You’d hear Postman. Ice cream truck driver. However, when I was a kid, no child I knew, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, ever replied, “President.”
It just didn’t seem like a cool job. As a youngster, I aspired to occupations that allowed you to carry a gun, or to work where they made malted milk balls or donuts or soda pop and let employees have all the product they could consume on a shift.
If you drove an ambulance, you got to drive fast with the red lights and siren on. President? All that guy did was wear a suit–that was the first drawback–and shuffle papers around. I liked the concept of that Red Phone, but overall the gig didn’t sound much better than school principal, and no one in their right mind wanted to do that for a living.
Although I will say that when I was seven, I vaguely remember seeing John F. Kennedy on the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite and finding benefit in being chauffeured around in that fancy Lincoln Continental with the top down. Later, I decided that wasn’t a perk.
Besides, we wanted to be things we actually knew we were allowed to be. President, Secret Agent, Department store manager—in the ’60s, those were the jobs of white men. Imagine impressionable young minds attending Oklahoma City’s Carter G. Woodson elementary school and being encouraged by teachers of your own hue to be all you can be; that you were no different from anyone else in America—and yet when embarking on school field trips from the city’s predominantly black East Side to places like the Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Zoo or Borden’s Dairy, having those same well-meaning educators remind you of the mantra for being Young, Gifted and Black out in a white public: “Now remember, what are we going to do? We’re going to act our age, not our color.”
No matter how positive we managed to feel about our innocent selves, no matter how majestic we sounded during assembly singing the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” instinctively, we came to believe that in America, between our little brown yearning hands and the sky existed a ceiling.
While we appreciated that “Dream” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so thunderously declared, his wondrous, idyllic blueprint for America’s colorblind future seemed light years away.
Even after we became adults, with many of us achieving goals that generations before us didn’t dare to dream, becoming professors, doctors, lawyers, media moguls, politicians, judges and entrepreneurs who owned the corporations manufacturing the confections peddled by that neighborhood ice cream truck—when it came to the office of President, as late as 2008 our childhood “Act your age, not your color” mantra had been replaced by another stifling locution: “Not in our lifetime.”
So, no matter your race, if you are so young that the civil rights movement is something that exists only in grainy black and white news footage; if you are white and grew up in a rural or suburban bubble woefully unaware; whatever it is in your life that allows you to be ignorant to what has happened and continues to happen in this country, then please attempt to reach beyond your comprehension and try to grasp that for me, a 57 year old man who remembers “white only” water fountains, America’s Commander-in-Chief being a black man still feels surreal.
I don’t know what possessed Barack Hussein Obama to believe he could be President of the United States. And while I know that America still has an infinite amount of work to do, I also know that I am drunk with gratitude: to Dr. King and others like him, for having the vision and courage, and to a nation of all persuasions and backgrounds who in 2008 said, “Let us do this” and could not be deterred in 2012.
Most important, I am grateful to another kid of my tint. While I was busy telling myself what I couldn’t be, he decided he could be President of the United States. And he looks damn cool doing it.
There is no ceiling on my blue, cloudless sky. There is no limit to what I can do. Finally, I am certain of it.
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]