30 August 2008

The Talk That Really Matters

S. used to take issue with the tone of my speaking voice. “You always sound so certain, even when you’re wrong.”

“That’s how I grew up. Why wouldn’t you want to sound sure of yourself?”

Kitchen table debates and Sunday morning showdowns were the routine when I grew up. Our small town paper was, to put it mildly, a little light in the news sections, so my father subscribed to the state newspaper as well, turning our kitchen table into a news archive when we weren’t eating at it.

If you supported a particular position, you stated your case. If you disagreed with something someone else was saying, you refuted them with the best argument you could muster.

Sounding unsure was the quickest way for everyone to lose interest in what you were saying.

Which is why when I listen to the punditocracy on television, I filter out the authoritative tones and the aggressive postures.

The reality in our country is that our political narratives are largely driven by a few hundred people, most of whom have never been elected to anything since high school.

The faces we see on TV are a distillation of these elite who inhabit the media and government bureaucracy.

John McCain upset the applecart with his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. He did an end run around the normal channels through which information flows in the political arena, bypassing many of the mechanisms by which the shapers of our national political landscape keep tabs on upcoming developments, allowing them to mute or exaggerate their importance.

This weekend, your TV screen will be filled with the petulant sneers of those who feel betrayed by this surprise vice-presidential pick, and those who will take this opportunity to forecast doom and gloom for Obama/Biden, all of them trying to get a new handle on how they think this will affect the presidential race in the coming weeks.

For the next few days, every time you see one of those familiar faces look firmly into the television camera, every time you hear one of those familiar voices start to explain in an authoritative manner why their opinion should be the only one that counts, remember that there will be hundreds of thousands of men and women around the country this Labor Day weekend, many of them in Obama ‘08 t-shirts, looking firmly into the faces of the public, telling them in an authoritative manner very similar to these television talkmeisters why they should be registered to vote.

This is the talking that will really matter.

29 August 2008

No More Rope-A-Dope For Barack Obama

I sat in the basement Thursday night, the remote control in my lap, fidgeting as I watched the cable news pundits interrupt the speakers at the Democratic National Convention to tell us the same things they had been telling us all week. Even though the contests had been over for weeks, it was as if it was a primary night, with me waiting for Barack Obama’s results to come in.

I’d seen the stock photos of Invesco Field in Denver for the past few weeks. Had heard all the talk, both for and against the idea of Obama using such a massive setting to give his acceptance speech. But it wasn’t until I turned on the TV when I got home and saw all the people milling around the field that I began to get a true sense of the enormity of the space.

I couldn’t sit still. It was nowhere near ten o’clock.

So I pushed the RECORD button. Put on some jeans and my Obama ’08 shirt. Clicked aimlessly on a few internet sites. Sharpened my hedge clippers. Opened a beer. Finally, I went outside with a Perdomo maduro, clipped the end of it, and fired up my triple flame torch.

Odd images from the primary season came back to me as I puffed – the mole at the base of Obama’s left nostril that seemed to grow larger whenever he stared at the camera, the heightened pitch of his voice whenever he came to the “this is the moment, this is the time” part of his stump speech, the strained smile he was always able to muster when congratulating his opponent on a victory – these were some of the many things I had come to know about Barack Obama over the last eight months.

He wouldn’t be pacing right now, I said to myself. He will be practicing the delivery of this speech the way Tiger Woods works on his putting before the final round of a golf tournament, reeling off the phrases of his big speech the way Tiger’s practice putts roll, one after another, straight into the cup.

After that thought, the last half of the cigar is enjoyable. I begin to think of my more politically aware buddies – one in Chattanooga, and one who lives two miles away. My buddy in Chattanooga is the kind of political junkie who is apt to answer his phone “I’m in the stadium! Did you see me? I’m four rows behind the Clintons.” But today he is in Tennessee. There is so much to say, we could talk for hours, but tonight…tonight is for listening. We will catch up later.

My buddy here answered his home phone on the first ring. “Yo, man,” he said, a greeting that was out of character for him. “R. says it must be you calling.” I’d known him since the first day of college, twenty five years ago. We had contemplated going to the Million Man March together. Watched the verdict of the O.J. trial being read together. Become exasperated over the “hanging chads” together. Commiserated over the September 11th tragedies together.

“What are you doing? Eisenhower’s daughter is on now.”

“Finishing a cigar.”

“Maybe I’ll come over later and smoke one with you. After the speech.”

When Barack Obama stepped out onto the stage, you could feel the tension in the air release all the way from Denver. Maybe it was the makeup, maybe it was the sleep he was finally getting, maybe it was the knowledge that he was finally in there – whatever it was, it was making him look like new money. His eyes were different, with a harder edged glint in them, exuding an aggressive confidence that almost matched the feeling I had in my chest.

The rope-a-dope was over.

There was no woodenness, no air of detachment, no non-threatening penitence – this was the genuine article, the electric half of the Obama personality he had been keeping under wraps this last eighteen months.

I felt the same way my father and his friends must have felt when they were watching Muhammad Ali fight – like they were watching themselves.

I became the most active listener in the history of listening for the next 45 minutes, listening with my ears, with my eyes, with the tips of my fingers, with the tips of my toes – if there was an Olympic gold medal for active listening, I would have been a contender.

Transform is not a big enough word for what we all saw last night – “transmogrified” is a more accurate way to describe the metamorphosis from the vague, idealistic version of Barack Obama into a forceful, insistent proponent of his message of change.

My buddy showed up after the speech, a fresh batch of cigars in hand. We clasped each other, the way Obama clasped Biden after the speech, and just looked each other in the eye, the word “unbelievable” written all over our faces.

We sat just outside the basement, watching the Republican response to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on the big screen through the French doors. “What do you think the Republicans are gonna do now?” he said.

“There’s nothing left,” I said. “Rev. Wright, the flag pin, the muslim thing…you know they’re looking, but what else could there be to find?”

The talk of politics gave way to a moment of personal introspection. “Obama has done all this…he’s done all this, from state senate to D.C. to the White House in four years,” my buddy said. “When you think about, you have to ask yourself – what am I doing?”

My buddy can be considered a success by almost any measure. He has accomplished a lot in his legal career, with a burgeoning practice and a great family. But now, with the advent of this new height that has been reached in our society by a man only four years older than him, who shares his same brown skin, it looks like he is about to raise the bar for himself another couple of notches.

I have been silent as my buddy mused, for I am wrestling with transitioning from one industry to another, a process which causes you to have to think more critically about the choices you’ve made, the mistakes you’ve made, the opportunities you’ve turned away. But I am not despairing, because I have made a commitment to raise my own bar a few notches, to look up, not down, and to more fully embrace the new direction my life is about to take.

I would imagine that similar scenes played out in backyards and patios and decks and driveways and stoops around the country, other brown skinned men from all walks of live who saw a little bit of themselves in the fiery oratory of Barack Obama.

A rising tide, they say, lifts all boats.

28 August 2008

The Kids Can Stay Up Tonight

My mother was a school teacher for thirty eight years. Back when I was young, I watched her grade papers at the kitchen table. Call parents at home after dinner. Fill out lesson plans for the week ahead. Inevitably, there were stories about her students.

