My day began at 5:15 a.m. though I set my alarm for 6 a.m. My attire had been preselected, my bag packed (which is to be interpreted purse) and I had visited the salon for an evening hair appointment the night before. There was no reason for me to be awake but, I was. I was excited and the feeling was reminiscent of that felt on the first day of a new school year. I’m sure that you are familiar with it, when you can’t wait for everyone to see your new school clothes. I was preparing to go to the White House for the second time this month and I have yet to locate the rationale for my being among those chosen to meet with senior staff of the Obama Administration for the “White House African American Clergy Forum: Pastors and the White House Partnering for the Common Good.” The only thing that I was confident of was my clothing. At least, I would look good.
Unbeknownst to me, the visit would reveal many unexpected lessons, some of which I have no words to explain right now. We were greeted by Paul Monteiro, who leads White House religious outreach and Joshua DuBois, leader of the President’s faith-based initiatives. We heard from Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Attorney General Eric Holder, who talked briefly about the Department of Justice’s independent investigation of the murder of Trayvon Martin, Lisa Jackson, the nation’s top environmental official and a host of others representing various federal agencies. After lunch, we were greeted by Heather Foster, the White House African American Outreach Director and Kevin Lewis, the African American Communications Director. Then, we were invited to attend various breakout sessions on health care, education, fatherhood, jobs and economic development, reentry and disconnected youth.
We returned to the South Court Auditorium hoping that the President would be there to speak to us. Instead, Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President, stood up to the podium and gave closing remarks as scheduled. He joked with us that he didn’t know how to close his presentation, having said all that he needed to say. Some persons suggested that within the Christian experience as practiced by African Americans that this is filled with music so we began to sing “We’ve Come This Far By Faith” which led to another song and another. Well, we might as well pray must have been the sentiment because Rev. Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia stood behind the podium and asked us to join hands in prayer. Chaplain Barry Black had been seated earlier and so it seemed only fitting that after a song and a word of prayer that a sermon be delivered. Enter Chaplain Barry Black. The Word of the Lord came from his mouth without effort. Afterwards, he took his seat while many of those gathered were now raised from theirs. We came for a White House briefing and ended up having a worship service, transforming the South Court Auditorium into a sanctuary.
“The President of the United States, President Barack Obama.” Yes, President Obama did speak to us and it is a moment that I will never forget. He chided DuBois for having him speak after Chaplain Black. He thanked us for our prayers, asked that they continue and shared about his personal prayer life. He talked about the importance of education and the results of his administration these past three years. Afterwards, he shook hands. Yes, he shook my hand. I joked with attendees that I would never wash my hand again. “I don’t know how I’m going to get home because I can’t use this hand to drive,” I continued. And then he was gone.
So, what’s the lesson in all of this you might be asking? Why did you tell me all of this? Because all of the persons who spoke to us today were well- educated, highly qualified and hold very senior positions within our nation’s government. And almost all of them would be considered socially colored black. Stereotypes lose their voice in their presence and prejudice its foothold. The expectation that they are going to think, behave or sound like all the other socially colored black people is irrational, useless even. The rules of race simply don’t apply. I learned that there are some places where it is possible for one to have to lower their racial expectation and for this, I am grateful.