Friday, November 28, 2008

Manhood and Yearning

The inauguration of President Obama will be one of the defining moments in the history of the United States. Surely it will be a long time before Americans come to personal terms with the magnitude of having a black man as President. For black men, the significance is boundless. I am hopeful about the potential impact it will have on our will to succeed, on our drive for excellence, on our world view, on our image of ourselves and indeed on our conduct as men. It does not take much investigation or soul searching to know that we have been yearning for something better for a long time. The points of improvement – from what to what – have changed, but the yearning for something better, to improve our lot as men and as Americans has remained constant.

Frederick Douglas, in his autobiography described his fight with Mr. Covey, his owner, and the transformative impact it had on his view of himself as a man.

It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.

Yearning then was self-evident. Under the condition of slavery, black people yearned as a function of survival, as a matter of recognizing their identity as human beings. They had to develop faith in the possibility of something better in order to endure and engage in the struggle to realize it. Their yearnings rested on that faith. While freedom at that stage in our history may not have brought physical comfort, it certainly brought a tremendous psychological improvement – an improvement from one condition of existence to another, bondage to freedom. The slave experience has indisputably marked the existence of black people in America.. The continuous examination of this experience has served to help us explain and understand our identity as Americans. This persistent inquiry has also served an invaluable function in helping the nation come to terms with itself; both its capacity for viciousness as well as transformation. It has also helped deepen our national understanding – whether we choose to acknowledge it or not – of the circumstances of black men.

Black men exist in a cloud of American contradictions. When talented and successful, those talents have to be extraordinary, because of the difficulty in having them be recognized. W.E.B. DuBois noted that, “Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness.” It has always been difficult for black stars to shine in a constellation that collaborates to mute their light. Despite that, the yearning has continued. The drive to improve has remained a cherished component of our character. That does not mean that all of the damning statistics that describe the circumstances of black men since forever are not true. It means that life in the cloud of contradictions is contradictory. It is nothing new to note the frustrations of being looked at as a problem or as an other in your own country can turn inward. Even with that internalized violence and self-hatred, there is still a yearning for something better; a more beautiful model. According to James Baldwin:

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.

That beauty Baldwin spoke of is being realized in increments. The individual successes of black men, however unsung they may be, contribute to this beauty; to the establishment of a more perfect model of manhood. The current prison rates among black men and the nearly 75% of black children being raised without their fathers tells us that it is still just a model. Despite that, the model is holding firm. It is propped up by our continuous yearning. When Martin Luther King said that he had looked over, he was assuring us that there was something better on the other side of our struggle. When Malcolm X explained black nationalism, he was describing the historical framework of our model for manhood.

So, it is with an enormous amount of preparation and struggle that we await this next incremental step, the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America. Never before has a black man been able to say that the President is a Brother. Never before have we been able to say declaratively what Langston Hughes said poetically, that not only do we sing America, we are America. The meaning of this reality to our model will be realized in generations to come. The inauguration will not be the magic solution, but it will certainly be a magic moment. More importantly, it will give us a moment to pause from yearning and relish in the realization of a centuries old dream – to have the black man as man in America.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Four Year Olds and Same Sex Marriage

Apparently marriage is a big topic among four year olds in Pre-K. Nearly every other day my daughter comes home talking about who is going to marry whom. “Miles said he is going to marry Sophie.” “Gi-Gi said she wants to marry Noah, and that made Dephne mad because she wanted to marry Noah.” Yesterday she said, “Miles can marry Sophie, but he can’t marry Scottie, right? Because boys can’t marry boys. Only girls can marry boys. Right?”


My wife and I were in a heated debate with a friend of ours recently about the California ban on same sex marriage. He strongly supported it. His view is that by divinity it is wrong and it should be illegal. He said legalizing it is a slippery slope. If you legalize it, you lose the justification to prevent other transformations of traditional marriage in the future. I disagree. I think each church ought to decide for itself what kind of marriage it should sanction, but legally, same sex couples ought to be able to marry and be eligible for all the rights associated with heterosexual marriage.

I find the slippery slope arguments ugly and distasteful. They often suggest that if homosexuals are allowed to marry by law, what is to prevent people from wanting to marry children and dogs? He argued that there has to be a line across which society will not cross. If you do, it introduces moral relativism. Each subsequent group will find a reason to justify their socially specific group norms.

I argued that indeed there has to be a line, but the position of the line is the question. Surely the political, social and faith communities that opposed interracial marriages would have made the same arguments – that it is morally reprehensible and therefore ought to be illegal. Their opposition, rooted in scorn for black people, blinded them to the function and premise of marriage, love. So was the line that those opponents drew legitimate? Did it lead to a slippery slope? If homosexual couples love each other, then the strength of that love ought to be the justification for their marriage just as it is for heterosexual couples. That ought to be so regardless of the difficulty that heterosexual people have in comprehending the nature of their love.

He came back with the slippery slope part of the argument. He was not ridiculous with children and dogs, but raised an interesting question. Why do we object to polygamy? If three or four or five consenting, rational adults, who profess to love each other want to marry, why is that wrong? Why should they be prevented from marrying because we, in the monogamous community, don’t understand their love? He argued, and I agreed, that there would be nearly universal opposition in the United States to that arrangement of marriage. Even homosexual couples would probably object to polygamy. In sum, his argument was that the position of the line is arbitrary and in his mind it ought to be drawn to exclude homosexual couples.

I agreed that the line was arbitrary. The problem with recognizing that is the difficulty in deciding where to draw it and defending that decision. Why draw it on one side of same sex marriage and not the other? The opposition to polygamy is based on exactly the same argument as the opposition to same sex marriage. It runs counter to some moral standard and therefore ought to be illegal. In both cases, they do not involve minors or animals and do no harm to anyone involved or anyone else. More importantly, they are both based on the same premise, love and consent. Given that, what is the real objection to polygamy? Essentially, it crosses a line that we have drawn arbitrarily. There are some societies in the world that would likely draw the lines differently where polygamy might be acceptable, but same sex marriage absolutely objectionable. That suggests that there is no universal code of human or matrimonial decency that is determining where we draw our line.

The line is drawn arbitrarily. The disagreements in the faith communities, like in the Episcopalian Church, and in society, like in California, suggest that there isn’t a consensus on where it ought to be drawn. This brings me back to my first position. The church ought to decide for itself, but the law ought to be written in a manner that reduces discrimination in as many instances as possible. The church can discriminate arbitrarily as it does in determining who gets into heaven. The law, however, based in reason and not faith, cannot discriminate arbitrarily. At the moment same sex couples are clamoring for rights that are reserved for heterosexual couples that function in exactly the same manner as they do. They should be given those rights. Society will deal with the polygamists when they start to clamor.

