On November the 4th of this year, this country, my country selected a black man as it’s next leader. I will freely admit that I never thought it would happen. I also never imagined how much of an impact the event would have on me personally.
After Obama received attention for his amazing 2004 convention speech, his name was floated as a potential presidential or vice-presidential candidate. I secretly prayed that the democratic party wouldn’t pick him. The country had just shown that actual intelligence, wisdom and the ability to evaluate nuanced positions was not what they were interested in having as qualities of their leader. George Bush II had just won re-election despite the fact that he had led the country into a pre-emptive war with a country that we already had under total control. He won the majority of votes even after failing to capture the people who had attacked us. More people voted for the incumbent president who was gutting the bill of rights and torturing people who his administration had unilaterally declared as enemies of the state. The country had selected a war hawk who used his privilege as the sun of the rich and powerful to avoid going to Vietnam and rewarded the heroic service of John Kerry on the battlefield with ridicule.
Worst of all, John Kerry had been…French! French! Not one of us! John Kerry, a white Vietnam veteran was savaged and derided by many in this country. You can understand why I and many others were concerned about what treatment a black intellectual with a weird name would receive. I didn’t even know his middle name at that point. I thought that any ticket that included a black man on it was doomed to failure.
I assumed that black people would talk about supporting one of their own, but would secretly assume he had no chance and stay home. If forced, I might have admitted to myself that a small minority the black community would probably be happier to maintain the status quo relationship with the larger white community that justified their apathy and defeatism.
I assumed that the guilty white liberals, in some cases the most racist people in the world, would have trouble converting their internal image of the poor struggling simple negro into the image of a confident and able leader. For many of them, I assumed that the idea of a strong and competent black man being celebrated and respected for his competence without race being a factor might be as hard to fathom as it would be for a klansmen.
I assumed that all of the do-nothing-know-nothing crabs in a bucket would be ready, willing and able to tear down someone so different than the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant image that had always been America’s internal image of American power and competence. America’s uneducated and unmotivated delight in nothing so much as tearing down those seen as too ambitious or too proud. One of our country’s favorite past-times is to place people on unrealistic and shaky pedestals just to delight in their subsequent fall. The prism of racism in America often allows these ostensibly racist people to morph confidence and self-assuredness in blacks or women into “being uppity.”
I assumed that the insular white suburbanites who had retreated from the city centers into their gated McMansions and mega-churches would never consider voting for the dreaded black man. Some Willie Horton boogie man or mythical welfare queen would be singled out and used to justify a vote for the safe white candidate.
I assumed that their sons and daughters, ostensibly fans of black culture but really fetishists of the slick talkin’, gun carrying, dope dealing, bling blingin’ pimp caricature that white corporate executives have popularized and made fortunes out of would either stay home or vote for their parent’s candidate.
I assumed that recent immigrants of all nationalities, flush with pride in their own success in overcoming adversity would be biased against a black American candidate because of their inability to feel the racial fault lines that underlie so much of this country’s history. It can be hard for those new to this country to understand why the black man can’t just do what they have done because they don’t see the burdens on a black persons back and the obstacles placed solely in our paths.
There is a reason why the native music of this country, the music that has served as a well spring for R&B, jazz, rock’n’roll, soul and every other popular American sound includes both the optimistic major third and the morose minor third. The blue notes in between these two intervals contain hundreds of years of pain and degradation hidden below wide grins and dancing feet. Sometimes it can be hard for those who have not been raised in our nation to really hear and understand that pain. I understand that and only ask them to listen closer for a little bit. In many ways, this new blood is a key to a better, broader, future for this nation.
I assumed that the worldly and accomplished mutli-racial Barak Obama would be distorted through the history of our nations shame and bias into an angry hip-hopping communist black nationalist street thug foaming at the mouth and waiting for any chance to stick it to whitey. I assumed that he would be treated as nothing more than an affirmative action case, despite the length and breadth of his educational and political accomplishments.
The image of the black buck is a core part of the American mythos. Simple, prone to irrational anger, impulsive, lustful, sybaritic and most of all ignorant. Clever and prone to levity and rhyming, but never erudite or studious. An oversexed Mandingo desperate to befoul the white woman. A singer and dancer for one’s amusement, not a leader to shepherd us through the hard times. As Ralph Ellison illustrates in “The Invisible Man”, it’s hard for a black man to define a true sense of self in a world where he is constantly pushed and stretched to fit roles pre-defined by the history of slavery and bigotry that is in some ways responsible for the very success of the nation.
The “black buck” image helped to justify depriving black men of their rights, including their right to be compensated for their labor and to define their own lives. The “simple simon” caricature helped to justify depriving blacks of their rights to determine how their country would be run. The “angry black man” and “where da white women at?” served to justify cruel violence and the silencing of black people’s voices.
