RICKETTS: Are We Ready for a Black President?

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On Election eve, as emotions run high, the impending history weighs bulbously on our nation. The number of improbable American stories still in their piquant phase, from Condoleeza Rice to Lil Wayne is astounding. But the American tragedies in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the depressed areas of Newark, and the Appalachian Valley remain a fresh reminder of imminent decline. In 1985, a young University of North Carolina alum bolted out of the gates to NBA greatness. In 1995, Shawn Carter began recording the seminal work in a now-storied career, that includes ten albums and millions more in personal profit. For every Michael Jeffrey Jordan on his ascent to foreseeable greatness, or Shawn Carter making his implausible clutch at wealth in a short span, there are thousands of forgotten men and women. The arc of excellence, with its fruitful associations, is rare for most Americans. Black Americans can count themselves among negative statistical extremes more prevalently than isolated wild success stories would imply. As of 2007, six times the number of the Black males are imprisoned as their White male peers. On the whole, black citizens in general are 45% of the prison population, while white ones make up around half that number. 

Barack Obama has taken on this uphill climb with ardent philosophical tools, and the impressive work ethic to push him past front-running candidates twice. It seems like a well-staged coup, but a brief one in the context of the stacked historical and social trends. While polls indicate that he will secure the most white support for any Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, the evidence of concrete support (votes) has yet to be counted. He waded through the oft-neglected territories of our electorate, battling voluble mistrust, and opponents who egged the theory that black men should not be trusted so soon. They imputed that no one so young, so closely linked to our urban centers, so brazenly ruffling feathers with his competence, could ever appeal to the entire nation. However strident their notions of his upstart role, it seems Mr. Obama has carved a path to symbolic victory that delicately burnishes his historical insignia in the same stroke. While black Americans have been typically skeptical of this nation’s lawful ideals, shown through one outspoken Reverend’s calls for radical break from them, one presidential hopeful has made a daring groundswell of ideas into an iron-clad machine of liberal messaging.

In striving for a “more perfect union,” we have encountered our growing pains in a cataclysmic way. Hate rallies defined the tightening race, along with wholesale rejection of a new order defined by multiple faces and consensus opinions. The conservative esprit de corps abated noticeably when the mud could only sully the process, but not the ideals. In the same week that mob rule and epithets gained media attention, the Neo-Nazi Tom Metzger endorsed Mr. Obama on the grounds of his policies, and his willingness to stand up for them. Still, we wonder how it could all play out. 

For all of our American dreaming, we have issues to address as a country that go beyond identity. For instance, the supposed imprudence of arguing for change and progress will be met with fiercely resistant forces of tradition. Besides the obvious rates of imprisonment, college graduation woes, and biased crime enforcement, there are anecdotal moments to make us all the more frightened about learning the ropes of progressive nationalism. At the mere mention of a communal effort to rebuild our sore economy, we have bucked at the word socialism like its contagion could lead us down a battered path. After the nation’s banks accepted 250 billion dollars of federal money (with the promise of more coming), we still could not fully embrace that our economic leaders asked for the helping hand of a nation, regardless of color or tax bracket. We still view our weaknesses through an tenacious individual’s eyes, unwilling to see the value of teamwork when the world tests our moral failings. And to compound that sort of sluggish approach, we have a leader in our realm whose name and story still evoke mystery among the majority of us. Unbridled ambition and fundraising may be his proud body of work, one that seals his reputation as a marketing maven, but bridging the ideological gaps enough to create sound policies will be his direst duty.

Barack Obama has done what he can: ignited the cultural conversation; proved his grit; found humanity through shared experiences. The throne of power has not been demonstrably anyone’s claim as clearly as now. Whatever obstructions we have faced as a people, we held patriotism close as Buffalo soldiers, military men turned bus drivers, and West Indian nurses earning their credit as workers and citizens over time. Our problems loomed large, but we decided they were worth confronting. Racism and classism are our open secrets, and like any other nation attempting to figure disparate truths, we sometimes demur. Worse still, electing a synecdoche of change will not guarantee ingenuity or sustained morale. 

For the skeptics among us, however, this is a coup of terrific import. Black men and women can point to a moment in our lives when a friend or relative spurned even the idea of a Barack Obama, the usual refrain being: “Not in this lifetime.” Rather than blame them for egregious predictions, we should thank anyone who doubted this moment. We should thank them for questioning the limits of our social contract in the face of so much genocide. We should thank them for dispensing the retail advice of regular men and women intent on filling our cups with practical thinking, instead of blind projections. 

The hip-hop generation, in particular, has produced fleet-minded prophets like Nas and Tupac Shakur who, despite their displeasure with the establishment, offered their artistic rise as proof of a dream. (See: “If I Ruled the World” and “Changes”) On Nas’s “Black President” he issues caution about the Obama presidency, saying that it will meet both our highest expectations as a nation, and that it will expose our most resonant fears: 

What’s the black pres’ thinkin on election night?

Is it, “How can I protect my life? Protect my wife? Protect my rights?”

Every other president was nuttin’ less than white

‘cept Thomas Jefferson and mixed Indian blood and Calvin Coolidge

KKK is like, “What the f-ck?!”, loadin they guns up

Loadin up mines too, ready to ride

 

Yeah, but on the positive side

I think Obama provides hope, and challenges minds

of all races and colors to erase the hate

and try to LOVE one another

In other words, whether or not we are ready is an ongoing discussion. Our sentiments about social obligation, duty to our country and to our fellow men and women, will be in constant flux. Barack Obama’s candidacy represents a unique shift to a set of principles often heralded, rarely upheld. American have a chance to hold their breaths collectively, and possibly exhale the biggest therapeutic sigh in our short history.

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