Mathis-Flynn: On being proud

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(HOST) Shortly after president Obama was elected into office, commentator Myra Mathis-Flynn braved the winter weather for a night out with friends.

(FLYNN) I was standing at the bar when a young woman – a complete stranger – approached. With her hand on my back, she smiled at me and said, "Congratulations."

"For what?" I asked.

"For Obama’s win," she said. "You must be so proud."

I suppose I should explain that I’m an African American woman, one of the tiny two percent of the population here.

In 1984 my family decided to leave the hustle and bustle of Rockford, Illinois for some peace and tranquility. So we parked our brown bodies in West Brookfield and built a house. Even in the beginning, it was easy to forget that we were different here, save for a few blatant reminders like this one.

Because lots of people have caught the Obama fever – I still have a campaign flyer on my front porch – I had been about to say "and congratulations to you too!" when I realized that this person was assuming I voted for Barack Obama simply because I am black – and my enthusiasm faded.

Being an African American in Vermont is mostly a good thing. I’ve met lots of friendly, unbiased people here. Still, depending on the crowd, my Afro-nicity can make me anything from a target to an automatic friend – so I’ve learned to be flexible. But this encounter threw me.

I thought maybe she needed me to acknowledge that she had proudly and loudly embraced race in a positive way, so it was tempting to break into Ebonics slang and say: "yeah girl! Obama is my homeboy" – as the familiar T-shirt suggests.

And I’ll admit that it’s hard to be patient and understanding with situations like this. Barack Obama is in office because our culture has supposedly moved on from stereotypes and assumptions… because we are trying to put race behind us… because we have finally begun to shed the hurtful habits and euphemisms of the past… because we are in 2009… that’s why.

But like most African Americans, I was firmly taught not to be overly sensitive, so first I tried to convince myself to give her the benefit of the doubt – maybe she was saying this to everyone in the bar…

Then it occurred to me that maybe she just needed a reason to pat a black woman on the back – and that until Obama took office, she never had one. Maybe, I should let her have this moment.

So there, in the middle of the bar, with a drink in my hand and thoughts of Obama’s outdated flyer still flapping in the breeze on my front porch, I embraced the true meaning of change, and generosity.

"Thank you," I said.

And because it was also suddenly clear to me that we were both on the same basic level – fumbling through an awkward and sloppy transition together, I added, "And congratulations to you too."

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