What Obama means to me

The Baltimore Sun

For a community advocate and businessman, a redefining of hurtful stereotypes. For a single mother, a better opportunity to educate her son - and herself. For civil rights-era survivors, a reminder of how far we have come.

Indeed, the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama symbolizes different things to different people. For many Americans, especially African-Americans, the possibility of the first black president represents a victory in the long-fought battle for equality. Less than a half-century ago, racial discrimination in education, housing, public accommodations and voting rights was the norm.

Now, 45 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently declared his dream, Obama's nomination has irrevocably transformed both American history and politics. We asked six Marylanders to share what his candidacy means, through the prism of their personal experiences.

Vicky Johnson, Gwynn Oak

Personal: : 40-year-old married mother of one

Professional: : Event planner

Barack Obama is representative of more than the first black Democratic presidential nominee.

While that feat is monumental, the condition of the lives being lived in America is at such a place of crisis that his being black is not enough. As I looked past that to see what lies further, I did find hope.

I see in him an earnest belief that there is an opportunity to bring about change - real change, not just a reshuffling. And I see his desire to implement decisive steps toward creating a difference in the lives of many Americans who believe that they have already experienced all that the American way of life will ever offer them.

Do I expect to see a metamorphosis overnight? Not at all, but it has to start somewhere, so why not here, why not now? For every shortcoming Barack Obama possesses, there is a converse truth that further engages me in hope. He is not a long-standing member of the old boys' club. He has not had the ear of the same lobbyists for years and years, gaining political favors. No man is an island, and [if he wins] I trust that the people he chooses to have around him in the running of our government will be of sound minds and led by a person of vision and determination.

Obama is the only chance we have to turn a corner and look for the horizon again before we go down for that final time. He's a life jacket.

Ruthadele Harrison, Baltimore

Personal: : 78-year-old widow

Professional: : Retired special education teacher

When I was growing up in West Baltimore in the '30s and '40s, our parents told us it was possible to do anything. But as we actually got out in the real world, we found out that we couldn't do everything because of the color of our skin.

I attended Frederick Douglass Senior High School, which was segregated at that time. One girl in my class wanted to be an airline stewardess. But in those days, there was none with black faces. Another boy wanted to be an astronaut, but people would just laugh. It just wasn't possible. There were people who graduated with me in 1947 who wanted to open stores and businesses, but where would they get the finances? The majority of people were relegated to housework.

I can remember going downtown to Lexington Street and the big department stores in the '50s. We could shop in certain ones, but we couldn't try on the clothes. We could not sit at the soda fountains at the drugstores. Even at many of the hospitals, you had to go in the back door, and the wards were segregated.

So to live through all that and actually think that a black man has been nominated for the highest office in the land - it is just marvelous. I am Republican and my grandfather knew Republicans like Theodore McKeldin. I remember the polls being in my grandmother's house and she was paid $100.

But when I watched the Democratic National Convention and Hillary Clinton yelled out Barack Obama's name as the nominee, tears just came down my eyes.

I hope young people appreciate all the people who sacrificed, all the people who went to the back door, all those who kept quiet when they wanted to say something. All the people who wanted to achieve, but were laughed at and told their dreams were not a possibility. It's possible now.

David C. Miller, Randallstown

Personal: : 40-year-old married father of three

Professional: : Chief visionary officer of the Urban Leadership Institute, a Baltimore organization that designs programs for children and families

To paraphrase Michelle Obama, the candidacy of Barack Obama is the first time I've ever felt like an American. I'd completely given up on the democratic process in this country. I became disenchanted because it felt like voters were put in a situation to choose the lesser of two evils. It seemed like a shell game, a con.

Like many people, I was skeptical at first about Obama's chances. I wasn't sure if he could overcome the racism that still exists in America, and the self-hatred in certain segments of the black community. I also wasn't sure if he could raise the amount of money it takes to run a presidential campaign. But he has run a very sophisticated campaign, using technology and other apparatus to galvanize people.

One very important thing Obama has done is help to redefine the image of black manhood and masculinity. Even on street corners in the neighborhood, you're hearing young brothers talk about Obama. People around the country who don't see or know much about African-Americans or black men, now have a different lens. It shatters the typical stereotype of things.