The Republican hate machine that has succeeded in the past tried their best to accomplish just such a distortion. Fortunately for us all, the potentially disastrous future that threatens the country seems to have finally inocculated our spirits against the virulent reptilian thought virus that whispers to the masses that those with brown skin or funny sounding names are a “them” to be feared.
Racism is not a thing of the past that we can tidily sweep away because black people’s lot in this country has improved. Racism did not end with slavery “generations ago”. It is not, no matter how much we want to pretend, something limited to our history books and no longer part of our current experience. Racism didn’t end in the 60’s when black people stood with others of all races and backgrounds to fight for equality in government and legal matters. Racism isn’t something that happened a long time ago. Let me use my own experience for illustration.
For several years Sarah and I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan right near Central Park. For those unfamiliar with the area, it is considered a bastion of North East Liberalism. Despite that fact, I can’t tell you how many times while we lived there when white women noticed my presence behind them walking into our building and clutched their pocketbooks protectively. As this was usually on my way home from work, I would have been dressed in slacks, a dress shirt and a tie. But I was still a black man.
I can’t tell you the number of people with whom I have had long acquaintances for whom my most distinguishing characteristic is still my blackness. I have had friends of friends for years with whom I have never had a conversation that didn’t at some point turn to the issue of my race and how it made me think, feel, or understand things differently. No matter what I do or say, the first and foremost fact about me is that I am a black man.
I can’t tell you the number of times people have interpreted my being excited, or anxious, or passionate about something as “anger.” All of my emotional reactions can be funneled via that distortion into the simple image of the angry black man.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had people quasi-rapping to me in professional situations because they assumed that every black man is a rap music fan and would appreciate their aping stereotypical speech and mannerisms. I’ve always wondered, do these same people start river dancing when they work with Irish people? Of course not.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been underestimated, disregarded or faced with the cruelty pretending to be kindness that is low expectations.
I can’t tell you how many times black people have mocked me for “acting white” because I speak in a manner that doesn’t fit with the speech patterns that are acceptably authentic or because I play electric guitar, or because I have a white girlfriend, etc.. Racism isn’t just something that white people feel towards black people. The black community has been guilty of racism towards itself since slave days.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations about unrelated topics that suddenly veered away to a discussion about race. At times, one starts to think that those who take great joy in decrying the racism of their fellows or their neighbors sometimes just enjoy talking about racism or repeating racist statements.
I can’t tell you how many of my white friends think it’s a compliment to tell me that I “act white”. I always grin sheepishly and try to ignore the comments. I understand that the people making those statements don’t intend to be offensive or hurtful, but that’s the effect of their attitudes.
Seriously people! Africa is a continent not a country. Black people are as much individuals, with individual tastes and individual opinions as white people, Asian people, or any other group. Human beings are not two dimensional cardboard cutouts.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to listen to people question the very idea that a black guy can actually be a quarterback, or a coach, or an executive or a chef. I’m not talking about white power racists, I’m talking about journalists and other educated people.
I can’t tell you how many people have felt comfortable discussing the size of my manhood in inappropriate contexts because that stereotype happens to be flattering.
In short, it’s hard being a black man. It’s hard to carry the prejudices of black and white people on your back as you try to make a life for yourself. It’s hard to overcome low expectations while at the same time being aware that any misstep or moment of weakness will be used by some as a referendum on your entire race. Anyone who has a successful life as a black person AND a woman should be considered for some sort of international award.
People of all political stripes love to pretend that racism is a thing of the past. It is not, even if we now have a black president. No black person truly believes that this is the end of racism any more than Jackie Robinson, or Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice or the black CEOs and quarterbacks that have become more common signaled the end of slavery.
Let’s be really honest with ourselves and admit that Obama had several advantages which helped to make his election possible. First and foremost, he’s half Caucasian. It would by silly to doubt the positive effect of Obama’s family photos featuring non-threatening white folks embracing the candidate. If all of Obama’s family members were dark skinned and characteristically black looking it would have been a lot harder for some white people to ignore the fear mongers who argue that Obama is really a dashiki wearing radical anti-white person brain washed by radical Marxists.
Secondly, the economy is going into the crapper. Even some racists aren’t crazy enough to support the same people who have so badly misled our nation. One of the great posts in the election was “On the Road: Western Pennsylvania” from fivethirtyeight.com:
So a canvasser goes to a woman’s door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she’s planning to vote for. She isn’t sure, has to ask her husband who she’s voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, “We’re votin’ for the n***er!”
Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: “We’re voting for the n***er.”
In this economy, racism is officially a luxury.