"I've got kids in my class - fourth grade, mind you - these kids are telling the jokes on Jay Leno. Can you believe that? What is a fourth grader doing up that late?"

In a small Southern town, where a significant amount of the school aged children attended private schools, the majority of her students were African American. There was nothing that would exasperate my mother more than having a child in her classroom who was hungry to learn who didn't have the support of at least one parent at home to help them master the basics that would be the foundation of their education.

"I don't see how the child can learn - whenever I call the house it sounds like a party is going on over there."

The fourth grade was just about the point where kids started making up their mind about how they wanted the world to see them. It was the point where the sneakers tapping the floor beneath the desks got more expensive, where the jeans hugging prepubescent legs and hips began to sport designer labels.

"This boy sitting up in my classroom has a neck full of gold chains, and he's eating free lunch? What kind of sense does that make?"

My mother was from the old school. She wore suits and carried a briefcase to work everyday, because she meant business when she got in the classroom. She watched children who were still wet behind the ears rush to imitate the antics of the teenagers and young adults and people they saw on TV - staying up late, hanging out on the corner, talking trash like a sailor - activities which sacrificed a lot of the time they could have used to reinforce the lessons they'd learned that day, instead of trying to grow up too fast.

One of the unintended consequences of Barack Obama's campaign has been the gargantuan amount of attention the press and the networks have given to telling and retelling his story. Even in a world that lives in the limitless connectivity of the internet age, our central daily narratives are still driven by big media. But big media doesn't have an unlimited amount of bandwidth - they have to be selective about what they choose to emphasize in their coverage.

Guess what? The preponderance of news about Obama's historic campaign has crowded out many of the lesser stories about African Americans that used to fill the airwaves. If Obama is the lead story, it seems to leave less room for the 9,999th story on the crack dens in the ghetto.

If there ever was a night for kids to emulate what they see on television, this is it. Tonight's talk show host will be Barack Obama. He won't be as funny as Leno, or as self-deprecating as Letterman. He won't be as fiery as King was forty five years ago.

But he will be inspirational, that you can count on. So whether your child wears Air Force Ones or Chuck Taylors, flip flops or Birkenstocks, whether they normally gather around the kitchen table, the stoop out front, or the video game console, gather them around the TV tonight to watch Barack Obama's acceptance speech.

Then click your remote until you find a channel that shows convention coverage, and put it away.

The O-Man Cometh

This entire week at the Democratic National Convention - the pomp and circumstance, the parties, the rousing speeches - has all been staged for one purpose: to introduce Barack Obama to the citizens of this country as the party's candidate for the presidency of the United States of America. The drama has unfolded night after night, bringing the convention to its culminating moment tonight when Obama will accept his party's nomination. Obama, who has been a daily presence on television for months, has been out of sight these last few days, appearing only briefly last night to congratulate Joe Biden on his acceptance speech.

"This is the moment", a common refrain that is a hallmark of Obama's campaign speeches, a phrase that his faithful followers have heard so many times during the primary season, will resonate in the hearts and minds of the 75,000 people who will pack the Invesco Field this evening in Denver. Tonight, Barack Obama is expected to emerge with his metaphorical cape on, transformed from presidential hopeful to the Democratic Party's standard bearer.

I think he's had it on all along - a cape knit from the work and the energy of the hundreds of thousands of people who scour the malls and the intersections and the community centers across the country every week, searching out and registering new voters even as the delegates and super delegates celebrate this week in Denver. From having the ability to attract and develop the kind of brain trust he has had running his campaign, to having the stamina required to keep up a herculean appearance schedule, to demonstrating the intestinal fortitude necessary to weather the immense challenges posed by his opponents, the "O-Man" has shown us how to tap into our own super powers to help him to get to the White House.

No phone booth required.

27 August 2008

Open Thread - What Have You Seen At The DNC Convention?

What have you seen at the Democratic National Convention?

All comments are welcome. I'm not there either, but with the wall to wall coverage, and an internet full of pictures and video streams, there is so much stuff the mainstream media can't focus on all of it. I watched Charles Barkley prove once again yesterday why he was a basketball player instead of a politician while I ate my lunch.

What have you seen? What have you heard?

The Punditocracy - Keeping You Uninformed

Benjamin Sparrow, in his book Uncertain Guardians, cites industry research reports when he states "the people who create the public images of elected officials, those to be elected, and high ranking appointees know each other. ‘They believe in polls. They believe in television. They believe in talk, they believe most profoundly in talk television. They believe in irony. They believe that nothing a politician does in public can be taken at face value, but that everything he does is a metaphor for something he is hiding."

One of the things I've noticed, after spending the last two evenings watching Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton speak, is a wide disconnect between what I see and what some of the punditocracy write the next day. Granted, many of them are there in the flesh, but with the magic of the internet streaming and the army of bloggers in attendance, I am able to see a lot more than the heavily edited product the news networks put on the screen. And what I see, in many cases, doesn't jibe with what they are telling me.

The thing that seems to get weighted too heavily in these speeches is their appeal to the press. Mrs. Obama hit all her notes on cue, like she does everyday as a successful Harvard trained lawyer. Many of the elements of her speech catered directly to the pundits who would be dissecting the text of her speech the moment she left the stage. Mrs. Clinton, a wily veteran of the political oratory, showed she knew her way around a microphone, with an array of quotable sound bites built right into her delivery, giving extra emphasis to the key phrases to make sure the punditocracy picked on them immediately.

To me, the "no way, no how, no McCain" soundbite ready phrase Clinton started off with was as explicit as she could get without personally threatening the small but vocal subset of her followers who are threatening to changing ideological horses in midstream. It was the kind of statement a person says when they are not interested in having a debate; when they are not interested in hearing your side of the story.

Hilary Rosen, a CNN correspondent who seemed to be very impressed with Clinton's speech, believed Hilary was "calling out" the bitterest of her supporters who were still not interested in getting behind Obama. "Basically," Rosen said, "Hillary was telling these women, 'I am not your therapist. So get over it, because I'm ready to move on, and we've got work to do.'" Rosen was one of the few pundits who was unequivocally positive about Clinton's address.

This tendency of the punditocracy to be supercritical of the politicians they examine is best explained by an anonymous pundit. "You can be wrong as long as you're skeptical. But if you're going to say something remotely positive, you'd better be 150% right, or you're going to be accused of rolling over."

So if you are listening to the commentators on CNN or Fox or MSNBC this morning, take what they are saying with a grain of salt - the things they are focusing on, those things that were not said, those signals that were not given, that body language that didn't telegraph the right message, are a lot like the things FAA inspectors look at when they inspect a plane crash. But Clinton didn't crash last night.

She glided her campaign in for a three point landing, the way veteran pilots do.

26 August 2008

"Uncertain" - Word Of The Day

Uncertainty is one of those things that ranks right up there with breathing as a constant in modern life. There are so many things you don't know, so many things you can't predict. For me, it is the pointed use of words like this by the nation's punditocracy to describe the mood of mainstream America about the candidacy of Barack Obama that exposes the fallacy of the country's moral supremacy.

