The president’s daughters look like you.
Malia, the oldest, is remarkably tall for a thirteen-year-old. She’s reserved and is said to have her father’s measured, pensive temperament. Perhaps as a rite into adolescence, she has taken to wearing silk blouses with built-in neckties, like a miniature executive. The youngest, Sasha, has been called the firebrand. Her smiles are grander, freer. Candid photographs of her suggest that she’s not above giving her father last minute tips on his stump speeches and the occasional State of the Union address. They attend school in a city with one of the most embattled, economically depressed systems in the country.
But, as students at one of the capitol area’s most prestigious private institutions, they will never be touched by that affliction.
Should their father win a second term, they will be nearly-grown women when you are six. One will have selected a college–painstakingly and likely with attention to public opinion. The other will be visiting drought-stricken villages and delivering assembly speeches at foreign academies and orphanages where the children’s faces—but not their experiences—seem familiar to her.
Like their mother, both will be conducting this business in couture fashion.
Their second term will find them at the fore more often than this first. As they grow, their doings will become increasingly difficult to keep hidden from our collective gaze.
In this way, you will be fortunate. You will spend your formative years observing two prominent black girls become prominent black women, observing two prominent black parents govern our country. You have a fleeting vantage, one to which no generation before yours has been privy and, if the nation’s reception of this family is any indication, one that is unlikely to be granted to our immediate successors.
And here is where it becomes critical for me to adjust your lens.
Since, at six, you won’t fully grasp the import of what you’re witnessing, it will be left to me to interpret the times. And the times are, above all, perilous.
Concurrent with the ascendancy of the first black first family, the country has entered a regressive twilight. The hellhounds we thought we’d outrun–hooded menaces turning our loved ones from rib and rising lung to conjecture and corpse; the Great Blue Shield with its selective sight and hearing, with its billy clubs and snarling dogs, its hoses; the branding and the lash—have circled back, baring the fangs that the progress of polite society had been keeping muzzled.
No one’s holding back anymore. The lip service paid to past injustice is reduced to little more than a murmur. The governmental apologies for the African blood soaked into this country’s crop-bearing soil: for the thousands of charred, swinging bodies, for centuries of suppressing literacy, wage-earning, the vote, have all but ceased. And the so-called corrective measures that policymakers swore were being implemented to “level the playing field” are constantly circumvented.
Regardless of era, we’re used to broken promises, to freedoms dangled then yanked out of view. In fact, in more recent decades, this is the type of racism to which we’ve grown most accustomed, this covert, institutional variety that’s so easy to pretend away. We are all too acquainted with accusations of hypersensitivity, of an unwillingness to relinquish the phantom limbs of our past. We are told we are making things up. We are told that we should be grateful for our biracial president and his gorgeous Afrocentric wife—both of whom were educated in institutions that once would’ve barred them (“Just look how far you’ve come!”)—and for their daughters with their natural hairstyles, their crosscontinental jaunts and their Sidwell Friends pedigree.
As a result, my generation is used to swallowing the bulk of its protest. Before Obama, there was, after all, no refuting the gains of society’s gradual progress. Hate crimes were still occurring, but our culture had the good sense to at least pretend a unified moral outrage and a class-based or regional distance: surely, the perpetrators were deep Southern caricatures whose slurs were in no way representative of a whole.
Things felt safer then, with everyone feigning progressive attitudes, and easier, with no one believing those attitudes would be put to the most improbable litmus test of all: a black presidency.
Now, I feel like I’m raising you amid steaming rubble and broken mirrors. Every time some newly emboldened racist verbally attacks a little black girl, I resist the urge to build us a bunker and go underground until I’m able to build us a second skin thick enough to combat all this toxicity. This is not the world to which I’d grown cautiously less guarded and grudgingly accustomed. This is an unfamiliar place, where people are so unabashed in their hatred for women who look like us that they’re using the First Lady and her children as proxies for their vitriol.
You are twenty months old and I am already so exhausted. Outrage is costly. But so is apathy. Neither will equip you with what you need to thrive in a world where people feel this way about you.
What will help you is love.
At the library, there is a children’s room where a dish runs away with a spoon on its low walls and sunlight flooding in on a cushioned rocking chair. In one corner, there are buckets of toys. The last time we went, a father sat in the rocking chair, reading with his eldest daughter while the younger–just a few months older than you–played in the toy bucket corner. When you sauntered up to her, she shared her toy with you and you chatted her up in that indecipherable way you do almost everyone. Her father smiled politely as I sat with the two of you, and though I bristled, hoping he wasn’t regarding me with suspicion, I smiled without reservation at the abandon with which you cheered whenever she pushed a plastic shape into the right space in the sorter.
At the church we’ve been visiting, where we are two of six black attendees, you toddle indiscriminately into every set of arms that opens to you—and there are many. You let them lift you and feed you treats and hug you close, and there, in the sanctuary of their guilelessness, I get a weekly respite from cynicism.
Perhaps, dear child, these are our bunkers.