Reason to Believe

When I tell people I will be at Barack Obama’s inauguration, I know what to expect: the raised-brow, well-aren’t-you-happy look, with a big, sometimes forced smile.

And I can understand why — I’m young and I’m black. But my emotions about the inauguration of America’s first black president go far beyond hollow jubilation.

I was raised in Jamaica, a Caribbean island known to most for beaches, bob sledding and Bob Marley.

Jamaica is also a fiercely proud black nation; people of African origin constitute more than 90 percent of the population, and the remaining 20 are primarily of Asian descent, or mixed race.

But growing up, I never called anyone “mixed race,” as a matter of fact, I barely used the word “race.” That’s a term I became familiar with — painfully familiar with — when I moved to the United States for college.

In Jamaica, ethnicity is the primary identifier. Race is second or sometimes a third, behind class. Jamaicans don’t call themselves black, white, or Asian. They call themselves Jamaican. And being Jamaican means that you are innovative, empowered, and proud.

This is not to say Jamaica is problem free — the country faces serious challenges with crime and the economy — but for me, the image of a brown-skinned president is not unfamiliar. For my black friends who grew up in the United States, it is.

A few weeks before Obama’s election, I had a conversation with a close black friend of mine. He’s smart and well educated — a high school salutatorian who went on to graduate from Rutgers University. 

I noticed that his post-grad life was unambitious. His job paid well and carried a nice title, but his actual responsibilities were far beneath his intellect. 

It bothered me, and one day I challenged him on it. We went back and forth for half an hour: Me telling him of all the new career paths he could take; he — stubborn, defensive and guarded — systematically explaining why they wouldn’t work. Finally, his frustration boiled over.

“You don’t understand, it doesn’t work like that! You can’t just get things done here. It’s not like Jamaica, it’s different!”

His admission stunned me, and I retreated from the topic.

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Several months later, I heard on the news that an unarmed and subdued black man had been shot in the back and killed by a transit cop. ‘It could have been him,’ I thought. For the first time since I’d moved to the States in 2002, I understood my friend’s fear.

My friend wept openly the night Barack won, and he continued to weep days after the election was over. I realized then that for the first time in his life he was experiencing what I’d taken for granted most of mine.

Something was being released in those tears. Something in his spirit, something deep in his psyche had shifted. 

My friend is looking for a new job now, and it was his idea to drive 12 hours to the inauguration. And I guess that’s why I’m happy Barack won. Not so I can smugly proclaim that there’s a black man in the White House, but because my friend has been given a necessary self-confidence, which he lacked for so long. And every time he sees Barack he will have less and less reason to fear, and more and more reason to believe.

-Leila Noelliste

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