This is the same word, uncertainty - this not having sure knowledge - that predicates the conditions upon which wars are waged, especially when little or no effort is made to analyze the facts of a dispute in a search for the truth.

Foreign terrorists do not pose a fraction of the risks to our society that our own home grown ones do. And yet we will demonize entire nations of people we are uncertain about, even as we allow our own citizen terrorists to wreak havoc on an American native son.

These are the enemies America should be routing out with a vengeance; these are the people we should be unfurling wrath of biblical proportions against; that we should have an unrelenting fervor to forever eradicate from the face of the earth.

Turbans do not strike fear in my heart - I am most afraid of those among us whose minds are turbanned, whose fanatical, traitorous hearts dare to surge with rage against me - because if a man who calls himself my countryman is willing to plot to kill Barack Obama because of the color of his skin, then he is willing to kill me.

To willing accept this type of ignorance among us, to turn a blind eye to this scourge, is worse than if you join hands with these homegrown terrorists, more abominable than if you financed the purchase of their assualt rifles, more repulsive than if you helped them lay out their plan of attack. It is this studied silence in the presence of these stateside fanatics that erodes the trust between races here in America, a silence so loud that I can feel it throbbing in my eardrums as I even as I write these words.

Of this, I am certain.

25 August 2008

Brownskinned People Won't Tarnish Presidency

I was underwhelmed by the speakers leading up to the speech by Michelle Obama earlier tonight, so I went upstairs to tool around the internet for a minute. After about fifteen minutes of web surfing, I was about to get up from my chair when I saw the words "Obama assasination plot" on the screen. I figured it was one of the ones from the spring, but when I pulled up Google to see what was going on, I froze - the time stamp on the first article said "38 minutes ago".

By the time I had gathered enough information - namely, that Obama had not been in any immediate danger, and the two three men had been arrested - I went back to the basement, where Michelle Obama had already launched into her opening night speech. Her delivery was superb, the imagery crisp, the language simple but powerful, the narrative that we are all at least a little familiar with rewoven into an even more compelling story about her life than the ones I'd already heard. Why the punditocracy would have expected anything less, I said to myself, as they tepidly praised her effort, was beyond me.

Maybe it was the fact that I had had one foot anchored in reality by the news update I'd read that kept me from accepting a lot of the reasons the CNN pundits were giving for the extraordinary length the Obama family seemed to be going to in order to show America that they were "alright". That they could be "comfortable" with them. That this highly choreographed forty five minute extravaganza had been put together for the sole purpose of "reassuring" mainstream America that these brownskinned people wouldn't tarnish the office of the presidency.

Why, I asked S., didn't one of the brighter pundits like Jeff Toobin look squarely into the camera and simply tell the American public who were watching that black people who live the type of high profile lives like the Obamas are experts at explaining who they are to white Americans because they've been doing it all their lives? Why couldn't one of them have played devil's advocate and asked the real question - what is wrong with our nation when people are uneasy at the thought of members of the "Well Scrubbed Negro Club" holding positions of power and influence?

I was bewildered when Obama appeared on a large TV monitor over the stage when Michelle got through with her speech - why was he in the living room of a nondescript family in St. Louis, Missouri ? Where they the winners of one of the those fundraising contests at www.barackobama.com ? But then the Google search I'd done earlier came back to me, and I was kind of glad - actually, I was thankful that Barack had not been in Denver.

If this post doesn't make a lot of sense, it is because I am still flustered over the idea that high powered rifles could have been trained on Obama Thursday night by the two three men in custody. And I'm pretty damn upset about the thought that these people will probably not be the last to try.

But the worst thing about the evening, the thing that gets me hotter than anything else, is the fact that even though the Obamas are just like any other successful American family, its the color of their skin that makes all the difference, a darker tint that is the cause of all the anxiety and unrest, as if the color of a car makes it run faster, or drive differently, or break down more often.

I Already Know Michelle Obama

If you live with a black woman who is a lawyer, like I do, you already know Michelle Obama.

You know, when you see her turned out in a perfectly fitted business suit, or a tailored dress, that this woman doesn't really need a stylist - she has been styling herself for years, and has become an expert on how to project power, exude expertise, and look like she belongs at the executive level.

You know, when you see her children, that they are more familiar with polysyllabic words than most adult Americans. That they understand how to look a person in the eye when they shake their hand. That they know the purpose of being courteous, and truly understand the value of an education.

You know, when you look at the things she has accomplished in her career, that she is capable of doing long range planning and short term problem solving with one arm tied behind her back. That she has negotiated big business deals, and nurtured small ones. That the people she has worked with have always trusted her judgment.

You know, when you see her mother, that behind all of the degrees and the polish and the panache is a woman who has been trained to live by the Golden Rule. Who has always understood the importance of family. Who has always believed in God.

You know, because she is a consummate professional, that just because you see her smiling, it doesn’t always mean everything is okay – but it does mean that if something is amiss, she is willing to put every ounce of her style, her intellect, her experience, and her faith to work to rectify the problem.

When you know these things, like I do, because I see them everyday, I know instinctively what Barack Obama does - that despite all the conjecture from the punditocracy, Michelle Obama is going to do just fine tonight when she steps on that stage in Denver at the Democratic National Convention.

The Punditocracy Goes To Denver

    “We as a nation are television watchers. Not only do we learn about politics by watching television, but we are television watchers; who we are as humans is in part defined by the attention that we pay to the television.”

    Roderick Hart

I thought the Olympics were over yesterday, until S. said that the closing ceremonies hadn't happened yet. Now if I’d been watching the endless coverage of the Games being broadcast from China, I would know this, a fact I am often rudely reminded of by those who ask me “did you see_________ break that record last night?” If I'm not careful, I might find myself on the Terrorist Watch List, because not watching television, it seems, is un-American.

This week, as the Democratic Convention gets under way in Denver, we will be seeing the most famous political talkmeisters in rare form, fanning any bit of innuendo, any speck of allusion, any iota of insinuation into make-believe controversies in a way that only a bona fide member of the punditocracy can.

Grown men and women will be arguing over the meaning of upward tilt of Barack Obama's head when he is listening. They will attempt to interpret the nuances in the intonation Hillary Clinton uses when she gives her speech on Tuesday night. Ad when there is no news - when nothing of any real consequence is happening - they will dig up one of their favorite images from the campaign trail, like Rev. Wright, or Hillary Clinton's tears in Iowa.

Media scholar John McManus has found that there are four general rules of broadcasting that serve as the modus operandi of the chattering class.

    Seek images over ideas.

    Seek emotion over analysis.

    Exaggerate if needed, to add appeal.

    Avoid extensive news gathering.

I grew up on the AP style of reporting – the kind where television news reporters strove mightily to avoid using any adjectives, adverbs, or verbs that projected an opinion. Even the political pundits, who were few and far between back when there were only three major television networks, seemed to choose their words with care as they critiqued Congress or the president. So I'll be doing some "Punditocracy Special Reports" this week to peer a little deeper into the "four rules of broadcasting" concept.