For now, I was comfortable saying to my daughter that it isn’t necessarily true that only girls can marry boys.


Monday, November 10, 2008

The Long Arc of Change

I went to church on Sunday morning. It seemed the right place to be on The Sunday after The Tuesday. I don’t go to church regularly, but every time I do go I feel cleaner, better, stronger and more Faithful. Perhaps more importantly, I always feel more connected to the community of people. This Sunday was no exception. I attend First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ. Coincidentally, it is in the same family of churches as Trinity United Church of Christ, Barack Obama’s embattled church of Reverend Wright fame.

It turns out that the 106 year old woman that Obama mentioned during his acceptance speech on Tuesday night, Mrs. Ann Cooper, is a member of First Church. So, when I went to church on Sunday morning I was in the congregation with one of the nation’s oldest living women. A woman who, born in 1902, could have had grandparents who were slaves. I got a chance to say hello to her and to feel connected.

The sermon was about understanding the long arc of change. The message emphasized the fact that each difficult step in our nation’s development probably appeared to be unlikely, if not impossible for those who struggled for them the most. It was Faith, the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen, that enables our national endurance. The Pastor spoke of the incredible changes Mrs. Cooper must have seen in her life and how improbable they must have seemed to her. He spoke about how change comes on God’s timetable and Faith gives us the temperance to synchronize with that. He said that struggling and praying are our preparation, our making sure that we are ready and we know when God says, “change has come.”

It is a black church so of course he said, that it is the same God that delivered Daniel, it is the same God that delivered Abraham, it is the same God that we need every hour that delivered Sister Cooper to today so she could see a black man become the President of the United States. How improbable, he said, how unlikely that a young Ann Cooper could even imagine such a thing as a President Barack Obama. He reiterated that it is the long arc of change that operates on God’s schedule that makes the improbable probable and the impossible possible. He said, it is something that We’ve known. We’ve always known, like We’ve known rivers. Sam Cooke knew a change was gonna come. Our challenge is to make sure that we’re ready when it does.

There are innumerable dimensions to the significance of Obama’s presidency. Mrs. Ann Cooper has 106 years worth of experiences living in the American south to choose from. Relative to her, I’ve been alive just a blink. I left the service though, feeling connected to her, connected to the moment and better able to appreciate the long arc.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Feeling Like an American

I have always been jealous of countries that have explosive occasions for nationalism. Feeling a deep sense of belonging and pride in your country seems like the ultimate perk of citizenship. I recall some time ago when the Jamaican soccer team, The Reggae Boys, qualified for the World Cup. The whole country was wrapped up in the moment. People screamed and cried and the Prime Minister declared the next day a national holiday. I remember watching on television when Nelson Mandela walked into the National Stadium after being elected President of South Africa and seeing tens of thousands of people bursting with hope for a new beginning and a new connection to South Africa. I’ve read about Zimbabwe’s independence celebration in 1980 when Robert Mugabe, as Bob Marley sang, was a real revolutionary. Those were galvanizing moments that inspired national pride.

I have never felt a euphoric sense of nationalism or pride in America, my country. Until this week, in my life the closest thing to a galvanizing moment was the attack on September 11th. The national feeling afterwards though, was laced with hatred and revenge and I didn’t feel a part of that. We don’t have a sport that rallies the whole country. Our independence is two centuries old and our super power status makes international milestones difficult to come by.

I have always felt black pride and connected to the accomplishments of black people and events relevant to our community. As much as those have served the important function of nurturing hope and fueling my sense of belonging, they do not constitute national pride. When I have traveled through Ghana, Senegal and South Africa and even Guyana, Barbados and St. Kitts where my relatives are, I am not connected by a nationalist chord. Race pride and connection are important, but they feel weak when the flags go up.

Obama’s victory has helped me feel like an American. I have never ordered my identities starting with American. I’ve never even owned an American flag. Obama’s insistence that we consider ourselves Americans struck me. In his address on election night, he used Martin Luther King’s words, “we as a people will get there.” In this case the people are Americans, not just black people. His campaign’s message emphasizing the unity that is explicit in the name of our country was profound. It wasn’t because it was novel, all campaigns stress unity. It was profound because it was based on a balanced integration of intellect and emotion. For nearly two years, I have been amazed at the variety of American’s supporting not only him, but the idea of being Americans. He forced me to think critically about how my fate is tied to some white man in the middle of America, precisely because we are both Americans. Over the course of the campaign it seemed obvious that several people are yearning for a reason to be proud, to be able to start their identity with their country and have no reservations.

I do not believe at all that we, as a nation, have arrived in a post-race state. What Obama has made me firmly believe is that a shared sense of nationalism is a pre-requisite for a post-race society. When our country can serve as the link that binds us, then our differences will be reduced to being the beauty of the fabric.

My name is Kamau Bobb and I am an American.


Monday, November 3, 2008

When I Was Little

When I was little I lived in the upstairs apartment of 141 Lincoln Place, Brooklyn, America. My parents were determined that I have a balanced sense of myself, especially being a black child growing up in, “the belly of the beast” or “Babylon” as my father refers to this country. To have balance in such a system required being extreme. According to them, The Jeffersons, Tarzan, King Kong, The Brady Bunch, Good Times all had some quiet insidious message that could damage my identity as a black child.

Somewhere in the middle of my growing up, my Dad was fed up with the “nonsense” on television and threw ours out. In its place my parents filled me up with black people stuff. I had to read about and listen to messages about black people and the general “theatre of engagement between African people and Europeans throughout the Diaspora.” I was carted off to listen to people like Judge Bruce Wright, Minister Farrakhan and James Baldwin. They took me to see August Wilson’s, Piano Lesson. I went to see Sarafina with Hugh Masekela in the orchestra pit. I went to Alvin Ailey nearly ever year at City Center. I had to go to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to do reports on significant black people who have helped shape the world. They took every opportunity to bring me to gatherings of black people who were engaged and committed to positive ends. It is clear that what my parents were trying to do was to fill a void in my education, to complete the landscape of images and reality that influenced my development. They sought to specifically connect black people with substantive accomplishment and positive imagery in my mind.

