by Khalid Salaam
I didn’t cry. I still haven’t in fact, not sure why though. When the news broke that Barack Obama was officially the President I was surprisingly quiet. It was only later in the night that it really hit me. The Mrs had an election party and once 11 hit it became obvious that we just couldn’t stay indoors the whole night. As you can imagine, Harlem (where I live) was especially festive upon hearing the news and in the streets there was a sea of people screaming and clapping and just enjoying what can only be described as a monumental moment. On Tuesday night I became just an American. Not an African American anymore, not even Black. Just American. I mean, of course I will still use that term to describe myself and those terms still have relevance in describing anyone who looks like me or has a similar background. But I no longer 100 percent subscribe to that term. I don’t have to steadfastly hang on to those words. I’m just an American now. And I have a candidate in office that I believe in. I believe in his polices and his vision on health-care (especially), foreign relations, the economy and education. I’m not saying he’ll be the next FDR or Lyndon Johnson but the potential for greatness is there.
I understand that American freedom is the best there is, but only recently and in segmented context has that included people like me. The paradigm shift his win signals cannot be overstated or easily digested. As I told my co-workers, I could not conceive of a reality in which this could happen. Not yet as least. Another 10, 15, 20 years maybe but not yet. The mistrust and ignorance that permeates through all races in this country, I thought, would not allow a coalition to manifest itself in a way that could lead to a Black man being elected President. The rules of tribalism are real but for a large group of people, seeing past those things for the greater good of the country took priority. It is a joyous revelation to know these things are possible.
I don’t expect any difference in my life to just happen all of a sudden. An Obama presidency doesn’t excuse me from having to pay back student loans bills or pay income taxes and it doesn’t make a loaf of wheat bread from Whole Foods any less expensive. I may still suffer from police profiling. But it allows me to think more positively about the country as a whole. And even though I shrug my shoulders at happy/cheery sounding terms like “post-racial” I at least know one huge thing now. Mainstream American will at least come to the table now. We might not be able to resolve anything right away but now at least we can all sit down and discuss real issues without hatred and prejudice poisoning the dialogue.
There will be many member of the mainstream who will bring up Obama (like they do with the Oprah Winfrey’s and Will Smiths of the world) as proof that things are supremely better and its time to put away such things as college quotas. And I will vigorously argue them as I’ve always done. Get rid of legacy based admissions and we have a deal. Until then I will not be satisfied until the collective experience of people like me is elevated. Yes we are no longer exiled to the fringes of society but we aren’t at the center yet either. Now at least, a pathway has been discovered. Please undersatnd were not just doing this for the hell of it. We want to be part of the muthafu*kin’ establishment.
The racial component of Obama’s campaign was a concern obviously but there was another part of it that gave me high levels of trepidation. There are lots of dumb people, more than we ever imagine. They do cling to guns and religion and they do have narrow minds and they do believe what they are told. Concerns about Obama’s weight, name, eloquence, intelligence, patriotism and popularity were brought into question. And the wave of anti-intellectualism that gained traction and acceptance during the Bush years washed ashore, creating the context in which someone would have to feel shame for being smart and well-read. The insidious, unpatriotic savagery of the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world flamed these fires and during the summer I feared that the wave might overtake the movement that Barack’s campaign had become. The selection of Joe Biden gave me confidence but it wasn’t until John McCain picked Sarah Palin that I thought it might happen for the Democratic Party. Former Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Ridge was the person I thought McCain would pick. He’s a heavy weight in the political world (even with the Bush baggage that came with him, I thought he would be a formidable foe with his Homeland Security background and the fact that he could help win a state that was of great importance). Palin turned out to be the dealbreaker, as we all know now. She was in fact too anti-intellectual, and as the reports coming out now show, she would have doomed us all. Her brand of thinking (what I like to call political scientology) along with McCain’s archaic worldview would have sunk this country into depths of despair never seen.
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.
—Lift Every Voice and Sing (James Weldon Johnson)
Above is the first verse of the Black National Anthem, I’ve sung it a hundred times but now I fully understand it. The song is about the future, written in a time when there seemingly was no future for so many people. There are two photos right above my desk that I’ve been staring at all day. One is a picture of a basketball team from Louisville dated 1926. It says “hope” on the front of their jerseys. The other is a pic of the sanitation workers strike of 1968 in Memphis. In the picture everyone is holding a sign that says “ I Am A Man”. Its powerful for it determination and simplicity. Tired of unfair conditions and rampant disrespect several hundred sanitation workers (mostly Black but not all) went on strike until their demands were met. For the next 2 months it grew into a full-scale civil rights event (Dr. King was in Memphis at the time of his assassination lending support to the workers). Obama’s election is for all of us regardless of color, religion or age. But it’s especially for those men in Memphis. And for my Grandmother who I spoke to last night (she kept saying how happy she was to be alive at the age of 76 to witness this moment in time), and for my mother and all my family members. It’s for Rosa Parks, Medger Evers, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, W.E.B DuBois, Emmitt Till, Benjamin Banneker, Harriett Tubman, for the four girls killed in Birmingham’s 16th St Church bombing (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson), its for Malcolm X, for Marcus Garvey, Dr. & Coretta Scott King, Josephine Baker, Bessie Coleman (1st Black woman pilot), Marvin Gaye, Charlie Parker, WD Mohammed, Jessie Owens, Jackie Robinson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Thurgood Marshall, Charles Drew, Louis Latimer, Frederick Douglass , Sojourner Truth and many many more. I salute them all. It is on their shoulders on which I stand. Hello future, after all these years, it’s good to meet you.