We've already established that I am a reluctant TV watcher. So when I make time to do it, like I did earlier this year during the primary season, I am often left shaking my head. It’s hard to believe that these political pundits can even begin to shape their mouths around some of the ridiculous things that they say.

I guess I'll be shaking my head a lot this week.

23 August 2008

Obama VP 3 AM Text Message Trails Networks

I was half asleep on the couch in the basement, with the TV watching me more than I was watching it when Larry King's baritone announced just after midnight that CNN sources had confirmed that Joseph Biden, a longtime senator from Delaware, would be Barack Obama's running mate.

If only I had signed up for that damn text message, I said to myself, I would already know this. But the CNN reporter on the screen must have been reading my mind, declaring that the text messages the Obama campaign had promised to send to their supporters and donors had not gone out yet. It seemed the publicity gimmick touted by the campaign the last few weeks had worked a little too well, with news crews and well wishers staking out the homes of those candidates who were on Obama's vice presidential short list last night. The loose lips from an insider ultimately leaked the information, just hours before the massive wave of text messages were set to be sent.

Then again, if I'd signed up, I could have already received fake Obama text announcements touting Evan Bayh, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Walter Mondale, Tim Kaine, and even Michael Phelps - how could I be sure which announcement was real?

I don't know if there was any irony intended, but the REAL text messages, the ones naming Joseph Biden as Obama's vice presidential pick, went out to supporters and donors around 3 am, shortly after the announcement was posted on the website. I imagined thousands of cellphones across the country buzzing, blinking or vibrating in the middle of the night.

What did this long awaited text message say?

    Barack has chosen Senator Joe Biden to be our VP nominee. Watch the first Obama-Biden rally live at 3pm ET on www.BarackObama.com. Spread the word!

    — Obama campaign text message to supporters.

21 August 2008

Right Off The Bat

My Yahoo email account blew up today as I received several blast emails from some of my college classmates, who are looking forward to going back to the quad for our twenty year class reunion next month.

One of them was from a woman who had become an instant friend practically the moment I hit campus back in 1984.

I hadn't heard from her in years. A self proclaimed product of the streets of Cincinnati, she was a veritable whirlwind of energy - dramatic, direct, and ready to have a good time at the drop of a hat. From day one, Miss Cincinnati and her roommate helped lessen the sudden impact of the realization that I was a minority student at a major university, a feeling of anxiety that had overwhelmed me that Sunday afternoon after my parents had waved goodbye.

What Miss Cincinnati lacked in scholarship, she made up for with an overabundance of style. She was petite but feisty, with an innate ability to instantly rattle off a comeback if somebody started talking trash to her. Although there were some who did not get along with her right off the bat, she could still find a way to connect with them, in spite of their reluctance to want to get to know her.

You didn't think of Miss Cincinnati and her roommate, a Long Island native, in the plural sense - their names seemed to be permanently conjoined into one long polysyllabic word, as if they were Siamese Twins. You couldn't utter one of their names without adding the other one.

I hope the person Barack Obama chooses to be his running mate is capable of giving the Democratic ticket this kind of synergy. Because at some point in the next couple of weeks, the name Obama will be first half of a permanently conjoined phrase that will ring from the lips of cable news anchors and talk radio hosts around the country. I hope Obama and his running mate get along right off the bat, the same way Miss Cincinnati and her roommate did. Maybe this will help ease the nation's unspoken anxieties about having a minority as the head of our country.

A running mate with more dramatic flair, someone who is more emotionally engaging - a person with these traits would be an excellent complement to Obama's studied cool and detached manner. And if they have even half of Miss Cincinnati's killer instinct to go for the jugular whenever she felt threatened, they will be well equipped to help Obama wade through the heavy onslaught of smears and attacks that will be directed towards him this fall.

19 August 2008

I Won't Be Getting A Text Message From Barack Obama

I called a friend of mine from college, who is now an anesthesiologist, when my father was scheduled for surgery here in Atlanta last year, to see if she knew anybody on staff at the hospital where his doctor was going to operate. She told me she'd gone to school with a couple of people who practiced there. "Just text me the date of his surgery and the name of his doctor."

I had to confess - I had never sent a text message before. I wasn't sure if my phone was even set up to send and receive them.

"You've never sent a text? You? Mr. 'Always Knows Everything About Everything'?" She laughed out loud, a laugh I heard clearly because...well, because she had one of those damn headset things on, transmitting each chuckle with digital fidelity.

Ordinarily, I would have said "to hell with it", but my father was involved - for a man who had never undergone major surgery before, I thought it might help him relax if he knew the person putting him under saw him as more than a set of vital signs wearing a wristband.

So I told her I'd figure it out. The guy at the phone company explained that I was already paying for the service, but it wasn't activated. A few clicks of a mouse later, he had turned my phone into a text machine.

Sending that first text message must have taken me twenty minutes. The period, I discovered, could only be accessed by pulling up a chart and pushing the phone's main navigation button. The whole rhythm of selecting letters of the alphabet reminded me of Morse Code, another method of communication that I'd failed to learn back in Cub Scouts. But I did it - I sent a coherent message later that very same afternoon.

Which is when I discovered the other downfall of text messaging. You had to wait for the person on the other end to respond to your message. My blood pressure probably jumped twenty points when the realization hit me that this was just like email, only a lot more aggravating, with a smaller viewing screen.

I didn't understand the text message shorthand she used to reply. So I had to call her the first time to ask her what the message said. I think this shorthand is a large part of text messaging's appeal, especially for those who always hated composition, or were terrible spellers, or couldn't fashion complete sentences.

So I won't be getting a text message from the Obama Campaign this week. That's fine by me - I like the fact that my cellphone rarely rings. But since I'm sure there will only be a few moments that elapse between the time they send out the news and the time it hits the internet, its okay. I'll still feel like I'm in the loop.

Despite what all the pundits on TV will be telling you, there will be no risk to the campaign because they've chosen this unorthodox method to tell the world who Obama's vice president pick will be. I don't feel left out, or slighted, because my fingers are too big and too stiff to easily work the keyboard on my phone. I'm actually glad that they are working so hard to keep younger voters energized.

The thing I am marveling at, though, is the way that the Obama Campaign is wresting even more power away from the traditional news media with this announcement. A lot of information, a whole lot, is being disseminated straight from the campaign into the email boxes of millions of people, with the only spin on it being the kind that makes Barack Obama look good.

I would be very tempted, if I had any idea what time this announcement might actually happen, to hit a popular coffee shop, or a large bookstore, or a plaza on one of Atlanta's college campuses, just to see what kind of reaction America's most connected generation has when they get the news.

Hard to believe that politics is getting to be hip.

18 August 2008

Obama Back To Kissing Babies

Looks like Senator Obama’s vacation is over – it's time to get back to kissing those babies.

I've always wondered about the whole baby kissing thing that politicians seem to have established as a campaign trail ritual. Is it for luck? An emotional appeal?

Or could the purpose be to show a certain level of vulnerability in a political candidate, although politicians are more likely to be known as - well, to be known as the type who are willing to "eat their own young" to get ahead.

The whole setup - the bouncing baby in one arm, a big cheesy grin from the candidate - does make for a good head shot, with all the attention focused on the candidate as he holds an anonymous bundle of joy.

