When the world discovered that Barack Obama was our next President, I was parking my car.

My mother called and left three sobbing voice mails. My usually stoic brothers flooded my phone with exuberant text messages.

As I walked down crowded Valencia Street to meet a fellow reporter, I was numb—happy, but not bursting at the seams. Later in the evening I was moved to near-tears by his speech. It made me want to contact everyone I’d ever known to share the joy–but still, my emotions were in check.

Why wasn’t I crying? Why wasn’t I weak-kneed and filled with excitement?

When I finally spoke to my mother she picked up on my heartbreakingly low level of exuberance. She sighed.  “You just don’t understand what this means, you just don’t.”

What I wanted to tell her before she hung up was that I do understand. As a black woman, I could and can hardly believe what this means for America and what it means to black communities.

I understand, but I don’t understand.

I come from a family that is both solidly grounded in what it means to be Black in America and one that politely sidesteps around the fact that we are Black in America.  When confronted with race, I turn it into a joke. I’ve learned to shrug off nicknames like  “Token” and “Oreo.” I’ve watched my older brothers internalize rather than talk about the pain of having racial epithets spray-painted on the wall of their private high school.

It is easier to sidestep difficult issues then to face the discomfort they pose, so I rarely confront race.  Obama and I are often forced to do the same thing–make everyone forget the color of our skin while at the same time, being aware of its meaning ourselves.

In our conversations today, my mother reminded me that my generation is not so far off from slavery; that her great-grandfather Payne took his 40-acres-and-a-mule and turned them into a 400-acre township in Northern Louisiana, with a school, a church and an-all black community; that she grew up in the south during the ‘50’s and 60’s; that despite my avoidance of race, I have to discover what it means to be a black woman in this time.

I am scared of what it means.  Obama, and this election, could bridge the racial gap, but what if it makes the divide worse?  Race, which I could almost blissfully pretend to ignore, is now being shoved into the forefront of our psyche and what if we cannot handle it?

This is not a world without racism. We are not a color-blind society, but we have elected a man who may have found a way to transcend what it means to be black,  white, Latino, Asian, or interracial.  We are all faced with a challenge in learning to accept a new awareness of race, and as much faith as I have in myself and in other people, I still wonder, can I rise to the challenge, can we rise to the challenge?

Can I learn to stop dancing around being a black American?  And will I stop being asked to?

So, Mom, I think I’m beginning to understand.

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  1. Wow Allison. I work with you everyday and feel like I just learned so much more about you in this piece than I have these past 4 months. This was moving in so many ways. And I’m sure your mom is proud.

  2. Nice article. Thanks for showing you in writing it. I go with your mom’s point of view, because I see my own daughter doesn’t get how big this is. This is progress and beautiful.

  3. Bravo Allison!

    I may have grown up a half generation ahead of you, but I understand as well. Beautifully expressed. I’m very proud of you.