From "Let My People Go" to "We Shall Overcome", there have been various catch phrases over the years that black people have come together around to survive and thrive in this country. And even now, as we have seemed to come together with the rest of the country to rally around the cry of "Yes We Can", the campaign slogan of presidential candidate Barack Obama, I can't help but feel that this phrase is an evolution of its precursor, "I Am Somebody", Jessie Jackson's rousing exhortation for us to claim the full measure of ourselves that energized the crowds at his rallies and speeches back in the seventies and eighties.
Many African Americans have finally gotten the opportunity to participate in the American dream – home ownership, reliable health care, access to education, retirement plans, vacations – but even then, there often remains, just below the surface of our psyches, a sharp sense of anger about the injustices of the past that our forebears and our parents faced.
To many of us, slavery was the Subsequent Sin – America’s fall from grace. The physical and psychological horrors of this inhuman institution were so brutal according to the eyewitness accounts of our forebears who lived through it, that even now, a hundred and fifty years after the practice was outlawed, the mere mention of the word "slavery" is enough to bring out our moral suasion SWAT teams in full riot gear.
The result of slavery's all encompassing, world class level of subjugation was a brand of racism that has helped to create America’s own Gordian Knot, with the lives of black Americans at its center. The harder mainstream America has tried to pull at the ends of this knot, the tighter it seems to coil around us.
There is no possible compensation that can make up for the injustices of being enslaved. Though there will continue to be disagreements about what type of suffering deserves recompense; to what extent, if any, the efforts made by the country to date could be considered an indirect form of reparations; or whether or not any future efforts are even warranted, one thing becomes clear as this debate continues - any attempt at a modern day solution would rearrange the superstructure of America.
Many of us have given up on any idea of reparations long ago. If you are in your middle forties, like me, you probably never had them. And as nice as it may be to hear words of apology for the government's role in the promotion and maintenance of slavery, it does little more than dull that sharp sense of anger lurking below the surface. Given all this, there are still some black people who feel "funny" about Barack Obama's African Americanness because they don't believe that he shares their experiences, or that same sharpened sense of anger that they do; that he doesn’t feel deep down any need to continue to desire some sort of retribution from white America.
Does this stubborn subset of us resent his lack of a direct connection to the American slave experience?
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama essentially declares that white America's will to make substantial efforts to redress the country’s racial gap is not particularly strong.
However ambiguous some of us may consider Obama’s background, no one would have any trouble picking him out in a sea of white faces. In fact, Obama has about as much connection to the civil rights struggles of the 50’s and 60’s as I do – that is to say, he has as much connection to the movement as most middle class blacks under forty five.
The pains of segregation and overt discrimination are a largely oral tradition for this group of African Americans – stories told and retold by our parents and relatives, protests seen over and over again on TV, on PBS specials, and protest speeches that are replayed faithfully every January and February to honor the efforts of those who came before us.
I have agonized myself over the dreams, talents and skills possessed by my forbears that were not developed because of substandard educations, lack of access to capital, lack of anything approaching what we would consider healthcare, or any access at all to mortgage loans, life insurance policies - but a pound of white flesh today will not erase this bondage of yesteryear. A blue eye for a brown eye will not resurrect the lives of those whose bodies were strung from trees. The dead will not rise again. And there is no multivariate calculator I know that can compute an equation for "lost human opportunity" or the ephemeral "crushed spirit".
We have beaten the drum for racial reconciliation so long that most of America has not only heard it, they have also learned to trust our rhythm enough to reach out their hands to us. In spite of all that has happened before, the last mile in our efforts to be fully invested in America can only be traversed through a higher level of trust and collaboration with the rest of the country.
Even though this fall’s presidential campaign season will feature the first black man to seriously contend for the presidency of the United States, in more ways than one, this election will not be about us. It will really be about a large segment of mainstream America - white Americans - and the psychological implications that will come along with being represented to the world by an African American. There will be more questions in these minds about black Americans than there have been in decades.
There will be heated discussions. We will often argue. And in the end, both sides will probably feel that they have compromised too much. But we can’t stay where we are. We don’t need to waste this momentum that is accumulating right before our eyes.