I would imagine the line of people at the bigger rallies and events who want to get their baby's picture taken with Barack Obama must be as long as the lines for pictures with Santa are in the malls at Christmas time.

It looks like an internet jokester has come to the same conclusion with this internet spoof of Obama's super-organized website, www.barackobama.com.

Step 2 on the webpage reads " When your baby arrives, Barack will give it your choice of a kiss, a hug, or hope."

This tongue-in-cheek look at the Obama phenomenon speaks to one of the strengths of his organization - their ability to integrate the internet into almost every aspect of the campaign. From signing up supporters to gathering money to disseminating information, his website, with its Swiss Army knife type of versatility, has provided Obama with an unprecedented amount of money and manpower.

But the visceral power of the human touch - the transference of energy from one body to another - seems to humanize even the most remote person in a way that all the things that they say cannot. Simple and direct, the act of touching one's lips to the skin of another is a sign, not only of love, but of trust. Could you imagine, for instance, a parent allowing the Anti-Christ to come near their child?

So finish shaking that seawater out of your ears, Senator, and get back to work.

17 August 2008

I Wore My "Obama 08" Shirt To Work Friday

I wore a t-shirt two days ago. This should be nothing out of the ordinary, but (a) two days ago was Friday, and (b) I don't normally wear t-shirts during the week.

But my company is downsizing, like many others in the mortgage industry, so I ironed my navy blue" Obama 08" t-shirt, the one with the Obama logo over the right breast, and took the long way to work.

I live and work in Alpharetta, one of Atlanta's northern suburbs, where it is pretty obvious that African American men are a distinct minority. But if you are groomed and dressed like the rest of middle America, which means close cropped hair, clean shaven face, a wardrobe of conservatively cut slacks whose hues revolve around the primary colors for men - blue, green, brown and khaki - and a collection of polo style shirts to match, your brown skin doesn't seem to call much attention to itself.

My company's office is located in the Windward office park. I work for a small, struggling nationwide mortgage brokerage that sits among the massive operations centers of GE, HP, AT&T and other corporate giants whose names have boiled down to acronyms. Many of the jobs at the middle management level in these companies pay well enough to allow these employees to maintain their households on one income. So this live/work/play development has a large contingent of women who are stay at home moms.

When I walked into one of the breakfast joints on Windward Parkway to eat, the hostess looked up, and her eyes widened as she focused on the Obama logo on my t-shirt. A big smile leapt across her face as she nodded her head up and down. She seated me in the middle of the restaurant, where I proceeded to spread out my paper and check the headlines. From where I sat, I could see about half of the place. Patrons who had to go to the bathroom had to walk my way for about fifteen feet before they could begin to veer off towards their table, or the exit.

One woman, who sat on the other side of the restaurant, had a seat facing mine. She stared at my shirt for a few minutes - just stopped eating, a look of disgust on her face.

Many of the women had small children - curious, full of energy - who were attracted to the red white and blue circle on my chest that stood out from the navy background. Several of the women shooed the children along, looking down or away as they passed me , as if they were trying to avoid eye contact.

The waitress arrived. She had an amused look on her face. "Nice shirt," she said. She laid the menu down in front of me. "You work for the campaign?"

That threw me - I never would have thought that I looked like I worked for the Obama campaign. "No. I'm just a supporter." After a couple of seconds, I added, "you know, like trying to get people registered to vote?"

She drew her shoulders up and professed that she was registered to vote. Her eyes still twinkled. "I been watching all this on the news for months."

Normally, when I go somewhere, this is how I am - I talk to the people around me. If I catch someone's eye, I try to make conversation, try to say something positive or funny to make a quick connection. But to do that, you've got to be able to look at the person's eyes. Even the people who were seated next to me, who seemed affable enough, and looked like my neighbors, or the kind of people who worked in my building, seemed a little stiffer than usual.

Was my chest stuck out farther than normal today? Had I forgotten to do that thing which larger than average professional black men all over the country are experts at, that act of compression, of compaction, that made outsized shoulders and forearms less threatening, that made outsized thighs and buttocks less potent?

When I walked into the office, one of our remaining staffers saw me as I came through the lobby. She usually waved without stopping if she was en route to someone's office or the break room. Today, she broke stride for a few seconds. "Obama 'o8, huh?" She kind of half smiled, as if I was revealing something in public that she'd already suspected.

I don't usually mix politics and business, but when your company is on the rocks, this is the least of your worries. Wearing this t-shirt, which might ordinarily have been a source of debate, didn't even seem to register with most people - we were all busy scrambling to close out the business we had in our pipelines. For the few who did notice, the lettering across my chest seemed to be magnetic - every time I saw them, whether I was at the copier, or the fax, they would gaze at that spot on my chest for three, four, sometimes five beats, as if they needed to reread it ever time they saw it.

An older black woman I work with, who normally looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders, smiled from ear to ear when she saw "Obama '08". "Great shirt."

"Yes ma'am," I said, "that it is."

With business slowed to a trickle, I'd done all I could do by three o'clock. I took the long way home, stopping by the Barnes and Noble that was a few miles south of my office, right by Northpoint Mall. Just getting into the store was interesting - several drivers snapped their necks around to look at the shirt, one of them going so far as to start talking to themselves as they passed me. Inside the bookstore, it was like I had my own Secret Service detail. I started to understand how The Emperor Who Wore No Clothes must have been treated - no one, it seemed, wanted to look anywhere near me.

The clerk looked at the cover of the latest issue of New York magazine I laid on the counter when it was my turn to pay - the word "RACE" was in big red block letters, superimposed over a black and white rendering of Barack Obama's face - but her face looked more concerned about the number of people in line.

Later that evening, out of the blue, S. wanted to go out to eat. I thought about changing - she was still dressed in the same clothes she'd worn to a business luncheon earlier, and I wasn't sure where we were going - but I said "what the hell". We went south, about five miles closer to Atlanta, to a little bedroom community called Norcross. It had been a whistlestop back in the heydey of train travel - now the depot still standing in the middle of the single square block that comprised the commercial district of downtown Norcross was a restaurant. A few mini-mansions had been recently tucked into a few corners here and there, but for the most part, the town had retained much of its original character, a mixture of newly renovated Victorian homes and well-maintained Post War ones.

The walk down the sidewalk produced the same non-looks from most of the people scattered along the sidewalk who were waiting to get into the storefront restaurants we passed, but there were a few raised eyebrows that were paired with sly smiles. Entering the pizza place on the corner, it was the family hour - kids everywhere, some tables filled with three generations, the waiting area full. Other than a couple of mothers at the front, who looked at us as if they were officers of the Nazi SS Waffen corps, most of the people were too busy trying to avoid getting tomato sauce on themselves to care about us.

By the time we left, it was getting dark. We strolled down the sidewalk. I hadn't seen another Obama t-shirt all day. In fact, I hadn't seen ANY Obama advertising or campaign signs all day. The sound of music seemed to be coming out of one of the storefronts as we got further down the street. We came to the window of a coffee shop. It was packed with people, and a small combo was playing.

