Six weeks later, we lost my mother, and as promised, I was there. Two and a half years later, after a lot of work, on May 24, 2010, I took the required oath of office administered to all federal employees. I was officially a member of the Obama administration. My time in the White House was magical, and it was also the hardest thing I’ve done professionally thus far. I spent four years in three different roles, all focused on increasing access to economic opportunity for communities of color. I brought my mother with me to Washington. Every single time I hit a roadblock in my work, I reminded myself it was not as hard as losing my mom, so whatever the problem was, it could be solved. I learned, after the death of my mother and in the years that I worked in the Obama administration, that hope is not the same as optimism. It is not light or cheerful. It is a disciplined practice. It is a sustained commitment to believing in something until that thing is achieved. It is a choice.
I can’t help but think of this merger of hope and grief as I prepare to watch President-elect Biden be sworn into office just weeks after violence took over Washington. Without a doubt, we are at a historic, pivotal moment. But it is important to remember that this is not a unique moment. After over 400 years of violence, systemic racism, and white supremacy, Black people know that we can choose either hope—and do the work required to build a better tomorrow—or resignation. Those are our only options.
We choose hope because no matter how much white people may hate us, this country is ours. To be black in America is to not only exist in a state of constant rage but to also carry a quiet and disciplined sense of hope. You may not see hope when you look at these men cleaning the Capitol, but I know the burden of blackness is lessened only by hope. Hope for a better future for ourselves and our children. Hope for a legal system that is actually just. Hope for a nation that lives up to its ideals instead of simply memorizing them. We have to carry hope in our hearts, in our bones, because if you’re Black in America, that is all you have. There is no “going back to where we came from” because most of us don’t even know where that is. We arrived as property, not people—but we are still here. When I saw that image, I saw these men taking care of their home. That’s how you respect and honor the people’s house; you pick up the trash left behind by someone else.
I do believe we are winning, but we need to keep fighting for that more perfect union. We must continue to refuse to let our government engage in voter suppression. We must publicly call out racism as a public health crisis. We need more sustained community investment at all levels of government. And we need real accountability for all Americans involved in the shameful attack on our country that occurred earlier this month.
As I watch this historic inauguration alone, from the safety of my living room, I know I will cry. I will cry thinking of my mother and how much I know she would love our vice president. I will cry thinking of my cousin who, at 35, is dead due to COVID-19. I will cry because I know America isn’t there yet, but I continue to hold hope for my country.
Marisa Renee Lee is a writer, speaker, advocate, and entrepreneur. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Grief Is Love, the CEO of Beacon Advisors, cofounder of Supportal, and a former deputy director in the Obama White House. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband, Matthew, and dog, Sadie.