solutions. This has brought me a little closer to my culture and I intend to make this show a part of my life on a regular basis.
I am hopeful that I can learn more about myself by learning more about the people that might share my life experiences as a black person in America. Learning about my cultural heritage excites me and is a little overwhelming. At 34 years old, I feel I have missed a major part of my life and I have a lot of catching up to do.
On Nov 4th, 2008, a little after 11pm Barack Obama became the most important and influential person in my life. A man I have never met, and may never meet, has had more of an impact on my life than anyone I have ever met or have ever seen. He has opened my eyes, mind and heart to something I didn’t even know about myself. Regardless of how his presidency turns out, he will forever be a hero to me.
Copyright © 2008 krstofer.com!