Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Barack Obama

This week marks the first anniversary of one of the most historic days in recent memory, the inauguration of Barack Obama (January 20, 2009).

I was one of the millions who watched on TV that day, transfixed as our first African American president took the oath of office. With me were other hospital employees on their lunch break, silently chewing and watching history unfold before us. As the Obamas made their first appearance on the Capitol steps, I heard a gasp behind me, and then, "Oh, my God." I turned and saw an African American nurse, smiling and crying at the same time. She shook her head in apology and said, "I never thought I'd see it." She didn't have to tell me what "it" was.

I was moved by her words. And I was terrified. I had just signed a contract to write an early-reader biography of Obama. His election meant so much to so many people. How was I going to adequately convey that to my young readers? How could my poor words do justice to such a momentous occasion?

I have to say this crisis of confidence happens to me with every new project. And then I begin writing. The flow of words never fails to thaw my apprehension.

This time it occurred to me that what I had to do was get out of the way of history and let the story tell itself, not through my words, but through those of Obama and those around him. The story was all there in the research I had already done. All I had to do was to choose wisely.

The story was in words such as, "There's not a black America and white America....There's the United States of America." It was in words such as, "Daddy, are you going to be president?" And in words such as, "Many of my ancestors have been waiting for this change, and I'm glad that I can be part of it." Those were the words that mattered.

And so I began to write.

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