Dear Mr. President:
I’m not exactly hip when it comes to home decor. Whatever hangs on my walls most likely came from Target (or “Tarzhay” if you grew up in my neighborhood). But on the wall opposite my front door, rising over what I sometimes call my thinking chair, is a professionally framed special edition of the Commercial Appeal. It’s page A-1. The date is November 5, 2008. The headline — in about as large and bold a font as I remember ever gracing our local newspaper — trumpets three simple words: “YES HE DID.” Everyone who enters my house gets a historic wave from you.
Contrary to popular assumption, that picture isn’t there to endorse your every move. It’s more of a general confirmation that you are at least possible. I want my nine nephews (and my niece, who’s on the way) to know that even as people still pervert the Christian faith to justify racial separation, you — as a concept — are real. They need to understand that while the odds are long as hell, the “you, too, can be president” speech is not the same pair of rose-colored glasses that well-meaning parents dish out to naïve children every day. Otherwise, all they’d ever see is a world littered with subliminal reminders of their otherness. When they go to CVS or Walgreens and walk past the socks and pantyhose, the color “nude” looks nothing like their own bodies. Their moms instead might have to wear colors named after “cocoa” or “caramel” or “brown sugar” or some other non-living, non-human commodity. My nephews know that Band-Aids and gauze wraps are designed to disappear against human flesh. And yet, when they cut themselves, almost any bandage is about as conspicuous as night encroaching on the day.
And no — that’s not racism. That’s capitalism. Why would you create a product for 12% of the population when you could make a sh*t-ton more money off the sprawling masses? It is what it is. But lest my nephews forget, that November 2008 headline stays framed on my wall, and I don’t plan on taking it down anytime soon.
The concept of a non-white president — especially one armed with your rhetorical skill — has borne fruit, at least in terms of broadening perspectives. I was (and often still am) reduced to tears by your March 2008 speech on race. I can’t even begin to explain what a massive relief it was to finally see the broader public sphere at least consider the kinds of nuanced and intricately conflicted struggles that have scampered across kitchen tables in black families for decades, if not centuries. Since then, you’ve also noticed out loud that in many respects (though not all), Charleston and San Bernardino are tragedies of the same ilk. You’ve recalled that terror affects everyone — “white and black; Latino and Asian; immigrants, and American born.” And while other politicians enjoy broad public support despite toying with the idea of human registration, you’ve urged us not to “turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.” I hope we all take that part of your message to heart.
But there is something else I need my nephews to know. They must understand that even though they look a lot more like you than any other American president, they do not have to agree with everything you say. When people take for granted that their families would all blindly vote for you, they should be offended to the bone. I want them to sing from the rooftops that hell f*cking yes a black man can be president, and screw anyone who ever doubted it. And then I want them to think, question, dig, deliberate, scrutinize, and scour every single person who dares to expect their support, including you. Especially you.
Last night, after urging Congress to “make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun,” you asked me and millions of other Americans, “What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semiautomatic weapon?” By “terrorist suspect,” do you mean the president of Bolivia? Or CNN reporter Drew Griffin? Or the late Senator Ted Kennedy? Or U.S. Marine Daniel Brown? Or perhaps you were referring to Gary Smith, John Williams or Robert Johnson, all of whom have also landed on the no-fly list. Now, John Williams — is that the Hollywood composer? Or one of the 12,000 other John Williamses in America? Come to think of it, I’m sure there’s a Robert Johnson in my family somewhere. Does the Bill of Rights no longer apply to him either? That would be woefully ironic, given your purported commitment to equality.
And when you focus so menacingly on the dreaded “semiautomatic weapon,” did you really give any thought to that phrase? Did you mean to distinguish it from the revolver? Are you saying terrorists (or more specifically, terror suspects) with revolvers would be okay? Or maybe automatic weapons instead of semi-autos? Would that be better? Or is “semi-automatic weapon” just another synonym for “assault rifle” in your mind? Do you even understand the difference? Since either you or your speechwriters apparently failed to distinguish between the visa waiver program and the K-1 visa program, I’m not exactly bursting with confidence that you invested any time at all to educate yourselves on firearms nomenclature before polluting American airwaves with sloppily misused or over-generalized terms of art. You, sir, of all people — whose wordsmithing prowess bows to few — should know better.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m the last person to claim any expertise on distinguishing various types of visas. But then again, I never had the audacity to hope I was qualified to lead the Free World. You did. And I’m not the President or the Commander in Chief. But you are. So if you’re going to parade the Bill of Rights when it comes to religious freedom and diversity, then surely you must know that the second float in that parade is a big fat papier-mâché semi-automatic weapon.