I couldn’t stop smiling about this anecdote. The thing is, you don’t have to love black people or have black friends. We’re not asking for your acceptance. All that black people deserve is the same thing every reasonable person wants; the chance to be judged on his or her merits instead of stock characteristics based on two dimensional stereotypes.
Barack also seems to have a calmness and steady bearing that makes it hard for the old reliable “angry black man” attack to land. Whenever things happen where someone reasonable might be expected to become flustered, he seemed to get, if anything, calmer and more reasoned. It would have been so easy for him to serve as an outlet for all of the anger and frustration that any intelligent and patriotic American would have after the last eight years of neoconservative meanness and incompetence. It would have been so easy to fulfill the “righteous angry black man” image so many white liberals are conditioned to expect. Think Samuel L. Jackson as a political candidate.
Of course, for so many people any anger of that sort might have brought back the age old fear of black strength. Even as it was, every incident where republican hate mongering was challenged led to cries of “playing the race card.”
Personally, I would have been pissed to have been called an empty suit, a socialist, a puppet led by radical extremists, an elitist, someone who thinks kindergarteners should be taught explicitly about sex and any of the other disgusting things that have been said during this election. I might have been tempted to yell about the outright racist treatment I was receiving. In short, I would have fallen right into the trap that so much of a black man’s life is spent trying to avoid.
The thing is, the smears and appeals to bigotry almost did work! Despite the electoral landslide, Obama didn’t really the popular vote by as much as one would expect after the Bush administration’s almost total failure to lead the country in the right direction. They led us into a war for no reason, wasted untold amounts of lives and wealth and even failed to protect our citizens in the case of a natural disaster. And they still almost maintained power!
Don’t be fooled. Most of the folks yelling about Obama being a socialist couldn’t define socialism if you asked them to write it on the back of their medicare check. “Socialism” means taking from successful white folks to give to lazy blacks. It’s a synonym for “welfare”, even if most welfare recipients are white. “Anti-american?” Yep, another code word for black.
If the economic disaster had taken another six months, we might be looking forward to the inauguration of a President who only learned about Martin Luther King Jr.’s true importance in the 1990’s and a Vice-President who didn’t know that Africa was a continent. That is truly sobering. On the other hand, even a close victory is still a victory. I’m not going to let myself swell on the negatives.
Barak isn’t perfect. I have some very real concerns about his readiness, the cult of personality that has built around him and even the persona he has presented to the public. I would have concerns about any major party candidate. He is an imperfect person, and imperfect politician and I’m sure that he’ll be an imperfect President. At the same time, he is a perfect symbol of the hope that this country can once again rise to it’s challenges and re-dedicate itself to the betterment of the world.
The election of a black man as the leader of the free world does not mean the end of racism. It is, however, a huge step way marker in the march towards a future that seems brighter and more inviting to all of us every day. I’ve always been proud of my country and faithful in it’s long slow improvement. This is one of the times when I feel like that faith was well founded! If nothing else, we just lived through an election where a black man was smeared as an elitist! Even that would have been inconceivable to me only a year or two ago. I’m so excited about a future where my mindset, the mindset that black people will never really get a fair shake, can become a thing of the past.
I think people under-estimate the power of images. I think people under-estimate what it means to live in a nation where the only portrayals you see of people like yourself are rappers, drug dealers, pimps, comedians, dancers, criminals, service people and janitors.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to feel like your identity can only be defined as “the other.” I think, if nothing else, this election serves as a testament to the fact that people are finally getting used to the idea of the black intellectual, the black talk show host, the black leader, the black accountant…dare I say it, the black nerd!
Barak Hussein Obama is the measured, reflective, self-aware antidote to the faux “awww shucks real guy just like you” shtick that big business conservatives and neocons have used to bedazzle the electorate into supporting their trickle down economics, nation building, cronyism and incompetence. Tyrone Sixpack, and Xiao Schoolteacher and Rosa Accountant are now acknowledged as being as much Americans as the proverbial Joe. Liberal Massachusetts is as much America as Conservative West Virginia.
I’m also excited that in this time of global turmoil, in this time where our almost century long economic superiority is being challenged and we need to engage the world, we have chosen a leader who is both culturally and intellectually pre-disposed to a more open world view. Choosing to continue with a foreign policy based on the idea that bombing brown people is ok because they live in the desert in tents and aren’t like us just doesn’t cut it in this truly global era.
I knew that the election of the first black president would be important to the country, the world and to me personally. I didn’t realize that it would be one of the great moments of my life. I spent a great deal of November the 5th of this year randomly crying as I reminded myself that it had really happened. Black people in this country can finally tell their children that they can be anything they want and for the first time ever, they won’t be lying. If I ever have children, they will never live in a world where a black person can’t be anything. I only wish my grandmother had lived to see it.
I’m going to end with this quote from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, just because I feel like it:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I’m going to go cry again. Thank you America.