I am not sure exactly what the black community is or what our boundaries are, but a lot is said about how it lacks positive images. It is an old and painful mantra that the children of the black community lack positive role models. The second part of that mantra is that it is acutely true for black boys. I can see now that my parents were conscious of this reality and went to extraordinary lengths to find examples for me. Their efforts went so far and were so consistent that the examples of black people of substance, stature and consequence were not like figures in a museum, but were just a part of my landscape. They created balance.

Sadly, the black community is still beleaguered as Ossie Davis said in Malcolm X’s eulogy. In many ways though, things have changed for the better and have helped redefine the level of effort required for parents now who were little the way I was.

Tonight I was lying down on the floor in my daughter’s room while we waited for my wife to come. I said to her that tomorrow we are going to elect Barack Obama to be the first black president in the history of the United States. She said, “I know. He is going to win and live in the White House, right?” She paused for just a second and said, “Is there still going to be swimming class tomorrow?”


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Sufferer's Lesson

Neither the shenanigans of Governor Palin and her children, nor the winds of Gustav, Hanna, Josephine or Ike have distracted me from the significance of Obama’s ascendency. His being the first black man to be a contender for President of the United States is clearly a transcendent moment in the history of the country. There was ample evidence of the meaning of the moment to individual people on the convention floor. As the cameras panned around and found face after face covered in tears, the personal and private magnitude of what we witnessed was clear. Watching big black men, who are tough as nails and raised in the American South of the 1950’s and 60’s, weeping like children was extraordinary. Listening to people speaking through their emotionally choked throats about how much they wished their fathers or mothers had been alive to see this, was amazing. What was equally striking was the coalition of people – an incredible array of the disparate faces that make up America. Senator Obama has managed to find the resonant note on the common human chord. That is a sufferer’s lesson to the country.

Spike Lee, in an interview with CNN, challenged the network to pay careful attention to “the face of America” that was present at the Democratic convention versus that which will be on hand for the Republican convention. The little ticker said that nearly a quarter of the delegates at the convention were black. Nearly 7 percent were gays and lesbians. There were significant percentages of all of the groups of people that make up this country. It also said that there were more than 80,000 people on hand for Senator Obama’s address and that nearly 40 million people watched it on television. That is approximately 10 percent of the entire population of the United States.

Obama and the current political movement he has created demonstrate the potential of what black Americans have to offer the country. Cornell West has long said that black people in America have a tremendous amount to contribute to the world from our long lessons on suffering and the pursuit of dignity and redemption. Obama is a brilliant example for our time. It is clear in his message, that he understands that there are very few social issues that are defined by clear sides of good and bad. The cross section of people at the convention who all bring their respective issues was a testament to that fact. He listed some of the most polarizing social issues of our time – abortion, gun rights, same sex marriage – and easily pointed out the locations of shared space where our common human interests reside. Of course he is an individual and there are others who operate in that vein, but the ability to find that shared space is a lesson that sufferers can teach. The sufferer knows that demonizing “the other” has its place, but it is not the long term solution. Ultimately, that attitude reduces both to demons.

If there were waves carrying the contributions of black Americans to the country, one would be cresting now. The black American legacy in the United States has been one of suffering and an ongoing pursuit of success and dignity. One of the lessons of that legacy is that mutual understanding, if not reconciliation, is a pre-requisite for dignity in a polarized society. Obama will of course bring an array of political and economic tacticians with him to the White House. Quietly though, he will also bring a gift, a sufferer’s lesson, to the country and to the world.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Brooklyn in Big Sky

I didn’t know until recently that there was a place called Big Sky. When I got there, I saw that the sky was really big and Montana is really beautiful. Brooklyn is still the modern Mecca, but damn, it almost doesn’t make sense how beautiful Big Sky is. When I got there I was making jokes to myself that I could possibly be the first Brooklyn black man in Big Sky. I should climb up the tallest peak and stick the flag of the Nation of Islam in the rock and claim Big Sky for the Brotherhood of Flatbush.

They have down hill mountain biking in Big Sky. It is something the natives do for fun. They take bikes on a ski lift several hundred feet up the side of a mountain, then they turn the bikes around and ride down the side of the mountain. If you’ve ever been skiing, you know the feeling of standing at the top of the slope and looking straight out into the sky and how it feels when your stomach knots just a little when you look down the slope. That is on snow. In the summertime ski slopes are mostly rocks, gravel, dirt and neglected grass. My first reaction to the whole idea was, “Yo, that’s madness!”

While I was in Big Sky I was thinking a lot about the relationship between different groups of people, as I always do: scientists and non-scientists, deaf people and hearing people, men and women. The mountain biking madness made me think about the relationship between Brooklyn and Big Sky. I was talking to one of the guys, Tom, who worked in the Bike Shop. He greeted me like Happy People do. “What’s up dude?, How can I help you?” Pleasant, smiling, engaging. “Tell me about this riding down the mountain business?” He smiled even bigger, “Where you from brother?” I told him I’m from Brooklyn. He said, “Right on,” and told me about some time he had been there and how awesome it was.

“Riding down the mountain is awesome!” He told me about it with incredible enthusiasm. All the while he was looking straight at me and talking and smiling and explaining different things that happen and how it is different than the city riding that I do. A friend of his, Will, came in and the two of them continued in the same spirit. They could see that I was skeptical of the whole thing, and I said as much. Somewhere in the middle of it, I realized that they were trying to share some of their world with me. It was a point of entry to a relationship. They kept saying, “Dude you gotta try it.” “I’ve never really even ridden a mountain bike before, let alone down a mountain.” Tom said, “Bro, you look strong and well balanced, that’s all you need.” It was a genuine gesture of welcome. Welcome to Big Sky, welcome to our world.

I said, “A’right bet, let’s do it.” There were pounds all around. “You’re gonna have a blast.”

I thought to myself that rather than stick the flag of the Nation on top of the mountain, I’ll pin it to my shirt so if I kill myself doing this madness someone could identify me as Brooklyn in Big Sky.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Listening to Sasha

At the end of Michelle’s speech, Sasha Obama grabbed the mic and said, “I love you Daddy.” For obvious reasons, that little add-on pushed me to the emotional brink. There is nothing new about the continued decline of the black American family. The struggles associated with those loose ends and disconnected familial bonds are studied ad nauseum. In particular, the black father figure in the popular American mind is approaching museum status, a relic of a different time. The language connected to black men as fathers today has boiled down to – “my baby daddy,” “that sorry motha$&!#,” “where’s my daddy,” “any nigga can have a child, but it takes a man to be a father.” As a father in the middle of this morass, I find that not only does this language hurt, it is disorienting. The statistics say that nearly 70% of black children today in the United States are born out of wedlock and the vast majority of those grow up without their fathers. The reality is what it is, but I find it disorienting that in America so many black children are robbed of what should be a basic right of existence, the love of not only their mothers, but their fathers too.

