by Patricia Spears Jones, June/July 2008
The heat broke this morning after a storm of noisy violence. Cats were cowering from side of Brooklyn to the other. But we welcome the coolness and the chance to walk about and breathe without gasping. In a way, that is how it feels to contemplate changes in the political order in this country. A chance to walk about with heads held high, with hearts relatively untarnished. It feels good for a change to actually see a contest that really shows two very different ways of looking at and dealing with the challenges, the problems and the ideals that this country has.
But we all know this is a very dangerous world. And those dangers come each day from wind, rain and lightning; from bombs, guns and the hording of food. In Somalia, an Aid worker is murdered. In Chicago, Black boys are killing other Black boys. In Russia, the opposition finds itself in a new kind of Siberia. In Liberia, 50 farmers are murdered in a land dispute. Robert Mugabe’s army arrests opposition leaders; stops Aid workers from distributing food. Mugabe joins the generals in Myanmar who seem to think that a starving population is better than a dynamic, intelligent, thriving one.
So I salute the Black activists in Bedford-Stuyvesant who are still fighting for affordable housing, feeding the hungry and keeping politicians more or less honest. And gay activists in Queens who help quell the violence that was once born by that community in places like Jackson Heights. And the Black parents in Harlem who are talking to their children about guns, I hope their children are starting to listen. I have friends in California who are working to safeguard migrants and fighting for immigration rights; and a friend who runs her church’s food bank out of Christian humility and a desire for justice in San Francisco; and friends whose Synagogue leads the Save Darfur People/End Genocide campaigns. I admire them and the women presidents of Chile and Liberia; my sister’s church friends who started a homeless shelter in a small town in Arkansas; the artists who continue to work their magic in film, photography, paint, music and words with little compensation or glory but whose work will be what tells us the truth of these times.
We are at an enormously interesting place in this country and around the globe. Change(s) are taking place–good and bad change, each and every day. Obama’s presumed nomination is one of those enormous changes. We are part of this change. It’s going to take discipline, deep thinking and occasional sarcasm to get through the next few months to realize political change that lets an African serve as the physical and symbolic head of a great yet troubled nation that is the United States of America. This is something that many have debated for a very long time, and while I know that no miracles are going to happen, it is a time to step back and welcome this historical shift.
I think that what is interesting about the Democratic campaign was that it was long and drawn out. That Senators Clinton and Obama really had to test each other’s mettle; find what messages truly resonated; and dealt with some very real challenges. Obama’s was not simply that is an African American, but that he is young, urban, and that he is impatient for power. Clinton had to deal with her considerable talents tied to a great deal of baggage, some shiny and well made and some, well not so. Probably the best thing that happened to Obama was that Clinton was his rival. She wanted (still wants I am sure) to become President. She was the front runner and in many ways the campaign was hers to loose. And while she almost brought that off, this just was not her time. The campaign also tested ways in which identity politics, recent political history, internet culture and the fallout from the Iraq War is playing out in the hearts and minds of Americans from Maine to Missouri to Washington State. The past few presidential campaigns have been run by very smart, very cynical men and a few women, but this one seems very different. And even when some of the worst crap showed up-racist talk; sexist banter; idiotic policy offerings—something else seemed to also happen. A very smart, strong woman commanded center stage. A very calm young man began striding towards power as if born for it. Whatever complications are in Obama’s heart, we may never see, but we all know, he is not afraid to be a “decider.” That purposefulness, strength and occasional candor may make up for distancing himself from the Black progressive church he belonged to more than 20 years and for wearing a flag lapel pin—even Clinton didn’t do that. The next months are going to make the Democratic primary look like a daring carnival ride as the Republican opposition throws whatever mud, blood innuendo and cultural malapropism his way. A man who was raised by a White Woman from Kansas who decides to call himself Black is a man who has decided who he will be and how he will be perceived in this society. Obama is not post-racial, but he is daring America to be post-racist.
Obama’s speeches inspire many, but what I think is fascinating about him is his capacity to manage. So while he makes nuanced gestures towards the larger goal (resigning from his church, wearing that silly pin) of winning the Presidency, he is steadily building an extraordinary organization of very smart men and women, young, old and in between who really seek a different kind of American politics. I see an innovative strategy unfolding, one that pushes against the usual patriotic tropes and canned uses of anti-Black imagery and rhetoric that the Right have used for the past 40 years to exploit white supremacist ideologies and underscore White Male Power so that something as abominable as the Iraq War could actually take place. The Obama and Clinton campaigns have struck at the very heart of that cynical political construct, sometimes bringing new ideas to the discussion, but more than anything changing the symbolism, creating a new construct.
It seems to me that those who want to be part of this new construct must think and act differently. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, bitter humor and quick thinking to get through the next few months to realize the possibilities of this historical shift. I know people are always talking about “hope” when talking about Obama, but what I think is key to his run and his possible win is “audacity.” We need to show our own willingness to achieve and use power. We need to see our selves, our Black selves as the deciders. We need to see how history has prepared us for this moment, in the same way that history prepared the Black folks to rise up against second class citizenship in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, elsewhere in the Old Confederacy in the late 1940’s, early 1950’s. Their activism didn’t just happen. Obama’s candidacy didn’t just happen. And we will not change this country for the better if we don’t make things happen. We must make audacity our mantra. Like Tiger Wood’s “sudden death” win at the US Open today, when you give everything you got and then some, well there really isn’t anything that can’t be done.