S. suggested that we go inside. The combo was on one side of the door, the audience on the other - we had to walk right down the middle to get to a raised landing on the other side of the room. A few women's faces on the lower level strained as we entered. The woman at the door called us back after we had crossed in front of the crowd to give us tickets for free drinks.

Standing in line to get a couple of glasses of red wine, I felt someone bustling towards me. "Nice shirt" said the man. The girls behind the counter smiled. We traipsed back towards the rear of the building, where we spied a courtyard. The owner was parked in front of a huge chocolate cake that announced the one year anniversary of the coffee shop. "We've got a lot of your people here all the time," he said, gesturing towards my t-shirt.

Two middle-aged black women sat at a table near the entrance to the courtyard. They gave us slow motion nods as they ate their slices of cake.

The courtyard had two sections, half of it covered by an awning, half of it open air, dotted with the kind of wrought iron tables that featured the umbrellas in the middle. Baby carriages and running children dominated the covered area, so we navigated our way through the parents who were milling about to the open air section.

S. sat - I stood at the railing along the rear, looking up and down the narrow one way street that ran behind the storefronts. A few more people trickled outside - a tall, severe looking couple in matching long sleeved Brooks Brothers shirts with the cuffs turned back, and a more casually dressed trio, one man and two women. The severe woman spilled her wine setting it down on the table. They ate fast and disappeared.

The trio had been in conversation for awhile when the man caught my eye. "We're pulling for him," he yelled across the courtyard. The parents in the covered courtyard didn't turn their heads, but he was loud enough for them to hear him. "We are too," I yelled back.

A few minutes later, a couple of mosquito bites convinced us that it was time to go home. We had to pass the trio to go back through the coffee shop. The man reiterated his earlier comment. "We're from Jersey," he said. "We're used to thinking differently than the people down here." The five of us ended up talking for about ten minutes, the political patter giving way to the basic who what when and where type of stuff you talk about when you first meet strangers.

I was ready to go home, but since I'd mentioned the bookstore visit earlier, S. wanted to get a new book by one of her favorite authors. So we swooped into another Barnes and Noble that was between downtown Norcross and home. The Starbucks I passed on the way to the bathroom was filled with Asian teenagers and college students. They all had a name on their chests too - Hollister or Harvard or Georgia or DKNY - and appeared to be involved in such intense conversations that they didn't seem to notice me at all.

No one in this bookstore moved out of the way. Pretty much everyone here, even those who frowned at the sight of the Obama logo, would look back at me instead of down at the floor. On the way out, we ran into S.'s old boss, an ex-CEO of a satellite communications manufacturer. A small, handsome man with a shock of white hair, he looked tired in the way that sixty something year old men do when they have children under the age of ten. He was cordial, as always, filling S. in on the whereabouts of the other officers of the company who had departed.

It wasn't until he'd walked to the register to pay for his book that a thought crossed my mind - of all the people I'd run into all day, it had been mostly women, in particular women who looked like they were not in the workforce, who had demonstrated the most visible signs of animosity towards the logo on my chest.

But the most interesting thing about Friday to me was, of the five black people I ran into that day - which says a LOT about what part of the Atlanta metro area I was in - that of those five, only one, my co-worker, was openly enthusiastic about seeing the Obama logo.

The two black women in the coffee shop? They had had looks on their faces that said to me, "negro, why are you trying to get these white folks riled up?"

16 August 2008

Obama Beats The Heat With 51 Million Haul In July


More than 65,000 New Donors Contributed to the Obama Campaign in July, Bringing July Total to Over $51 Million

Obama campaign has $65.8 million on hand

CHICAGO – Senator Barack Obama’s campaign announced today that more than 65,000 new donors contributed to the Obama campaign during the month of July, bringing the total raised for the month to over $51 million. More than 2 million people have now contributed to the campaign.

“The 65,000 new donors to the Obama campaign demonstrate just how strongly the American people are looking to fundamentally change business as usual in Washington. We are proud of the millions of volunteers and more than two million donors to the Obama campaign who will provide the backbone of our campaign to put America back on track and reject the old politics and failed Bush policies, which is all John McCain is offering,” said David Plouffe, campaign manager of Obama for America.

You Don't Have To Drink The Kool-Aid

When I was growing up, we drank a lot of Kool-Aid. My favorite flavor was orange. We put so much sugar in our Kool-Aid that it could have been considered a liquid confection. We went through it by the gallon, especially in the summer months.

I took the art of making a good pitcher of Kool-Aid very seriously. I would take two packs of Orange Kool-Aid, one pack of Tropical Punch, and empty them into a small pot of boiling water. I'm not sure if the heat dissolved the Kool-Aid powder better, or whether or not the flavors seemed to blend together better because they had gone through some kind of chemical bonding process when they were heated. Then I added the sugar - two and a half cups - watching the slurry burble while the sugar crystals slid into the steaming water.

A sugary, tropical flavored scent filled the kitchen as I stirred. A minute later and I was pouring the contents of the pot into the Kool-Aid pitcher. Then I added tap water, stirred for another fifteen or twenty seconds, and I was done.

My mother didn't drink any of this - she thought it was too sweet. She would pour a glass about half full and add some water to dilute it. My father, on the other hand, loved this Kool-Aid as much as me and my brothers did, so I often had to make two batches a day.

You might think boiling sugar and prepackaged Kool-Aid mix is overkill, the way some people think the Obama Campaign is going over the top in its all out aerial and ground blitz. But these guys have gotten this far because they have done their homework - I would trust that they have factored in the level of difficulty they will have between now and November to keep their candidate ahead of the competition.

So if you are still on the fence about Barack Obama, if you still have reservations about the intricacies of his background, or can't seem to wrap your mind around some of the details of the policies he is proposing - I'd like to ask you to take a minute to do what I do when I see a discouraging news poll or hear a political pundit tell America why we shouldn't be supporting this man - try to visualize something positive about Obama that YOU care about.

For me, it is this:

If you've been coming here this week to check out the "What Do We Want?" series, I want to thank you for reading. And if you think the Kool-Aid I've been serving here is too sweet, do what my mother used to do - water it down a little.

15 August 2008

Recarving Our Cultural Totem Pole

As much as some of us in black America may want it to happen, there will be no Shaft candidate for president, kicking ass and taking names.

The president is an executive. He is usually a seasoned politician, no matter what moniker the press or the peanut gallery hangs around his neck. A black candidate who doesn’t understand his strengths AND his weaknesses in appealing to mainstream America will be pigeonholed and marginalized, not only by the press, but by the professional operatives who help to run his campaign and by the big money donors whose contributions make or break a candidate’s fundraising efforts.

The respect we are looking for, the status we desire in this society, the accomplishments and achievements we long to accumulate in the same manner as our paler brethren, can be obtained. But it will not be a Barack Obama presidency that gives us this opportunity. “We are the ones we have been waiting for”, one of the hallmarks of an Obama campaign rally speech, is not just an empty aphorism, it is a literal truth – we black Americans hold a lot of our community's destiny in our own hands.

Has our history anchored us so securely to the past that we cannot make any more forward progress?

