After reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ monumental essay “My President Was Black,” may I add that my president was also a Kansan? He was the product of a down-to-earth, no-nonsense single mother who awoke him at 5 in the morning to hold study sessions with young Barry. He was raised by hardworking, middle-class grandparents from El Dorado who taught him not to rush to judgment and that all people have value.
My president had the blood of astronauts in him. Kansas is the home state of astronauts Ron Evans, Joe Engle and Steve Hawley, men who looked to the stars from the Plains, then took paths to get as close to those stars as humanly possible. My president looked at the needs of communities like Chicago’s South Side, then took a path that allowed him to do the greatest good for the greatest number of Americans. Kansas roots inspired him to take moon shots like health care reform, climate change action and nuclear proliferation deals despite opposition from Republicans eager to do as little to help him as possible.
My president had the grit and drive of a Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain came from Philadelphia to play ball for the legendary Phog Allen at the University of Kansas, but Allen was forced into retirement before Chamberlain arrived. On his way into Lawrence, Chamberlain met Jim Crow at a restaurant and nearly went back East before stepping foot on campus. Yet he chose to stay and attempted to desegregate Lawrence single-handedly. Only a president with that gumption could hear the insults hurled at him even from the congressional floor and keep his eyes on the goal of scoring victories for the American people.
My president had the integrity of a free stater. Nestled next to the pro-slavery state of Missouri, Kansas has endured raids from forces like Quantrill’s that razed the city of Lawrence. Yet Kansas and Missouri now share the metropolitan area of Kansas City, and its residents cross State Line Road with barely a notice. Only a president with such integrity could sit next to the man who questioned his citizenship and find the grace to provide a smooth transition of power to that very man.
My president had the sense of fairness for all, like that other president from Kansas, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike signed civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960 in addition to expanding the Social Security Act for the benefit of women and disabled workers. Obama repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act to promote equal pay for women. Ike and Barack believed in equality.
My president was progressive. Like Joseph Bristow, Mary Elizabeth Lease and other Kansas populists, he worked to give power to the working-class people of America. In the tradition of these liberals, President Obama cracked down on Wall Street abuses of power. He strengthened the middle class by asking the richest Americans simply to pay a fairer share of taxes to the country that gave them such opportunities.
My president had the values of a Midwesterner. He was reluctant to speak until he could speak in an informed, thoughtful, eloquent manner on a subject, and then he inspired us to lace up our shoes and make the change we wanted to see. He was a moral man who attended church but felt it was not a parishioner’s place to overtly advertise his faith. He was a family man, loyal to his children and his first, and only, wife. He was brilliant, but humble.
Yes, my president was a Kansan.
Boyd Bauman is a writer and high school educator who is proud of his Kansas progressive roots.