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Robert D. Patterson Headshot

Election Night With Old Glory

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"Face each other, each holding one end. Fold it lengthwise with the blue field under, then again lengthwise to show the blue field on top. Now Robert and Bill, you hold the blue end while they fold it snugly in triangles. Careful! Don't drop it, don't drop it!"

Bill was my best friend in the fourth-grade at Carver Elementary in Gary, Indiana, and during classtime Mr. Whitehead was our favorite teacher. But neither of us enjoyed our time with him before and after class. We were patrol boys, kids who were entrusted by teachers to help monitor school crossings and, unfortunately for us, to raise the school's flag. Mr. Whitehead always seemed so much more critical of us then during, what seemed to us anyway, this mundane activity. Once, as we lowered the flag, a small part of it just barely touched the ground and he stared at us for what felt like minutes. As he turned to walk towards the school, I heard him mutter while shaking his head, "They just don't get it. They just don't get it."

It's been thirty-three years since I was a patrol boy, and Mr. Whitehead and Bill are both no longer with us; but I found myself thinking about them last night as MSNBC declared Democrat Senator Barack Obama of Ilinois had defeated Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona to become the 44th, and first African-American, President-Elect of the United States.

Despite the unseasonably warm weather in Chicago, with over one million people predicted to attend President-Elect Obama's acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago, I decided at the last minute to decline a ticket to the event. As the day many African-Americans doubted we'd see in our lifetime became more likely, I imagined spending election night watching the returns with my daughter and calling friends would be the perfect end to nine-months of campaigning. But long-term volunteer Patricia Ellis had other ideas.

Patricia, who registered over 1,000 voters during the primary and general election seasons, used her skills to quickly recruit her mother for the ride to Chicago to witness history. While speeding to Chicago she called and breathlessly said, "This night is so much larger than a presidential election. Senator Obama and this grassroots campaign have changed the way I and others involved perceive ourselves as Americans and individuals. We proved that with organization, determination, and belief in yourself and the best in others, you can overcome any label or false limits others place on you. I feel so empowered!"

It was millions of volunteers and donors like Patricia who made the seemingly impossible a reality. Proving inspirational change comes from the efforts of individuals who truly believe that "We (the people) are the change we have been waiting for." It is that type of inspirational change which caused our home state of Indiana, one of the reddest areas in the union, to turn blue for the first time in forty-four years.

But with all the American history made on this night, the most important was the continuation of the paradigm shift in the image of the African-American, which began in earnest when Obama accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidency in August. The succeeding three months were essentially the final stages of the country's interview process for not just an Obama presidency, but the presidency of an African-American. He was subjected to grossly unfair Republican attacks on his character, his patriotism, and his wife - the last being a new low, even for the rough game of presidential politics. Yet, through it all Senator Obama was unflappable, and neither he nor his staff attributed any of it to race.

Perhaps it was because this was the easiest path to victory. As an African-American familiar with breaking down barriers, he surely knew that any appeals to fairness would go unheeded and any hint of anger would trigger fear of "the angry Black male." It's a common conundrum facing the accession of any African-American male to positions of power.

But I believe the answer is found in the first passage of his address in Grant Park on Tuesday night. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." Despite knowing that he would likely lose the election if he "played the race card", he was sure that in the fallout choosing the more qualified candidate would become secondary to the issue of race, depriving this nation of an opportunity to confront its own past.

No one could rationally believe that having an African-American in the White House is the end of racism in America, but it's image is a powerful one for both African-Americans and Caucasians to deny. It will cause some to re-think old perceptions, and allow a younger generation to imprint a new more accurate pattern. But with these shattering perceptions come new responsibilities on behalf of African-Americans as well. As Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the first African-American U.S. Surgeon General only half-jokingly said Tuesday night as we discussed the election, "Our young Black men no longer have an excuse. They now have to pull up their drawers and go to work!"

Later Senator Obama continued, "So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other." Using the tools of hope and enpowerment during his campaign to help America recommit itself to its highest ideals, President-Elect Obama on Tuesday night began to point us towards a new era in America. One where its citizens will be asked to put aside the labels and divisions of the past, and come together as Americans to do the work necessary to again become the beacon of the world.

So as I walked down my basement steps and searched boxes I had forgotten about for years, I found myself thinking of Bill and Mr. Whitehead. Inside one box there was a dusty plastic bag which held the flag I and my childhood friend carelessly dropped that one afternoon, for it was never allowed to fly again on school grounds. That flag flew again last night, the first time I've mounted a flag since I was a 10 year-old patrol boy. But you can be sure I was careful to not let it touch the ground this time.

I get it, Mr. Whitehead. I get it.