Crossing the Ultimate Color Line

As Barack Obama prepares to take office, Henry Louis Gates Jr. reflects on how far black Americans have come in his lifetime.

Barack Obama’s election represents the fulfillment of a dream that once seemed unfathomable, writes Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research:

Given all of the racism to which black people were subjected following Reconstruction and throughout the first half of the 20th century, no one could actually envision a Negro becoming president—“not in our lifetimes,” as our ancestors used to say. When James Earl Jones became America’s first black fictional president in the 1972 film, The Man, I remember thinking, “Imagine that!” His character, Douglass Dilman, the president pro tempore of the Senate, ascends to the presidency after the president and the Speaker of the House are killed in a building collapse, and after the vice president declines the office due to advanced age and ill health. A fantasy if ever there was one, we thought.

Writing on theroot.com, Gates notes how much things have changed in his own lifetime:

It is astounding to think that many of us today—myself included—can remember when it was a huge deal for a black man or woman to enter the White House through the front door, and not through the servants’ entrance.

For much of our country’s history, African-Americans visited the White House to make a political statement; Gates outlines that tradition, from sea captain Paul Cuffe, who visited James Madison in 1812, through Frederick Douglass’s three visits to Abraham Lincoln, to the Civil Rights movement. Black visitors remained an anomaly in much more recent times, he writes:

During Bill Clinton's presidency, I attended a White House reception with so many black political, academic, and community leaders that it occurred to me that there hadn’t been as many black people in the Executive Mansion perhaps since slavery. Everyone laughed at the joke, because they knew, painfully, that it was true.

And Gates gives readers this prescient passage from a 1958 Esquire magazine essay by Senator Jacob Javits, the moderate Republican from New York:

What manner of man will this be, this possible Negro Presidential candidate of 2000? Undoubtedly, he will be well-educated. He will be well-traveled and have a keen grasp of his country’s role in the world and its relationships. He will be a dedicated internationalist with working comprehension of the intricacies of foreign aid, technical assistance and reciprocal trade. … Assuredly, though, despite his other characteristics, he will have developed the fortitude to withstand the vicious smear attacks that came his way as he fought to the top in government and politics  those in the vanguard may expect to be the targets for scurrilous attacks, as the hate mongers, in the last ditch efforts, spew their verbal and written poison.

Read the rest of the Gates essay here.

You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

Harvard Portrait: Judith Grant Long

The associate professor of urban planning studies sports facilities and their impact.

The Way of The Blockbuster

In entertainment, big bets on likely winners rule.

Picture-book Publisher

Claudia Bedrick ’85 of Enchanted Lion Books offers an international array of stories to young children.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults