A Letter to My Son On Election Night

What does Barack Obama's election mean to you? It means many things. When you are older, we will talk about how African-American children, like their parents and grandparents, have struggled to overcome the feeling that no matter how hard they study and work and try, there are barriers—some visible, others hidden but still there—that block their way. The feeling that we can rise, but only so far. I did not want you to grow up believing that bitter remnants of the past could hold power over your future. I wanted to be able tell you that it wasn't true—that you could be anything you wanted to be. But I couldn't quite believe it myself. Now I do.

With Obama's election, I can mean it when I tell you that the world is available to you. Yes, I am waxing a bit emotional, so let me temper my exuberance. No election can wipe away racism, and bigotry will show itself to you in ways subtle and not. But it is easier today than it was yesterday to see that racism, once a barrier, is now more like a hurdle. What a fine new addition I have to my mother's arsenal of aphorisms: Son, I can (and probably will) say to you, Barack Obama faced hurdles but succeeded, and you can, too. You are only 4 months old, but already I dream of what a great rocket scientist you'd be. But if you want to be a cattle wrangler, that's OK, too. And if you want to be president? Well, we'll talk.

If you do become president, it won't be just because you won the votes of people who look like you. This election was such a triumph because it tested our nation's fundamental promise of equality—and we as a nation passed. Black Americans did not elect Obama. Americans did. Even if every African-American in the country had voted for him, it would not have been enough. He will enter the White House with the support and good wishes of millions of people of all races, colors and creeds.

Yet this break from the hold of the past, this hope of greater expectations for ourselves, comes with greater expectations on ourselves. We can no longer look to blame outside forces for our failures or rest our shortcomings in the cold comfort of bigotry. If you want to be like Obama, you have to work and work hard. He went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He traveled the world and opened his mind. He did not simply dream of being president; he summoned the discipline to get there.

If you could understand any of this, you'd be rolling your eyes at me right now. Hey, I was a kid, too, and it's easy to skip out on homework when no one is looking. But I speak from experience. In eighth grade, I made a contract with myself: I was going to Yale. I drew up a list of everything I would need to do to get in. It wasn't easy; I got C's in chemistry and physics and nearly failed gym (don't laugh—you inherited my genes). But the acceptance letter came.

I worked hard in college and graduated. Along the way, there were plenty of people who doubted me and said unkind things, and not all of them were white. Your black classmates might see you reading a book at recess or raising your hand in class and call you "too white" or "Uncle Tom." Ignore them. Don't let them mess with your mind or steer you from your goals. All of us have to defy stereotypes. Don't be afraid to let go of any part of our color that holds you back. As your grandfather says, "be proud and the black will take care of itself." Too many African-Americans are obsessed with rickety notions of what "real" black people do or don't do. I've been guilty of it myself, and I've been accused of being too white most of my life. Your dad is white, which means technically you are biracial—but that's black in America. I leave that for you to figure out. For now just understand that your race is part of who you are, but it isn't all of who you are. If anyone doubts your "authenticity," you can tell them that you want to be as black as the man behind the desk in the Oval Office.