Sasha’s “I love you Daddy,” stood like a breakwater against a depressing tide. Love and black men are hardly ever connected to each other in the public American landscape. Often when they are, it is despite the man, rather than because of him. If only for an instant, Sasha gave us a different view. She gave us an image of what a child looks like when she sends the love signal out…. “I love you Daddy”… and the love of her father comes raining back down on her, confirming that her message was received and that her love is cherished and connected to her father’s love of her. In Days of Grace, Arthur Ashe wrote what has to be one of the world’s great love letters from a father to his daughter. He explains a similar love volley with his daughter, Camera. He wrote it when he was dying of Aids and it ends…

I may not be walking with you all the way, or even much of the way, as I walk with you now. Don’t be angry with me if I am not there in person, alive and well, when you need me. I would like nothing more than to be with you always. Do not feel sorry for me if I am gone. When we were together, I loved you deeply and you gave me so much happiness I can never repay you. Camera, wherever I am when you feel sick at heart and weary of life, or when you stumble and fall and don’t know if you can get up again, think of me. I will be watching and smiling and cheering you on.

Listening to Sasha, I heard my own daughter’s signal, “I love you Daddy.” It made me think of the ways I respond to her. It also made me think about how deeply I love her and how that love itself is a rudder that steers my sense of responsibility and my conduct as her father and as a man. I just hope that my love and my example are sufficient to keep her sense of manhood away from the morass.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

I Totally Got Popped in My Vagina

I was recently at a conference on Science and Technology Policy. The theme of the conference was “Governing Emerging Technologies.” One of the main topics was how to involve the public in establishing rules to govern nanotechnology research. There are significant public health and ethical challenges surrounding nanotech development and public participation that are important. The language of the meeting, however, was incredibly inflated - $1.50 words for 5¢ thoughts. “I’m sort of looking at the junction of sort of ableism and sort of ability, and sort of the conceptual constructs that constrain the way we frame the distinction between sort of classifying technologies as sort humano-enhancement versus enabling technologies.” Several of the people who said things like this appeared to take themselves and their work very very seriously. Others who were asking questions in response to statements like these made a grand show of dramatic perplexing thought and agonizing theoretical retrieval to formulate their questions. There is no doubt that public participation in the governance of nanotechnology is important. This especially true given the temptation of lucrative profits to lead the private sector to overlook public safety. Having said that, what about clear and concise language?

I understand that every community has its own lingo (or, a sort of heuristically determined sort of canonized lexicon.) In this case, however, one of the main points was that public input into the scientific and policy process is important. I wonder how the “public” can be expected to contribute to a dialog where personal conviction and clear ideas are hidden behind layers and layers of such convoluted language? For example, I asked one conferencee what she thought about a topic she presented. “Well I’ve sort of read Haberman who sort of developed the notion that….” “But what do you think?,” I interrupted.

The meeting was in Big Sky Montana. It is a ski resort in the middle of a set of beautiful mountains about an hour from Yellowstone National Park. A lot of the staff of the resort are young, white twenty-somethings who live this stage of their lives on the happiness principle. They do things that make them happy and they say exactly what they feel. Many of them work at the resort so they can ski for free. In the summer a lot of them go down hill mountain biking. You put your bike on the ski lift and then ride down the ski slopes.

I took a break from the provisional mid-level situational categorization of neo-neuroethics and went to see about down hill biking and talk to some of the Happy People. A girl named Misty (I swear that was what she said her name was) was sitting at the bottom of the ski lift. She had on a t-shirt that said, “Barack the Vote” and electric blue shorts with knee high electric blue argyle socks. While we were talking, another girl came blazing off the slope on her bike. She took off her helmet and shook her hair out like they do in those shampoo commercials and said, “I just came down Congo and it was totally narly.” Misty agreed, “Congo is killer, you get totally hammered.” Then her friend said, “Oh my God, I totally got popped in my vagina.” Clear concise language. That’s how Happy People talk.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Who Decides "In" or "Of" America?

One of the products of the Bush years is that he has helped reinforce America’s narrow view of itself. He made his rash and ridiculous claim after September 11th, that you are either with us or against us. That has spawned a climate where the Americaness of people is questioned. In a recent article by David Brooks in the New York Times, Brooks stops one step short of asking whether Barack Obama is “of” the United States or just “in” it? The article ends by posing the question of whether “the rest of America” will accept and support this supposedly enigmatic figure who is not recognizable – to Brooks – as an American.

It is the assumption that there is some group of people who can decide whether someone is in or of America that I find repugnant. That assumption is based on the idea that there is some standard set of Americans against which the rest of us can be measured to determine how American we are. Brooks gives examples of the blue-blooded New England Kennedy clan, and the small town value systems of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter and the backwoods background of Andrew Jackson. Those are all examples of traditional American lineages, true blue American backgrounds of the Norman Rockwell imagination and my eighth grade history books.

Speaking for non-Norman Americans, Langston Hughes wrote that, “I am the darker brother… and I, too, am America.” In claiming to question who is in or of America, Brooks overlooks the fact that one of the products of small town American virtues was lynching on a grand scale and that backwoodsmen brutally took those woods from Native Americans and fashionably absorbed that brutality into their famed rugged persona. He overlooks the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was as much of America as was the Kennedy clan. He does not pause to consider Hispanic Americans who are being criminalized both for being of America and for being in America.

People who were subject to America despite being of it, have the right to determine for themselves how American they want to be. It is a right that they have earned through time and through the contribution of traditions without which America would not be what it now is. Quite apart from the legality of citizenship, nationalism rests in an individual’s heart. The sense of being an American or feeling like one, is just that – a sensation and a feeling.

