Obama’s election necessitates a rethinking of what it means to be a black man.
In our blood there’s a rebelliousness, in our heart there’s a certainty that America hates us, and in our soul there’s an acceptance that America considers us the monster. Black men call each other nigga, in part as a sarcastic embracement of monster status. It’s an article of faith that the country couldn’t, and wouldn’t, fully accept us. We don’t feel fully embraced by America—we often feel officially shunned and hated by America—and it’s showed in major American moments. We celebrated the first O.J. verdict with a sneer at the country—we didn’t particularly love O.J., but we certainly loved seeing the system fight and lose. After 9/11, many black New Yorkers, including Jay-Z, expressed to me that they most definitely felt a twoness, two warring ideas: a sadness for America and the lives lost, but also the chickens coming home to roost. When Hurricane Katrina hit, we felt a devastation more profound, because we saw the literal abandonment of the (mostly black) people left behind as a symbol, a synecdoche of the figurative abandonment we’ve always felt from America.
How can we feel America hates us when a black man is elected president?
When we celebrate Obama’s victory, we will celebrate with America. We will jump alongside supporters of all races. This is a victory for everyone (as opposed to O.J., where whites felt disappointed) and a victory that makes us feel included, rather than exacerbating the divide.
Many of us knew exactly what Michelle meant when she said that for the first time in her adult life she was proud of America. Sure, the country has given us many reasons to be proud before, but it’s also given us many reasons to be ashamed—from slavery to Dred Scott to segregation to Emmett Till to the notorious syphilis experiment to Rodney King to racial profiling to Amadou Diallo to torture to Abu Ghraib to the response to Katrina to Jena to…Barack doesn’t resolve any of that, but how can you not be proud of an America that would put race aside and choose him? (An aside to Michelle Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and others who would be offended now—it’s very American to be torn about America and deeply patriotic to make use of my First Amendment rights and criticize America. It is un-American to intimidate or otherwise silence critics of America. We don’t blame America, we criticize because we love, because we see America’s faults and we know how great this country could be. To silence critique is communist.)
But back to the question: Will we still feel “fuck whitey” in a country that would have Obama in the Oval? We were rebellious before because we felt America’s hypocrisy pressing down on our necks—as they bragged to the world of the boundless opportunity for all in America, we knew we were excluded from America’s biggest prizes. But if you shatter the certainty that America hates us and you prove that we too are eligible for all that America has to offer, then what it means to be a black man must shift away from the mutinous spirit in accordance with a new recognition of reality.
This is a country in which a black man can become president and being a black man no longer needs to be about being angry with the country. This is a country that has lived up to its promise of opportunity for all. And the epiphany that this country doesn’t hate us as much as we’ve long thought will have reverberations throughout the black male zeitgeist. I’ve long felt that the primary spiritual fathers of the hip-hop generation were men like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton, and Richard Pryor—men who were openly in opposition to America and constantly challenging whites with their work and personas. What will come of the generation of black men who spend four years watching Obama operate with his nuanced views of the world and of race, and his intellectual and humble approach to alpha maleness?
Will they be inspired by Obama’s example of the classic race man, those men like Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., Sidney Poitier, Ralph Ellison, and Duke Ellington, who were dignified, intelligent, and rebellious in a way W.E.B. DuBois would have advised? These were men with a faith in America and a refusal to accept a dime less than what any American deserves, and a certainty that they’d find success if they were excellent. In the ’60s and ’70s that mode of black maleness fell out of favor—our sense that America would never embrace us turned many of us bitter. Some of the men above were tragically called Uncle Toms, but now one of them is poised to be the most powerful man in the world. Perhaps a generation of black men will be inspired less by the relentless revolutionary spirit that is our fathers’ idea of blackness and more by their grandfathers’ idea of dignified and refined black maleness. Perhaps a change is coming on many levels.
One cannot also help but wonder if maybe Obama’s success will quietly, unwittingly, ruffle some deep feathers by recalling some color issues within the black community. His election may serve to highlight, once again, the color biases of white people (at least in the electoral realm). The three biggest elected offices in America are president, governor, and senator, and all the black men who have held those offices are light- skinned—Obama, Deval Patrick (current governor of Massachusetts), David Paterson (current governor of New York), Doug Wilder (former governor of Virginia), and Edward Brooke (former senator from Massachusetts). Even the black man who’ll go down in history as the one who could have been president if only he’d found a fire in the belly, Colin Powell, is very light-skinned. These color issues matter only because there are long-held stereotypes attached to them that have no relevance or integrity today, but somehow still seem to be upheld.
How long before the Obama honeymoon wears off and some brothers start to grumble, “Yeah, sure, they’d elect a light-skinned brother president, but they’d never go for a dark-skinned president”?