By Joseph Williams, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- When I was a chubby first-grader in Spokane, Wash., in the late 1960s, the story goes, my teacher -- a young woman whose name has vanished in the messy back files of my memory -- told my mother something I've carried through my lifetime. Your son, she said, will grow up to be president some day.
No doubt my teacher, an obviously idealistic white woman, meant it as a high compliment, and my parents used it occasionally to remind me that if I worked hard enough I could be anything I could imagine. Yet as I grew older, it was largely unspoken -- the way it was in most black households back then -- that no matter how smart I was or how hard I worked, no black person would ever become president of the United States.
How times have changed.
Now there's a widespread sense that the election of Barack Obama has lifted a heavy psychic burden for me and other African Americans, more used to fighting against the drag of racial opression than enjoying the feeling of equality. In deep, hour-long conversations with friends -- and in small talk with black passers-by on the street -- people more used to muttering in hushed tones about the everyday burden of race now speak proudly of daring to dream.
On city transit buses, bleary-eyed third-shift workers wear bootleg Obama hats. In Washington's Gold Coast neighborhood of affluent black professionals, every other person seems to be sporting an Obama button or talking about the first black president.
One middle-aged black woman, strolling past the tony Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, shouted Obama's name and burst into spontaneous praise: "Thank you, Jesus!"
To be sure, the world for African Americans had changed, if slowly, since my elementary school teacher predicted my future.
When I was a kid, I remember rooting for James Harris, a black quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who played during the 1970s; two years ago, two black NFL head coaches competed in the Super Bowl. We've grown accustomed to seeng black lawyers, doctors, CEOs, even astronauts and governors. A college friend and former football teammate is an astronaut who's flown aboard the space shuttle. Another is our alma mater's new head coach, who just won the school's first national championship.
A new CNN poll showed that seven of 10 African Americans polled believe Obama's presidency fulfills Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, and 44 percent of them believe his election will usher in a new era in race relations -- signs that, for the first time, black Americans are hopeful for the future.
But at the same time, the shadow of the nation's bitter history still lingers. While African Americans may be breathing a collective sigh of relief, letting our guard down won't be easy. Labor statistics show black unemployment is twice the national average, and those of us with jobs are on average paid less and advance at a lower rate.
My dad, who graduated from a segregated high school and dropped out of art school to join the military for a job, once proudly told me that I've gone further than he ever imagined he would when he was a young man. Yet when I look at where I want to go in my career, the thought crosses my mind like a reflex: if I had different skin, would I already be there?
I still don't know the answer. But I know now that wherever my ambitions lead me -- and whatever my young son and daughter decide to do with their lives -- that question will no longer be the first one in our minds.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.