To take that question a step further, how do we rearrange the mythological constructs that shape how we view others? More importantly, how do we get others to do the same when they encounter us?

One of the many people I've met on the internet recently, who is a woodcarving enthusiast, had this to say about carving around the occasional knots she finds in the fine hardwoods she works with:

    "A stubborn knot, metaphorical or real, requires patience -- and a very sharp tool. You work it from all angles (the wood around a knot does not grow in a single direction as the rest of the grain does) slowly, slowly paring it down; you resharpen your tool (knots are very hard -- yeah, literally and metaphorically -- and blunt a fine edge quickly) with care and precision. You go at it again from all angles.

    Once you've leveled it out, the evidence of the knot is still, always, there: it becomes part of the pattern and beauty that is the wood itself. Imperfections in wood are what make it most fascinating.

Making the changes we need to as a people to more fully participate in the more desirable aspects of American life doesn't mean that our culture will disappear. If we can agree that a culture can be shaped - that it can retain some characteristics and discard others over the passage of time - then I will be pushing mightily to pare away the dogfighting, the crack selling and the baby mama drama that we have been passing off as black American culture lately. These negative images we have raised to the level of cultural signifiers are a type of metaphorical posing, a commitment to "keeping it real" that ignores the literal truths we see before our very own eyes everyday.

What I really think we desperately need to get from all of this is a realignment of the "natural order" of things, not just in America, where we are still fooling ourselves when it comes to racial equality, but in black America too. I want to see our own cultural totem pole recarved, with a smart black man in a blue suit at the top. With black men and women who teach our children, who heal our sick and keep our streets safe just below that image. I don’t want to take the rappers and the singers off of the totem pole – just slide them down a few notches from where they are now.

Segregation of our bodies didn't work. Neither will segregation of our minds. Integration has allowed blacks and whites to look at each other up close and personal. The question is, can we believe what we see, because what I SEE out here in mainstream America are people who look a little different, but want the same things I want - safety, security, prosperity, and an opportunity to enjoy living on a regular basis.

Collaboration has to be the next step. Which means our lives won't look like they do now. The things we will have to give up as black people will not make us less black, the same way the Greeks and the Germans and the Polish and the Irish and the Italians and the Dutch are no less themselves for leaving behind the parts of their cultures that don't fit in this society. And some of us, who will not be able to cope, will find ourselves, like the rednecks and the hillbillies and the long haired radical hippies, relegated to the fringe of our society.

14 August 2008

How Much Redress For Past Wrongs Is Enough?

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.

13 August 2008

Does "No Negro Left Behind" Trump "Yes We Can"?

While I’ve been waiting for the water hoses and the dogs from the usual suspects, I’ve been hearing a constant refrain – at work, on TV, on the internet – lately from my fellow black brethren about Barack Obama.

    He doesn’t need to "lecture black people" about personal responsibility.

    He should be mindful of the tone he uses when he speaks to us.

    He’s just saying what racist white people want to hear.

    He sacrifices black people to score points with whites and other non-blacks.

    I was offended by his criticism of black people.

    What gives him the right to call anybody out about anything?

    Since he doesn't have anything good to say about black people he shouldn't say anything at all.

The boundaries of blackness are hard and fast for a certain segment of the African American community – they cannot possibly be authentically black, they opine, if they don’t remember to eat a plate of neck bones from time to time, or relish the thought of a fresh pot of collard greens simmering in fatback. I myself am routinely admonished by these self proclaimed "authentic" blacks when I confess that I do not like cornbread.

There is a stubborn subset of the black community that wants to have their cornbread and eat it too. But if they are honest with themselves, they have to admit that all white skinned people do not enjoy all the attendant privileges of whiteness. Southern rednecks, Appalachian hillbillies, Midwestern hicks- they face a level of ostracism that is almost equal to what some of us encounter because we have our hair braided, or because we wear hip hop clothing, or sport rows of gold capped teeth.

We have our own version of "No Child Left Behind" – it’s called "No Negro Left Behind". Among this stubborn subset who insists upon following this doctrine, there are those who are willing to forego mainstream American success in favor of honoring their inalienable right to express themselves through their dress, manner of speech and modes of behavior. Closely related to this group is a less confrontational faction, reluctant participants in conventional America who are committed to the idea of pulling up Uncle Petey and cousin RayRay and sister Ne’Ne’ along with them, but are loathe to advocate any act of transformation – Uncle Petey, RayRay and Ne'Ne' are to be preserved in toto, as if the slightest alteration to their demeanor, dress or decorum would invalidate their African American membership cards.

So why do these steadfast people balk at having to change, if the things they are doing now are not working? Self esteem comes from achievement, not someone patting you on the back. Achieving anything worthwhile in this country means you have to connect to the rest of the people in it, whatever they look like. In case we have forgotten our history, white people have had to "act" too to grow beyond their own Italian or Irish or Greek or Spaniard or Eastern European roots - more of them have gone from cabbage to caviar than some of us might be willing to admit.

Do we as black people, especially those of us in this stubborn subset, have enough intestinal fortitude to face our own pathologies and see them for what they are without worrying about who is watching while we do it?

Is criticism that takes any of us to task for our weaknesses only to be administered by bona fide, certified 100% black leaders?

Barack Obama has been lambasted by by black preachers, black community leaders, and a lot of the same black men who believe that Oprah Winfrey is their mortal enemy. My own co-worker, a well educated black man from Alabama, was so incensed at Obama's Father's Day speech, even though he didn't hear or read it in its entirety, that he vowed not only to revoke his support of Obama - he swore he would get some "Vote for McCain" signs and parade them through black neighborhoods "his damn self".

Obama could have done a Michael Jordan, and remained silent on EVERY issue that affected black people. Just smile at us once in awhile, you know, and given us that sly little wink like Mike does while we continue to buy his shoes. He could have just keep talking about abstract policies, the same way all the other presidential candidates before have, and left Uncle Petey and cousin RayRay and sister Ne' Ne' alone.

If Obama can see the mountaintop, and we can't, I would hope that we could trust him enough to believe that what he’s telling us works. That what we take to be ingrained in our DNA is largely an illusion - if we had been indigenous to Siberian climes, for instance, we would be some brownskinned borscht eaters.

One of the things we don’t really focus on in our own history is the fact that the black people who had firehoses aimed at them and police dogs sicced on them for demonstrating against segregation were some of the very same black people who sat at the table with the white foes of integration, once both sides agreed they needed to talk.

Are those of you in this stubborn subset ready to sit at the table?

12 August 2008

Obama and Racial Ambiguity: Acting White

Barack Obama has been accused by various black leaders and pundits, including Jessie Jackson, of "acting white’. But if Obama has been raised by a white grandmother and white grandparents, is he acting, or are his actions authentic?

The perception that Obama has been "acting white" is directly linked the assertion that he is ignoring issues germane to the black community to better cater to the ideals it is presumed that white voters must have in their presidential candidate.

To take this premise a step further, then – if Obama is accepted by mainstream America because he doesn’t exhibit any of the traits of the stereotypical African American – those of us who do not use standard English, who do not have conservatively styled hair, who are not highly educated are in effect rendered invisible to white Americans, much like Ralph Ellison’s main character in Invisible Man.