Brooks and other standard bearing Americans will have to make room for the emergence of other American identities and other American traditions that have been arrogantly cast aside as alternative. The reference points that undergird the American identity are shifting. Norman Rockwell did not capture the image of the true American any more accurately than did Langston Hughes. “The rest of America” will have to make room for the rest of America.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Having Had Some Time

Having had some time to reflect on the ascendency of Senator Barack Obama has been an enlightening experience. For me, he has been a rebate on the so-called black tax. The black tax is the ever present burden of consciousness associated with being black in America. Once you are aware of the stifling realities that cut short the ambitions and dash the hopes and dreams of so many black people in the country, it seems that your feathers are never really in full splendor. Every happiness and accomplishment is ever so slightly diminished by the knowledge that – here, by Grace am I, but there by the complexities of America are so many of my community. Somehow, in Barack Obama’s rise, I feel I’ve been given back some of those fractions of happiness and slivers of satisfaction that I’ve left on the path. My happiness and exultation in his success is unburdened, it is free, full and overflowing.

To that end, he has already made an immeasurable contribution. On the eve of the final primaries I was speaking with the security guard at my daughter’s school. He is an older black man who came to Atlanta in the late 1950’s. As we stood and talked he told me about the various places in Atlanta that black people couldn’t go when he was younger. He rattled off places that I know and frequent. He told me about the changing street names because white people didn’t want to have the same addresses as black people. He went on to say that, “Breh, I can’t believe I’m seeing a black man running for president in my lifetime.” With that, tears welled up in his eyes. He finished by saying, “I hope he wins. It would mean a lot.”

I don’t profess to know, nor do I even have the tools to help me appreciate the humiliation that black people must have gone through in those days. What I could see in the security guard was the effects of the staggering taxes he has had to pay in order to maintain his dignity and his manhood in the midst of such an antagonistic society. What I am learning to appreciate about Obama’s success is what he means to ordinary black people like me and the security guard.

Quite apart from the public slogans and the political fracas, Barack Obama has a meaning for a lot of black people that is quiet, private and profound. His dignity, intellect and comportment are things that we can be proud of. In his eulogy to Malcolm X, Ossie Davis suggested that, “It is not in the memory of man that this beleaguered, unfortunate, but nonetheless proud community has found a braver, more gallant young champion.” In a manner similar to Malcolm X, Barack Obama has given us another opportunity to hold our heads high, spread out our arms as if on the mountain top and experience hope, pride and happiness without reservation.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Requirements of Reconciliation

It is universally understood that reconciling conflicts requires humility. It requires exercising the heavy human bundle of vulnerability, sensitivity and forgiveness. In minor personal conflicts demonstrating these qualities can be difficult. In longstanding bitter social and racial conflicts demonstrating these qualities can be nearly impossible. Sensitivity to the “other” is a particular challenge in this bundle.

I was recently in Minnesota for a meeting. Upon arriving in the hotel, I was confronted by a convention of the National Indian Children’s Welfare Association. There were nearly 200 Native American people in the lobby. It immediately struck me that I may have never seen more than one or two Native people together at the same time in my life. I was instantly conscious of being an “other” among so many Native people. I found it odd that at this stage of my life I was experiencing this kind of social first. It almost seemed silly to be saying in America, that I had never been face to face with more than one or two Native Americans.

I left the hotel and traveled to Harmony, Minnesota, a town about two and half hours south east of Minneapolis with a population of approximately 500 people. As I walked out of the meeting there I saw a man dressed like a farmer from the 19th century coming down the street in a horse drawn buggy. I went back inside and asked the receptionist what he was about. She laughed first, and then explained that he was Amish. Apparently, Harmony is home to the largest community of Amish people in Minnesota. I’ve heard about Amish people in social studies - in Pennsylvania with their farmer’s markets and such - but I had never seen an Amish person in real life.

I left the meeting and went to an ice cream parlor to see about chocolate shakes in Harmony. I got into a conversation with the lady working there. I asked if there were any black people that lived in Harmony. She said no. The closest black people live in a town that was about an hour and half away. It didn’t surprise me that there were no black people in Harmony, but I was surprised that she knew where the closest ones were. Then she said that Harmony is a really small town and a lot of the people that live there have been there for generations. She said that she herself had never seen a black person face to face until she was in her twenties and that even now there are very few black people that ever come there. This was a lady in her early 40’s.

In a single day I had seen two sets of people I had never seen before and been a rarity, an “other” myself. On the drive back I reflected on the potential differences in our world views: views of Native Americans on themselves in America, views of the Amish and the complexity their simplicity poses for them, views of a white woman who had never seen a black person until I was in high school and my views on myself as an urban black man. I had never really thought of myself as having a relationship with any of these groups of people. I suspect that being a black man and the child of immigrants, my Americaness is not forefront in my identity. Somehow though, this unusual experience of firsts in Minnesota made me think of America, its complexity and how much about other Americans I don't know.

With that experience so fresh in my mind, I find Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s public comments gross. I think he is right in his two principal themes – that a change will come and that different does not mean deficient – but his tone, posture, language and examples, demonstrate a profound lack of sensitivity. The subjects of race, theological tradition and social experience are necessarily difficult to discuss. There is nothing new in that. They are even more difficult to discuss when the objective of the discussion is reconciliation – reconciling disparate world views of different groups of people with limited exposure to one another in a landscape that explicitly treats different not only as deficient, but with contempt.

Reverend Wright’s address demonstrated that he has forgotten that otherness is necessarily a mutually occurring reality. There cannot be just one other. The degree to which one group misunderstands or is simply ignorant of another is often paralleled by an mutual misunderstanding or ignorance. Certainly for me, Native American and Amish people could not be more strange. I have no idea what words, phrases or posture they use to articulate their experience as Americans or what conclusions they draw. I also don’t know what views they have, if any, of black people. As a result, we need to be introduced to one another.

Introducing an unknown element of black identity and world view to the country in the manner of Rev. Wright is not only ineffective, it trivializes the complexity of our experience here. Indeed, it confirms the stereotype held by another white Minnesotan that I spoke to, “a lot folks around here think African Americans are kinda loud and scary.” Introducing some aspects of black identity to groups of people with limited exposure to black people, requires patience and sensitivity to the mutual sense of “other.” Taking this approach is not weakness, it is human courtesy. It avails our neighbors of the treatment we would expect for ourselves. This is how reconciliation works and more importantly how relationships are built. Barack Obama’s rejection of Reverend Wright is an endorsement of this later course – a course that will facilitate my relationship with Native Americans and the Amish; a course that will better help me understand what it is to be an American….

…living under the Obama Administration!!


