In a book for which I have only to write the last section, assessing all that has happened over these final months of a continually startling contest, I look into the deeper cultural underpinnings of Barack Obama's extraordinary appeal. The book begins with the great distraction that Obama has prevailed through and which, if the country was still as it used to be, would have made his run impossible. The event was the nadir of black nationalism put on nationwide display at the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Many black men were gathered at the behest of Louis Farrakhan, the clown prince of despotism.
Farrakhan was and remains in a photo finish with David Duke and all other sanctimonious button-down primitives. They are part of our collective fate, there to prove to us that no group is invulnerable to the persuations paranoia, fake science, potted history, nor the megalomania of charismatic men. Thirty-two years after the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King expressed a timeless optimism about the human possibilities of our country, Farrakhan and his hundreds of thousands seemed proof that black America had completely torn its ass in public and set all thoughts of forward motion at a standstill. The civil rights establishment had finally submitted to—and been swallowed by—the dirty cartoon of demagoguery, which celebrated itself through Farrakhan with a loud belch.
By the time Obama ran, black Americans proved themselves what the Civil Rights Movement had always claimed: We can be just as good or just as bad as you. We are only human.
Faced with such a daunting spectacle, what did Barack Obama do? What made it possible for him to have shaken the nation awake to its actual transcendent identity when he won the Iowa Primary in January? So much focus on the range of black Americans, especially in our news media, has provided substantial proof that the black community is as susceptible to mediocrity as any other. Obama knew what to make of that. That is very important.
During the Civil Rights movement and in the writings of men like James Baldwin, there was the idea that the "black experience" bestowed something more soulful, earthy, and transcendent on that ethnic group and that was the thing that could save America. When one looks only at the violent decadence, mindless misogny and compulsive crude materialism of hip hop it is easy to see that no ethnic version of American culture is automatically able to sustain the sort of vitality necessary to replenish it. Right now the country has been forced to face something else about human behavior at least partially because of men like Farrakhan, the high profile fradulence of the Tawana Brawley hoax, Jesse Jackson's philandering and imprenating a mistress during the time that he prayed with Bill Clinton. We cannot forget the noxious behavior of certain black athletes and entertainers. In short, black Americans proved themselves what the clearest thinkers of the Civil Rights Movement had always claimed: We can be just as good or just as bad as you. We are only human.
With that wind of human reality strongly behind him, Obama suddenly appeared like a fresh light in the sky on a very dark night. With what some came to eventually dismiss as the technique of a masterful inspirational speaker, he used to captivate his audiences with the lyricism of his patriotic American feelings and his great theme that we are all in this together and will rise or fall as one people. He made it seem inarguable that every grand achievement in our nation is connected to every other one and they from a heritage in which we all share. That was the way that Obama renewed patriotism and took it from the jaws of the Republicans who dipped it in too much sentimentality. Patriotism in Obama's rhetoric ceased to seem corny because it embraced all of the social tragedies the country had overcome over two centuries. It opened the way to a vision of democracy in which no one, no group, no type was left out. This was imperative and he made it seem real. The people loved it and turned out in droves to hear him reiterate what they perhaps had not believed since childhood in public school.
Part of what Obama represented was the literal union between black and white, the miscegenation that has produced him and was the long term nightmare put firmly into the culture by D.W. Griffith's toxic masterpiece, The Birth of A Nation. Obama very quickly made himself important because he did not perceive his parentage or his skin tone as some sort of "mark of shame"; nor his light skin as something that made him superior because he was not only half white but, because of his Kenyan father, one of the few actual African-Americans in the country. He was thus able to bring out of the closet a long term nightmare and an even longer term fact of American life. Americans have always lived and loved across ethnic and religious lines whenever it was possible to do so. Those are human facts, but no one had been able to make proud use of them in national politics before.
But what was most important was that with all of the different kinds of black Americans we have seen in mass media over the last thirty years—including remarkable variations on the good, the bad, and the ugly—Obama was able to be seen as an individual who was part of an ethnic group and also as free of it as a democratic leader should be in the final analysis. He also benefitted from something that the pundits could not get straight for many months. As I pointed out some time after Iowa, what our pundits did not understand was that the old divisions of black and white were too simple, and that if they had paid attention to their own children's circle of friends over the years, they would have noticed that so many pre-adolescent and adolescent gatherings, birthday parties, sleepovers, and summer vacations in camps selected by their parents often looked as though the kids were there to represent the United Nations Assembly! For that generation of American young people, diversity is not exotic. We seem to now be in a period when people who are irrationally afraid of others are far outnumbered by those who are not.
I think this new consciousness is not "post-racial" but post-simplistic. The essential fact of it is that it comprises a new maturity for the nation. One that, whether or not Obama wins, I do not think we will lose soon. It is a patriotism beyond color, in which individuality is perhaps more important than ever and more recognized by most right now.
The deepest element of this new maturity means a fresh perspective: Now an ethnic criminal or abuser of anything at all is seen in terms of being a crook first, a member of a given ethnic or religious group second. That is why O.J. Simpson got some attention, but not much, when he was not long ago convicted for committing a dumb robbery in Las Vegas. Simpson is no longer though to symbolize "the fate of black men" on any level. The same was true of Michael Vick or any other dashingly handsome man who is beyond a fool in his private entertainment choices. Then there are the Lil’ Kims and Foxy Browns who have shown themselves to be as repulsively willing to pimp themselves as Madonna. They are who they are, and Tiger Woods or Gwen Ifill or Barack Obama all happen to be who they are. Individuals first. The nation has noticed this.
That is the new place in which we find ourselves. A nation's greatest natural resource is its population and its story is always determined by what it does with the unpredictable splendor of that resource. Our nation is now in a time of daunting troubles but they could not have come at a better point in our development because we see our most powerful and resilient resources better than we have ever seen them. We seem to have reached a fresh plateau on which no one from any group needs to hide under the bed when a despicable individual from the collective identity—or assumed identity—acts up deplorably. In such an atmosphere, Barack Obama is in very good shape. People care about him as an imposingly gifted individual. As we should have known he would, John McCain, at a charity benefit very recently held at the Waldorf Astoria, welcomed Obama warmly and expressed sober happiness about how far we have come from the long bigoted nights of our bluest past. Just how far we actually have come might cost McCain the presidency, but somebody always has to pay for the country to move from coach to first class.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker and more. He has served as Artistic Consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz At Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.