Though a staunch few of us continue to lambaste Obama relentlessly for this betrayal, this inability to be true to himself (although we often flip flop on this – one day he’s black enough, the next he’s all white), to be true to his people, most of us have rejoiced in unison as he continued throughout the primary season to attract a significant number of white voters. The undeniable fact about being considered “African American” in this country is the visual difference – it is usually so distinctive, even for guys like Obama, that there is no possibility that he could be mistaken for anything else but an outsider like the rest of us.

Are these few, these holdouts content with being outsiders forever? If the things we say we want the most from America – racial equality and equal access to economic opportunity – were here today, would we be ready? Would enough of us be equipped enough, skilled enough, able enough to take advantage of the situation?

If you take a hard look at the concept of identity, especially as it relates to Americans, you will find that the roles we all play are not as static as they appear. Five hundred years ago there was nothing that existed on this continent that defined a human being in the way we define ourselves now. The who, what, why and how that each of our ethnicities possessed we when got here have been altered dramatically over the centuries. The boundaries that we have chosen to live by, or have been forced to live by, are largely constructs of the mind of man.

Undoubtedly, Obama bumped up against some of these constructs as he began maturing from boy to man.

One of the more curious features of American life has been the ability of our citizenry to merge common customs of certain ethnicities - in particular, the characteristics of the Irish, the Italians, the Croations, the French, the English, the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedish, the Russians, the Polish, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Austrians, the Danish, the Finish, the Romanians, the Norwegians, the Ukrainians - into an über whiteness, a self image purer than the reality of those who wear its mantle.

Whiteness is as much a property, a state of being, as much as it is a trait - within the Big Tent of racial and cultural amalgamation we know as "White America", it is a badge of membership, of belonging, that supersedes individual differences.

Blackness is no less a state of being.

Today's whiteness, like today's blackness, is the last in a long line of new and improved versions - more refined, more efficient, sleeker - but not totally new. The advent of the Obama phenomenon has put on the table of public opinion an important question that many of us African Americans seem to have trouble answering for ourselves.

Is the authenticity of what we perceive to be "blackness", or "acting black" diluted or watered down if we cross these artificial boundaries?

11 August 2008

Obama's Racial Ambiguity: A Blessing Or A Curse?

    Barack Obama’s head peers out of a black and white television screen in an Al Sharpton wig, his face sweating like a Baptist preacher as he shouts rap lyrics into a microphone, his full length white robe bearing the slogan “By Any Means Necessary”, the expectant congregation before him reverently chanting “holla if ya here me”…

This is one of the racial boxes that I imagine the staunch group of black holdouts who insist he is "not black enough" want to put Barack Obama in when they see him on the nightly news or the internet – his standard uniform of a plain blue suit and unobtrusive tie, it seems, is just one more piece of evidence that Obama is not really black.

Some of us have not full accepted his motives. Amazingly, there are those of us who will go so far as to suggest that Obama has used his embrace of African American culture as a shortcut to success. Some even feel Obama has been foisted upon us by the media and the powers-that-be. For these American blacks, Obama’s "fade to black" development raises serious questions about his ability to relate to the challenges and struggles of everyday black people.

What is it that forces us to demand fealty by our leaders to some unknown rulebook of acceptable black behavior? Is the racial ambiguity that a staunch minority of us imagine Barack Obama has used to his advantage throughout his life problematic for the masses of us who have no such leeway in how we are seen by mainstream America?

To really understand the disconnect between Barack Obama and those of us who are supportive of the idea of a black president, but wary of this biracial man’s claim to his African Americanness after being raised by a white mother and white grandparents, we have to take a step back and look at our history here in America.

Most black authored racial literature here in America has been about black men and women dealing with and entering a white world -- three classic examples are Frederick Douglass, Narrative and Life and Times, Richard Wright, Native Son, and Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.

Out of these three classic books, Fredrick Douglass, who was the real life protagonist of his autobiography, was the only main character able to successfully navigate life as an adult black male. In his recollection of his life story, Douglass was generous in his descriptions of those who helped him on his way to freedom, whether they were black or white.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man comes closest to echoing the undercurrents of the Obama phenomenon. Like Obama, Invisible has questioned the who, what, and why of his existence from a young age. There is a point in Invisible’s life, after he arrives in New York City, when he began to transform himself from a college dropout to a productive member of society, where he discovered that the world allowed him more latitude whenever he allowed those around him to see what they wanted to in him.

This year’s presidential campaign may be the true ending of the story Ellison wrote, but it was an ending even he couldn’t have imagined back when he wrote his novel. For Invisible, the point at which people stopped seeing him at all was the height of his existence.

And though we’ve had other models of self transformation by black men throughout our history, our image has become stylized, both by the media and by our own mythological reconstructions, as Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son – self hating, self loathing people who harbor latent criminal tendencies that we are prone to act upon if we are not properly supervised.

Bigger was bigger – bigger than the Chicago ghetto he was from, bigger than the manservant job he had, bigger than the crime he committed. He was all of black humanity, all of the perversities of us as a group distilled into the essence of one man, and even now, in the eyes of some Americans, he is the symbol of what a whole lot of us are today.

We have been striving since slavery to shake off the strictures of bondage and discrimination in order that we might fully inhabit all phases of American life. Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams From My Father, on the other hand, tells a story that is the exact opposite of our traditional tale of racial transformation – it is the story of a man of amorphous race dealing with and entering the black world.

A lot of the racial ambiguity claims about Obama have been manufactured by the overactive minds of professional pundits. And some of it is us, telling each other, "he’s not really black". But the reality of Barack Obama’s supposed ambiguity – an ability to traverse the boundaries between white and black worlds – is that he could have tried all he wanted to, but he could never have been anything other than black in America.

There is no ambiguity for him – he has always known he was different, ever since his eyes could focus on the image of his mother, ever since those same eyes were able to compare how she looked to how he looked, ever since he has understood what was in the eyes of the people who looked at him as if he was the one that didn’t fit in the picture they had of his family.

09 August 2008

What Do We Want? Five Part Series Begins Monday, August 11th

I’ve heard a constant refrain lately – at work, on TV, on the internet – from some of my black brethren about Barack Obama:

    He sacrifices black people to score points with whites and other non-blacks.

    Since he doesn't have anything good to say about black people he shouldn't say anything at all.
    I was offended by his criticism of black people.

    What gives him the right to call anybody out about anything?

    Since he doesn't have anything good to say about black people he shouldn't say anything at all.

    He doesn’t need to “lecture black people” about personal responsibility.

    He should be mindful of the tone he uses when he speaks to us.

    He’s just saying what racist white people want to hear.

Next week, What Do We Want?, a five part series, will explore some of the issues that underlie this intraracial discord.






Why do I think doing a five part series is important? Because there are an estimated EIGHT MILLION voting age African Americans who are not registered to vote.

EIGHT MILLION people who have varied reasons why they may not have registered in the past.

According to the Obama campaign, there are 56 million unregistered voters nationwide, 32 percent of the total eligible voter ranks. Of that number, eight million are black (which is also 32 percent of eligible African-American voters).