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Shining Example

I have trouble describing what it feels like to see this picture and to realize that this is the face of the future First Family, the Obama Administration, the likely captains of the free world as we Americans like to think of our presidents. Images matter. During Obama’s address in North Carolina, he referred to Michelle’s father and his work ethic. He said that her father worked hard because he had to and his work was important to him. His work was important because it was a component of his self-respect and self respect is the right hand of dignity. That message is something that every person knows, recognizes and can appreciate whether they experience it or not. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen, but without works it is dead. Hard work is the bedrock of honest living. Having that seminal principle delivered to the nation by a black man who is the future president of the United States was personally overwhelming. It signals the quiet contributions that a first family such as theirs might bring to our nation.

Black people have been climbing up the rough side of the mountain for some time. Our problems are studied and researched, our outbursts scrutinized and our allegiance to each other questioned. In the midst of all of that it is often forgotten that the ability to survive despite all of these social plagues requires an ardent belief in the non-negotiable standards of faith, hard work, honesty and decency. Whether those standards are met or missed is human probability. The survival and success of black people, however, is evidence that they do exist. This is one of the fantastic contributions the Obama Administration will make to our nation – a universal lesson learned from a lifetime of being black. The Obama family exemplifies this quiet feature of the black American experience. The beauty is that the circumstances that imposed this lesson on the Obama story are those that stand to be corrected by their example. We have finally reached a point where a black family can quietly exemplify the lessons learned from the American experience.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Meanwhile in the Congo

There was a documentary on HBO recently titled, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. It is about the long standing systematic use of rape as a tool of the endless war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese women have been raped, sodomized and killed during this conflict that has been going on for more than ten years. The stories of the women, told in their own voices, are excruciatingly vivid and painful. To the credit of the film’s director, Lisa Jackson, there is equal emphasis on hope and the few, but important, sources of support.

What struck me deeply, once I could see beyond the pain of the women, was the barbarism of the Congolese men.

I grew up influenced by men such as Cheikh Anta Diop, Chinweizu, Louis Farrakhan, Bruce Wright and certainly my own father. One of their collective and abiding lessons to me was that of counter example. In different ways they all pointed out that the attacks on black people, and black men in particular, are incessant and ubiquitous. They made the connection between black people in the Diaspora and Africa and pointed out that criticism of our intellect and cognitive abilities are legendary. There are also centuries old questions about our decency, civility and basic standing as human men.

What these mentoring men did was make sure that young black people like me did not fall victim to the assault - that we did not begin to believe that African men have a monopoly on human weakness and indecency. They prompted us to take the offensive and point the questioning finger at others. That is not to condone bad behavior, but to recognize that it is manifest in everyone, particularly white men who were held as sacrosanct in our public education history. In doing so we find that the black male persona – whatever that might be – is not disproportionately prone to wickedness as the history books, the news and all manner of messages would have us believe. No, the human spectrum – our capacity for both good and bad – is found in everyone. That is a simple intellectual conclusion, but a very difficult psychological challenge.

The function of the counter example is not only to know the positive sides of the black experience, but to be aware of the far less examined instances of human wickedness among white men and others such that in arguments of history and human capacity we are not bowed into a corner of shame and broken pride about ourselves.

Armed with that balance, I sat down to watch The Greatest Silence. I was conscious that it was directed by yet another well intentioned white woman going deep into the heart of Africa to expose a social reality that I might otherwise not see. But I did see a reality that I would not otherwise have seen. I saw the intimate destruction of African women by African men. I saw barbarism. Some of the men spoke dispassionately about the number of women they had raped and how it was destiny and magic that made them do it. This was after listening to stories of how some women had their anuses and vaginas cut open with machetes after having been raped and others had burning embers stuck inside them.

In this case the counter examples couldn’t help. The African continent is virtually in convulsion under war, rape, pillage, looting and human fracture. There is scarcely a continuous line that can be drawn from one coast to another that will not cross some incident of gross human barbarism meted out on African people by African men.

What I wonder now is what the next set of examples will be? What will the mentors of black boys in the coming generations be able to draw on as examples of our heritage as African men?


Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Gift for Hillary

Dear friends, supporters, colleagues and fellow Democrats. I am here today to announce that I am withdrawing from the contest for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. This has been a very difficult decision for me to come to, but difficulty ought not stand in the way of what is right, what is prudent and ultimately what is best for the Democratic Party and for the country.

This campaign by any measure is historic. We have seen record numbers of Democrats, both young and old, of all races, ethnicities and creeds come out to vote and express their desire for a new way for our country. I am deeply honored to be a part of that excitement. To be the object of such national civic enthusiasm is a rare privilege for any American citizen. I profoundly appreciate that embrace and enthusiasm and recognize that is part of a public trust that I have tried to the best of my abilities to uphold.

Having said that, there is a larger issue at play here. Enthusiasm, when stoked incorrectly, is the substance of mobs and the enemy of rational thought. This competition, between myself and Senator Obama, has positively energized Democrats to levels that we have not seen in generations. As I have gone criss-crossing this great nation of ours, I have seen the excitement in the faces of Democrats of all kinds – excitement that is anchored by a faith in a new way. The growing discord that is fueled in part by the media and in part by the reasonable exasperation of ambitious people threatens the positive nature of the enthusiasm we Democrats now enjoy.

It would be criminal to have this enthusiasm become the fuel of factional mobs as we turn to attacking each other. That outcome would dash the hopes of newly energized voters and worse, undermine their belief that this time the process is indeed about the well being of the individual American person and not about the personal ambitions of an already privileged candidate. We cannot, and we must not let that happen.

I do not underestimate the historical significance of my being the first woman viably contending to be the President of the United States. The symbolic meaning of that for my own daughter, for daughters and mothers and sisters across this nation is extraordinary. When I look into the eyes of women who say to me, “Hillary, it’s our time,” I understand the feminine core and yearning from which that sentiment comes. I say to those women, it is our time. It is our time and the Democratic Party is our best hope.

I am conceding this race to Senator Obama. The competition has been fierce, well fought and demonstrated the very best of our democratic process - not the least of which is the simple principal that he or she with the most votes wins. In addition, this campaign has allowed us to clearly articulate and sharpen the body of Democratic principals and policies that we believe will help this nation recover from a prolonged period of darkness and dissension.

Not only do I concede the race to Senator Obama, I endorse his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. The collective enthusiasm of our respective campaigns and bases is a political force unlike any seen in this country in living memory. It is our responsibility to ensure the Democratic principals that both Barack and I stand for – as endorsed by so many million American voters – become the guiding principals of the United States again beginning on day one 2009.

