When NPR journalist and historian Juan Williams comes to your classroom to answer questions, what do you ask? The class was my History senior seminar, The Ghetto from Venice to Harlem, and Williams was visiting Dartmouth as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day events. However, our professor prefaced the discussion by saying we did not need to limit our discussion to the ghetto or MLK Jr.
With the New Hampshire primary still a recent memory and South Carolina approaching in the future, the questions quickly became political and more specifically, about Obama. Williams stated that Obama was a phenomenon, a movement in a different direction and an opportunity for real change in race relations after the overly romanticized events of the 1960s.
One junior girl with neatly plucked eyebrows and white hat asked, "But could it possibly bad for African-Americans for Obama to be president? Some social workers fear his presidency could take away from the urgency of race relations. Or maybe people will just say that Obama is doing certain things because he is black."
Williams looked her in the eye and said, "Girl, you are going to get beat up when you leave this school. Everyone will criticize you -- they will say, 'but she has light skin, but she plucks her eyebrows, but she is wearing a white hat....' You need to stand up for what you believe in."
He talked about the competition that he faced in the journalism world and how people will always try to bring you down. I was amazed by the way Williams shifted the question away from politics and brought it to a personal level. His calm demeanor and soothing radio voice exuded experience and expertise. He wanted to empower us and we wanted to feel empowered.
The questions that the Dartmouth students asked covered the gamut of social issues -- the economy, immigration, foreign relations, and education. While we have been exposed to really smart professors and parents, Williams seemed like some sort of oracle. We would ask him questions as if he had greater insight on immigration reform or how to improve our ever-failing school systems. Williams obviously did not have any revolutionary answers, but instead of answering, he would inquire about our thoughts. He asked the girl from Texas who asked the immigration question about her opinion on immigration. We wanted answers from someone who was so knowledgeable and accomplished, but he seemed to want to show us that we were also important.
I'm not sure what it was, but all of us Dartmouth students wanted our chance to ask questions. We sought answers to big questions as if Williams were an alchemist and could share his golden secrets. In a fury of excitement, an idealistic senior said, "most of us are really passionate about social issues and we are graduating this spring. What do you recommend we do after graduation?" Williams smiled and said, "I can't tell you that. I am just a visitor here for one day." Williams assured us that the world was hungry for bright young people. He told us to defy popular culture because it seeks to limit us and that we should funnel our energy into what we really care about. If we work toward our passion, it does not even feel like work. Now he really did remind me of The Alchemist by John Coelho. I was having trouble focusing because I was waiting to hear if I got any interviews for a summer position in various consulting firms, but that seemed slightly less relevant now. I let those corporate worries vanish and listened to Williams with all my heart.
Williams asked, "Do you think Obama feels like he has to go to work when he wakes up in the morning? No, he is living the dream." Yesterday we remembered that Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. Today we are watching as Obama lives out his. The 2008 Presidential Election is far from over, but for a successful black journalist and a room full of bright, idealistic Ivy-League students, Obama has already won. In fact, when a student asked if the United States could ever repair its relations with the rest of the world, Williams responded, "Yes. Obama stands for change."