My day began at 5:15 a.m. My attire had been preselected, my purse packed, and I had visited the salon for a hair appointment the night before. I was preparing to go to the White House for the second time this month.
I was 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 I was confident of was my clothing. At least I would look good.
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 the White House’s religious outreach, and Joshua DuBois, leader of the president’s faith-based initiatives.
We heard from: Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser 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, re-entry and disconnected youth.
We returned to the South Court Auditorium hoping that President Obama 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 he needed to say.
Some persons suggested that the Christian experience as practiced by African Americans is filled with music, so we began to sing “We’ve Come This Far By Faith,” which led to another song and another.
“We might as well pray” became the sentiment as Rev. Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., stood behind the podium and asked us to join hands in prayer.
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.
Afterward, 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 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. Afterward, 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? 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 and prejudice its foothold in their presence. 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.
Starlette McNeill is the Coordinator for the Center for Ministerial Leadership at the District of Columbia Baptist Convention. A version of this column appeared previously on her blog, The Daily Race.