Obama shows that you can grow up without your father, in disadvantaged circumstances and still become somebody. He shows that you can love and respect your family; when he kisses his wife and children it doesn't look contrived. That's a positive message for the black community and everyone because family has always been the backbone of this country.

Keion Carpenter, Woodlawn

Personal: : 30-year-old father of three

Professional: : Retired NFL player and founder of the nonprofit foundation Carpenter House, which helps single mothers and others become homeowners

Football was my childhood dream, and God destined that for me. I was blessed that football allowed me to go to college, get a degree and play for eight years in the NFL. Now that I am retired, I am able to use that platform and my nonprofit foundation to help kids, single mothers and families, and build a better community. I don't do it for the recognition, but to see people have some type of joy and security.

America is about opportunity, and with Barack Obama comes opportunity. The economy is impacting everybody. Gas prices are high; so many things are out of reach for normal people. Our nation needs to change. It's not only about having an African-American president. It's about having someone who believes in people. I watched the Democratic National Convention and saw all the diversity, all types of people. That's what America is about.

Obama's campaign has shown how far we [African-Americans] have come. My grandfather - he's seen it all. He's prayed for change, and our older people have prayed for it. And I am excited about the possibility of change.

As a young African-American man, what's happened with Obama has been so inspirational to me. It made me think, 'Wow!' We really can do anything. We can strive and reach for things that are unthinkable. You just have to stand tall and keep fighting.

The Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood, Baltimore

Personal: : 88-year-old married father of two children, grandfather of four and great-grandfather of one

Professional: : Co-pastor of Providence Baptist Church in West Baltimore

According to history, every so many years, you have a person who comes forward proclaiming to have the solution to the problem. I'm remembering my friend and classmate Martin Luther King Jr., who came forward back in the '40s, early '50s and '60s. Things have been quiet for a long while until here comes a new man: Barack Obama. I'd never heard of him, but I've been following him in the press to see what he has to say.

He has lifted the consciousness of people in America, in a special way. He's a young man that America had not heard of, and usually when a stranger speaks, we want to find out what he has to say. To that degree, he has done a lot to change the thinking of people. Now, how that thinking will show up at the polls, we don't know. And I would say to young people, the important thing is not so much who is running for president. The important thing is you have to cast your vote.

Still, I knew the day would come when there'd be the possibility of a black president. We talked about it in seminary, when King and the rest of us would get together. We studied the prophets and we said somehow or other the day could come when 'Ethiopia shall stretch forth its hand.' So we had thoughts along that line. But we didn't know when or who or what.

If Barack Obama becomes president, it does not mean that racism is gone. No. It'll always be here. I don't see it ever leaving until people decide within themselves how they're going to react to other people of different racial groups and so on. We haven't overcome some things. We're still in poverty. We have overcome discrimination in terms of color, but that has changed to economics, which is worse.

Dr. King had certain visions for America. Of course, we laughed at him back then. Because what he often talked about would happen in America, we knew it wouldn't happen. But that's the way it's been with society all along. The reformers come, like the prophets in the Bible come. They all have their ... plan. But some reformers do not see the future come to pass. And some the Lord leaves around to tell the story.

Tiona Kuniken, Baltimore

Personal: : 23-year-old single mother of one

Professional: : Student at Morgan State University and state employee

Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy fills me with excitement. I'm in my 20s, witnessing a black man making history. I often think about how black people felt when their votes began to count less than 50 years ago, and now, we can vote for one of our own. For the first time in history, a black man has the support of different races and social classes of people. I think they are all in search of the same thing: change.

As I drive down the highway, I often see 'Obama for Change' stickers on all types of cars - from BMWs to the Ford Focus. When I walk on my campus, Morgan State University, I can count on seeing at least one student wearing some type of Obama attire. On my instant-messaging service, young people shout out Barack Obama in their 'away messages.'

The change that Obama represents is significant to me because I am a full-time student, a full-time employee and a full-time mom to my 2-year-old son, Teon.

Obama is promising to change many of the things that I believe will affect my life and my son's life in the future. For instance, Obama believes that college students and aspiring students should have the opportunity to serve 100 hours of public service each year, and in turn receive money toward tuition. He also believes that the government should restructure the public school system.

I feel like Barack Obama is a pilot of the plane of change, and everyone - regardless of race, gender, previous party association, social class and education - can get a ticket. We need him as president. But no matter the outcome of the race, I will savor this moment forever.

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