An actor turns a dilapidated, inner-city mosque into a theater in just a few days. A 20-year-old buckles down on his studies at a historically black college after his mother dies of cancer. A community organizer decides his plan to create thousands of green jobs is too modest and enlarges it twenty-fold.
Barack Obama’s election to the White House is the very realization of what so many black fathers have told their sons to aspire to for years, even if often it was just a confidence-booster, not meant to be taken literally. And long before he wrapped up the contest, his candidacy had driven these three black men and others to actions they say they might not have taken without his example.
Jeff Obafemi Carr, who had been a successful actor in New York, was debating whether to return there or stay in Nashville, where he wanted to turn a run-down mosque into Nashville’s first black theater in a century. It was an ambitious and daunting idea considering that some in the neighborhood figured the building would wind up as a liquor store or a thrift shop.
Then the 41-year-old remembered a conversation he had with Obama during an Ohio campaign stop. The then-Democratic nominee encouraged him to keep working on his project.
“He told me that we’re going to make a big change for the country with my help,” Carr recalled.
When Carr returned from that event, he put his plan in motion. With the help of community volunteers, donated time from professional builders and materials from corporations, Carr set a date for construction and built the Amun Ra Theatre. Its first major performance will be next month with “Gem of the Ocean,” by American playwright August Wilson.
Throughout the process, Carr said he and the workers repeated Obama’s slogan: “Yes we can.” Now the theater’s Web site proclaims, “Yes, We Did!”
Justin Bowers, a junior at historically black Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala., was thinking about dropping out after his mother died of cancer two years ago at age 48.
“It was a lot of stress,” Bowers said. “I was struggling. It was really hard.”
A friend pointed out Obama’s perseverance after the president-elect lost his 53-year-old mother to cancer. Bowers said the story motivated him to stay in school and study harder to honor his mom.
“I know she would have wanted me to press on with my life regardless of what adversities might come,” said Bowers, 20, who is majoring in accounting and marketing. “That’s just how I was raised. And clearly, that’s how Barack was raised.”
Van Jones, 40, founded Green For All, a national program that seeks to create clean energy jobs. His Oakland, Calif.,-based program, which employs 25 people and has an operating budget of $4.5 million, was instrumental in passing a portion of a national energy bill, called the Green Jobs Act. It will use up to $125 million to train 30,000 people in jobs such as installing solar panels and retrofitting buildings to make them more environmentally friendly.
With Obama’s election, Jones decided to shop a $33 billion proposal before Congress that would hire about 600,000 over the next two years for similar work.
“I wouldn’t have believed in myself enough to come forward with an idea that bold,” Jones said. “But now, you’ve got somebody who’s up there, who’s telling people, ‘Let’s be bold.’
“The ceiling has come off. We can dream of … bringing new technologies and new jobs into communities that have been left behind. Yes we can.”
Obama’s historic run has provided ammunition for black fathers, too, who can point to it in motivating the next generation of black men. Will Rodgers, a communications manager at an electric company in Tampa, Fla., said he takes every opportunity to talk to his 12-year-old son about Obama and “how our nation has transformed.”
“I want him to understand the gravity of what’s happened,” said Rodgers, who boasts of having been a conservative Republican who never voted for a Democrat for president until Obama.
“He can really be anything he wants to, even president of the United States.”