Thank you so much for your love and support and now let’s go to work and make sure we Democrats can carve a new way for our country. Thank you so much and God Bless you!!


Thursday, March 13, 2008

America, Patriotism and Mediocrity

Recently several members of congress and large segments of the public have berated the United States Air Force for awarding a $30 billion contract to French-based Airbus over U.S.-based Boeing to build a fleet of airborne fuel tankers. Here in the south, the criticism was laced with language suggesting that the Air Force’s decision was unpatriotic, that by choosing a French company, they were turning their back on the United States, its workers, its economy and all that our flag represents. Overlooked in much of the criticism is the Air Force’s statement that the quality of the Airbus proposal bested Boeing’s proposal in every significant criteria. What would these patriotic protesters prefer? That Boeing be awarded the contract despite the subpar proposal, despite the fact that Airbus’ attention to detail, quality and cost rendered it a better choice?

American patriotism is fast becoming a descent to mediocrity.

We seem quite willing to shut down our collective intellect in the face of some crude definition of what it means to be an American patriot. Not only does this trend run counter to the supposedly American ideals of merit and just deserts, it promotes nepotism and dim thinking. Awarding Boeing the contract simply because it is an American company is tantamount to nation based affirmative action. The very patriots protesting this award are those who vehemently oppose race based affirmative action with the argument that it undermines quality and is a breach of the contract with merit. Their crude patriotism blinds them even to the simple contradictions in their positions.

Under the banner of patriotism, we yell at Hispanic immigrants to learn to speak English. The implication being, that it is beneath us proud Americans to learn Spanish. The patriot angrily asks, “Why should I learn to speak Spanish to these illegals, this is America?” Indeed it is America and the outcome is that the patriot can only speak English. That renders the American patriot virtually alone in the industrialized world in our inability to communicate in more than one language.

This brand of popular patriotism that we now have is making us average. It is not a proud and bright pursuit of positive competition in the name of collective American improvement. It is a shutting down of reasoning, critical thought and the appetite for learning. Unfortunately this lowly brand of patriotism is being aided and abetted by an equally crude political landscape. Senator Clinton’s crass and derisive campaign does not help. President Bush’s sophomoric reasoning and his ‘us versus them’ ideals are equally culpable.

This brand of patriotism is not the only kind. There is another kind that is based on an appetite for learning and a fundamental respect for the world and all its complexities. This second kind promotes high achievement, cultural and social maturity and ultimately a reason to be proud of the country in which we live. That nation pride is pure and is a sustainable foundation for real American patriotism.

As such... Obama '08!!


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Words and Statesmanship

One of the mounting criticisms of Senator Barack Obama is that he is full of nice sounding words and inspirational and erudite speeches, but that he lacks substance. The merit of that argument is weak at best, but it overlooks the significance of his words. The argument overlooks the fact that the spoken word of a leader is part of their representation of the people. What Obama’s critics fail to see is that one of the principal pillars of statesmanship is the ability to demonstrate intellect, insight and class – in the form of manners and sense of occasion - in the spoken word. These critiques of Obama are distinctly American. They are reflective of the degree to which manners, refinement and a sense of what is appropriate have degenerated in American society. The popular conception of Americans as crass and crude people is confirmed in our criticism of Obama’s ability to communicate tastefully, thoughtfully, correctly and effectively.

The enormity of the difference between Obama the statesman and all others was highlighted again today. In response to Fidel Castro’s yielding power in Cuba, Mike Huckabee said that,

Until Fidel Castro is dead, there can be no significant movement towards reform in Cuba. Raul Castro has proven that he’s as much a tyrant and dictator as his brother Fidel.

That language is crass and unbecoming of a candidate for the presidency of a nation. There are innumerable ways to convey the same sentiment with language that is worthy of a head of state. Huckabee’s statement exemplifies the demeanor of President Bush and the decline of American class. Referring to the terrorists in the aftermath of September 11th, President Bush said that, “we’ll smoke ‘em out” and that, “we want ‘em dead or alive.” By contrast, the language of the statesman Tony Blair was that, “their barbarism shall be their shame for all eternity.” One is the language of a local mechanic after a car has been stolen from his shop, the other is the language of a head of state.

The ability to communicate effectively with the masses does not require speaking and behaving like the masses. The president need not be viewed as a common man or woman in order to be able to communicate with common men or women. The ability, as Rudyard Kipling put it - to walk with Kings nor lose the common touch – is indeed an ability. It indicates that they are two separate skills. Being a statesman requires both, in addition to the ability to know when each is appropriate.

Obama represents what has become elusive in the American political landscape. He is a statesman. He stands head and shoulders above the coarse and derisive language of the media and other politicians. Not only is his oratory appealing and effective, it rests on top of a giant intellect which is guided by his real concern for the well being of common people. That concern is the all important link with the common man and woman, not a folksy swagger with street talk. Statesmanship is the bundle of communicative abilities, vision, intellect and human compassion. Obama has them all and his words serve as a window for us to see them.


Friday, February 15, 2008

John Lewis Sees the Light

An excerpt from, “A Letter to John Lewis”….

Your public support of Senator Clinton was not especially linked to specific thematic differences between her campaign and Senator Obama’s. Rather, it was based on your belief in her ability to lead. If their political differences are slim, then you ought to lend your support to Senator Obama. It is a logical continuance of our support of you. Again, the possibilities that you always speak of are made real because we believe in each other, because we have believed in you. Your leadership opportunities were born in the black community embracing you and willing you forward, bolstering the “courage” that is so often attached to you. Leadership is only partly innate. We also bestow it upon each other by believing in one another. For you to deny Senator Obama that belief and the force of your will in his support is a contradiction of identity. Even more unsettling, it is a violation of the basic trust between you and the community of people like me who have supported you.

I hope that in the spirit of other iconic Movement heroes like Malcolm X, you would reflect and reconsider. Feeling that you have to prove to white people that you are not bound by race by supporting Senator Clinton over Senator Obama is not courage, it's cowardice. Senator Obama’s political skills and intellectual acumen are obvious. His agenda is in keeping with the best tradition of the Democratic Party and its support of the common citizen. People like you, better than most, can deeply appreciate what he means; what this moment means. We are indeed well past being asked how many bubbles are in a bar of soap and all things are possible, provided we believe in each other.

An excerpt from, “Black Leader Pulls Support from Clinton”…

Representative John Lewis, an elder statesman from the civil rights era and one of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s most prominent black supporters, said Thursday night that he planned to cast his vote as a superdelegate for Senator Barack Obama in hopes of preventing a fight at the Democratic convention.

