Last week, I watched Lester Holt interview the forty-fourth president of the United States, President Barack Obama. During the interview, the two men covered much of Mr. Obama’s two terms. Midway through the broadcast, it occurred to me that Mr. Obama’s presidency is the fulfillment of so much of what my father aspired to throughout his life.
My father would have liked Mr. Obama a great deal, not solely because he accomplished something no other black man had ever done, but because they shared many of the same struggles, but were not broken by them. No, they transcended them.
My father was born in Lake City, Florida, in 1925. He attended the historic black college, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida, at the time a place steeped in residual Confederate tradition. He met my mother in the 1950s, a couple of years before Rosa Parks made her stand for Civil Rights and eight years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left his indelible mark on history with his speech from the steps of the Capital Building in Washington, D.C.
For the majority of Blacks in southern states, college was not an automatic choice after high school. In those days, with segregation and Jim Crow laws in effect, completing high school was a major accomplishment. Few black families had the means to afford tuition. For many, a college education was seen as the key to a better life, but few black families had the means to afford tuition. Many who attended college alternated terms in school with terms where they worked and saved money. Or their families sacrificed to send their children to college. And that’s how my parents got to college, by the sweat of not only their brows, but that of their parents as well.
My father dreamed of becoming a doctor, but due to a lack of funds, he only got as far as a degree in Pharmacy. He became Florida A&M’s Dean of Men and broke racial barriers by taking jobs that were previously unavailable to Blacks. This is what’s forgotten today, Black Americans haven’t always had the freedoms we have today. Yes, we have Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Venus and Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kobe Bryant, Misty Copeland, Ta Nehisi Coates, Oprah, and countless others, but not so long ago Black Americans were denied something as basic as table service in restaurants.
Professional and personal opportunities that exist today were few and far between not so long ago. For Black Americans, it wasn’t a matter of simply being whatever we wanted to be; well, you could within the confines of the occasional opportunity that might be doled out. Having the same qualifications wasn’t enough for Black Americans to get jobs, we had to be twice as good as a white applicant to even be considered for positions.
My father was an exceptional man—smart, charismatic, determined, and good-hearted, and handsome. He was also the first black area sales manager in the southeast United States for Anheuser-Busch. His job was to ensure that his predominantly white clients in metropolitan and rural areas all over the state of Florida were satisfied with their delivery of Anheuser-Busch products from local distributors.
A typical week for my father involved leaving home before sun-up on Mondays and returning around sundown on Fridays. All of his travel done by car. Did I mention the expense account? My father was given an expense account. Think about that for a minute: a black man as a representative for of one America’s largest breweries with that type of responsibility and authority in the South between the 1960s and into late 1980s was simply unheard of.
You can believe he was met with plenty of resistance from many a good ol’ boy, white supremist, if not the Ku Klux Klan. Volumes could be written about the indignities my father endured on his sales calls, but he never talked about that aspect of his job. My father was good at his job and took great pride in it. Anheuser-Busch must have thought similarly of him because August Busch, III, officially recognized my father’s accomplishments at numerous national sales conventions.
My father stressed a good education and helped countless students get into college who otherwise might not have the opportunity. He was civically minded and active within the black community.
For the past eight years, I’ve seen the realization of decades of my father’s blood, sweat, and tears in President Obama. I can not and do not presume to know the untold stories of Mr. Obama’s presidency, but I can recount a number of public incidents. For example, in the face of abject partisan efforts to stop Mr. Obama from succeeding, he held his head high, not in arrogance, but in healthy self-esteem and determination. During the onslaught of racist gibes, he never stooped to the level of his detractors. He rose above it instead. Despite the poo-poo-ing of America’s first First Lady to graduate from an Ivy League college; President Obama and the First Lady maintained their dignity and went about the business of raising two daughters and maintaining an administration free of scandal.
I could go on and on, but we’ve seen the ignominious acts of disrespect perpetrated against the First Family and their humanity, the likes of which no other First Family has even been subjected. Through it all, President Obama, much like my father, carried himself with grace, style, and aplomb … the likes of which I doubt we’ll see again for a long time.
Know that I have no delusions that no American president can “do it” alone. President Obama embraced diversity on all fronts. And as someone who falls within several minority groups, to see inclusion practiced and not just talked about or swept under the rug continues to be important to me.
The challenges President Obama has faced parallels my father’s experiences and demonstrates for all the world to see what a black man is capable of. The temptation for me is to feel dismayed that his term has ended and lose sight of how far he has brought the nation. Fortunately, I’ve decided against that line of thinking because if nothing else the eight years of the Obama presidency have taught me three things, 1) to embrace all that I am and strive to become all that God has created me to be; 2) that true joy comes from serving others; and 3) hope is a commodity too valuable to lose that costs nothing to share.
Love one another.
My father would be ninety-two this February. He died of cancer in 1994.