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?”