“In recent days, there is a sense of movement and a sense of spirit,” said Mr. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who endorsed Mrs. Clinton last fall. “Something is happening in America, and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap.”

Mr. Lewis, who carries great influence among other members of Congress, disclosed his decision in an interview in which he said that as a superdelegate he could “never, ever do anything to reverse the action” of the voters of his district, who overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama.

“I’ve been very impressed with the campaign of Senator Obama,” Mr. Lewis said. “He’s getting better and better every single day.”

His comments came as fresh signs emerged that Mrs. Clinton’s support was beginning to erode from some other African-American lawmakers who also serve as superdelegates. Representative David Scott of Georgia, who was among the first to defect, said he, too, would not go against the will of voters in his district….


Friday, February 1, 2008

Meanwhile in Kenya

Tomorrow is my daughter’s fourth birthday. She laughs more often than she smiles, she sings more often than she talks and she cries about twice a month. My wife and I relish in the obvious fact that she is fundamentally happy and we give thanks for that. One of the challenges that we face, alongside all parents, is trying to navigate the developmental path that keeps her identity as a child safe and her psyche and fundamental happiness protected. In thinking about that, I am concerned about the images of African and Pan-African people that she will be exposed to.

In the last few weeks it has dawned on me that my own psyche requires some protection from exposure. I can feel that my defenses are being worn down. The story and the imagery of Africa and African people that I grew up with do not match those that I am being bombarded with now.

I grew up reading about freedom fighters and Pan-Africanists – the heady and courageous days of Dedan Kimathi, Patrice Lumumba, Leopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah (Osagyefo) and Nelson Mandela (Madiba). I read about their intellectual fortitude, their courage and their visions of Africa and African people. I read about their influence on Caribbean leaders like Eric Williams, Walter Rodney, C.L.R. James and Michael Manley.

Conversations about them, their influence on the world and the identity of black people within it were an integral part of my household growing up, a part of the development of my identity. My own name, Kamau, is a Kikuyu name. I suspect that my parents were inspired by the Kenyan Mau-Mau rebellion and thought that a Kikuyu name, meaning quiet warrior, would forever connect me to this formidable Pan-African identity. What my parents did was to choose a developmental path that hardened the walls around my psyche, my humanity and my identity as Pan-African person.

Now I find myself besieged by images of African barbarism with white celebrities like George Clooney, Mia Farrow and Bono raising the flag on behalf of African humanity. The leaders and images that were the cornerstones of Pan-African identity are gone. What is emerging is an image of black people as fractured. We are victims of each other and of a global system in which we have precious little influence. The constant slaughter of black people by other black people, across Africa, in Jamaica, in Haiti, in Baltimore is becoming too much to bear. It is becoming difficult to protect my own psyche against those messages that say that we are a fractured people, somehow less than that oft referenced Other.

I learned my lessons from Minister Farrakhan and Malcolm X, indeed from the very leaders that were part of my growing up. I know the barbarism and deceit that white people can exact on each other and certainly on the rest of us and I would not reference my humanity against them. That isn’t the problem that I have. I find no solace in comparative suffering or joy in pointing out the weaknesses of others. I have a problem finding the far reaching examples of humanity coming out of the African world that originate and are articulated by African people.

These kinds of examples of African and Pan-African intellect and humanity are simply gone or are very difficult to find. They have been replaced by the images and realities from Kenya, from Sudan, from Liberia, from the Congo, from Haiti, and from Rwanda. In light of the pictures just from the last few weeks, I am searching for the developmental path. I am searching for the armor for my daughter’s psyche so that her identity can be linked to a broader Pan-African identity that is rooted in faith, intellect, courage and fundamental human decency.

It is a growing challenge….


Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Letter to Congressman John Lewis

Dear Congressman Lewis,

I live in your district and am profoundly disappointed in you and your support of Senator Clinton over Senator Obama for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. On one of the local community talk shows, on 1380AM, your voice is continually broadcast recalling days when black people were asked how many bubbles in a bar of soap in order to be able to vote. You conclude that message by saying that you, a black man, are now a member of the United States House of Representatives and that is evidence that, “all things are possible.”

Your ascendency was based on the black community’s support of you. In many ways that support is a just reflection of your long years of service on our behalf. As you surely know; however, it is more than that. You are part of an era where your visible and public leadership is a representation of individual black people’s capabilities and an embodiment of our hopes. You serve as you do, because black people believed in you. We did so at a time when that belief itself was a demonstration of courage. The possibilities that you speak of were born directly from our believing in one another.

Under those circumstances, it is your duty to support Barack Obama. He is the personification of your life’s work; a living validation of the first two thirds of your resume. He is a post-Movement black man who has taken advantage of the educational, social and political opportunities that you have believed in, bled for and were willing to die for. More importantly, he has taken advantage of those opportunities and honored you and the spirit of the Movement by maintaining a courageous and explicit concern for justice and fairness for all. As you know, privilege and accomplishment often presage self-righteousness and an insensitivity to those who do not have them. There are several examples of people who have fallen victim to that trap. You, Congressman Lewis, ought to recognize that Barack Obama is not among those.

Your public support of Senator Clinton was not especially linked to specific thematic differences between her campaign and Senator Obama’s. Rather, it was based on your belief in her ability to lead. If their political differences are slim, then you ought to lend your support to Senator Obama. It is a logical continuance of our support of you. Again, the possibilities that you always speak of are made real because we believe in each other, because we have believed in you. Your leadership opportunities were born in the black community embracing you and willing you forward, bolstering the “courage” that is so often attached to you. Leadership is only partly innate. We also bestow it upon each other by believing in one another. For you to deny Senator Obama that belief and the force of your will in his support is a contradiction of identity. Even more unsettling, it is a violation of the basic trust between you and the community of people like me who have supported you.

I hope that in the spirit of other iconic Movement heroes like Malcolm X, you would reflect and reconsider. Feeling that you have to prove to white people that you are not bound by race by supporting Senator Clinton over Senator Obama is not courage, it's cowardice. Senator Obama’s political skills and intellectual acumen are obvious. His agenda is in keeping with the best tradition of the Democratic Party and its support of the common citizen. People like you, better than most, can deeply appreciate what he means; what this moment means. We are indeed well past being asked how many bubbles are in a bar of soap and all things are possible, provided we believe in each other.