*When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to grow up to be a Secret Service man guarding the President.
It wasn’t some teenage patriotic urge that drove my motivation. Rather, it was coming up in the post-JFK ’60s during the evolution of network television news coverage. I was fascinated by the televised images of square-jawed men in dark suits and trench coats, sprinting alongside the Presidential limousine for a few feet before perching themselves on the small special platforms on each side of the car and cruising away.
It seemed like a job cooler than FBI agent, which I also wanted to be at some point, and infinitely more single-minded: if anyone came near the President, you’d simply empty your gun on them.
I read everything I could find about the Secret Service. While none of the books and articles said a person of color couldn’t be a Secret Service man–I hadn’t heard of Abraham Bolden, the first black Secret Service agent, appointed by President Eisenhower in 1959–instinctively I knew being an agent wasn’t employment automatically open to blacks.
Ultimately, I abandoned my childhood notion of wearing a suit, an earpiece and a gun for a living after discovering the Secret Service did more than just protect the President. Just being an agent wouldn’t insure that I’d be on the President’s protective detail. I could spend a career chasing counterfeiters or assigned to a desk. No.
Nevertheless, for all the ways I saw myself a Secret Service man, not once did I imagine protecting a black President. In my dreams, the President I rode nobly alongside didn’t have a face, name or distinctive features, but he was a man and he was white.
It’s not like I wasn’t encouraged to have faith in the progress of black America. Students in the grade schools I attended were told by our black educators and elders to reach for the stars. However, few of us believed the office of the President was in that galaxy. Sure, we heard the line, “Who knows, one day you could be President,” but both teacher and student knew that catch phrase translated into, “Do your best.” The way I saw it, a black kid had a better chance of growing up to cure cancer than being President. White folks just wouldn’t allow that.
Accordingly, I never heard anyone say they wanted to be President of the United States. President? Seemed like a corny occupation. The kids I knew spoke of being policemen, firemen, teachers, train engineers, nurses, doctors, radio disc jockeys or the person at a construction site who gets to operate the bull dozer. As many of us grew, so did our ambitions, but no black person I knew was thinking of running the country. “Not in our lifetime” went the humble mantra.
At 55, I’m old enough to have witnessed the open hatred with my own eyes. During a ’60s summer car trip to Winfield, Louisiana, Daddy’s hometown, I saw signs on outdoor water fountains designating white and colored. Public bathrooms had “White Only” signs; a placard at the entrance of a bar-b-que shack directed Negro customers to a service window around back. When I asked Mama what these signs meant, using tender diplomacy she responded with something like, “It’s a long story.”
And it is, episodes of which rolled through my mind this past Presidents Day. Officially created to mark the birthday of first President George Washington–but unofficially a day to honor the nation’s highest office in general–Presidents Day never meant more to me than a day off and no mail delivery.
But on Presidents Day 2011, as I watched on TV the astounding developments in the Middle East–in Egypt and Yemen, Iran and Libya–a talking head on the screen warned that President Obama would have to be cautious as to where he throws America’s support–to the rulers of these countries or their people.
And as the “Washington insider” spoke, there was silent video of a man standing and talking behind a podium bearing the seal of the President of the United States. A man who, for the first time in the history of this country, looks like me.
I know. Obama’s administration has already seen two Presidents Days. Both came and went without my attention. For much of the past two years, I’ve been okay. However, there are moments when, if I allow myself, it all seems so completely surreal. Presidents Day 2011 was one of those days. “The 44th President of the United States,” I thought to myself that morning, gazing at the television, “is a Brother.” On occasion, the very concept simply blows my mind. Still.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].