Though our sidewalks and roads are not littered with chunks of cloud and quivering sky-blue shapes we have never seen before, things are changing so fast and with such crashing impact that we almost have to agree with Chicken Little that "the sky is falling."
Everyone now knows that though they said it couldn't be done, Barack Obama became president. While we looked at him on television, the candidate and his supporters were actually above us all, sawing the outlines of big holes in the sky that would turn into gliders if stomped down on hard enough. When the time came to do the stomping, the gliders brought down Obama, his team, and the millions who had backed his play.
With trunks raised high, Republicans elected moderate Michael Steele to take charge of the Republican National Committee. Change we can believe in.
Part of that falling sky was seen on CNN when the new president took responsibility for screwing up Cabinet appointments in a way that gave the impression that there were two ways things could be done. One was with the privileges that the powerful usually get, and the other the way ordinary people go about getting and doing their jobs. If it is not a charming ploy, it is proof that the sky to which we have been accustomed to for decades is starting to fall in unexpected chunks.
One chunk the size of a hunting rifle is said to have knocked the hell out of Dick Cheney which is why he appeared at the inaugural in a wheelchair. Since Karl Rove appears almost ready to accept the dictates of a senatorial subpoena, a solid bolt of blue may have devastated his roof and lay smoking on the rug as a heavenly omen.
For all of the cynicism struck down by the falling sky, some things remain in steady place. Certain black academics and middle-class ebony jellyfish looking to appear cynical and "hard" continue to impose false members like Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party on the civil-rights struggle that partially led to Obama's victory.
Their counterfeit cynicism gives a mask of integrity to those who consistently drain intellectual fire and precision from our universities. That precise heat is replaced with theatrics and "progressive" clichés in which performance and busting moves on feet of clay almost always override content.
Tavis Smiley recently conceived a way out from under this blacked-up dilemma of being caught profoundly out of sorts. Reared in a trailer camp and a veteran of childhood mayonnaise sandwiches the same as Peggy Noonan, Smiley is perhaps the most masterful ethnic ringmaster in media. One of his gifts is the ability to evenhandedly present the exceptional, the mediocre, and the buffoonish as though each provides the assistance necessary to engage in "critical thinking."
On a weekly television news roundup not long ago, the talk-show host brought it. He gave those bearing the ethnic misgivings made insipid by Obama's victory the distinct opportunity to make a rhetorical change of shape. Smiley observed to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that what made her book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals, so brilliant was its clarifying the important role Frederick Douglass played in the growing process through which the president became inarguably great. Consequently, Smiley continued, perhaps what must be done is that Obama be pushed to the level of greatness that may be dormant within him.
That was slick as a glass mountain covered with castor oil. Now, when Smiley presents his yearly "State of the Black Union" on C-SPAN, those just outmoded by the impervious facts of real politics can claim that they are—without a doubt—sustaining the tradition set by Douglass and hoping to have the same effect on Obama that the great black abolitionist had on Lincoln. Serve the high-minded jam of mission with your bread and circuses. It goes down easier and tastes better than a mayonnaise sandwich.
But what Langston Hughes called "the quarter of the Negroes," is not the area of our world most threatened by a falling sky. Nor is the response of career complainers startling beyond belief. The switcheroos minted in our time and our time only are elsewhere to be found.
Go to the corner and turn right. Bystanders will tell you what happened. The Republican Party seems to have been brained by a heavy cloud followed by an equally heavy sky-blue shape. Nearly knocked out, it hit the ground thinking instead of running.
The elephant soon trumpeted the idea that change should find the GOP in exactly the terms that would shock the mess out of potential fellow pachyderms. "If we build a stadium of change, they will come," the elephant said soberly.
Things were now quite clear. The party needed a new strategy, a new tone, and a new paint job. Given that a colored man just reshaped the Republican aft hole with his victorious foot—turning it into a tunnel ready for winds of change—a survival response was demanded. Pass the ball to a colored carrier. What might formerly have been considered no more than affirmative action on the right side—where the once-silent but deeply resentful majority used to live—is presently seen as on time, in time, and at the right time.
With their heads still ringing and their backsides painfully throbbing, the Republicans took a deep breath, held their noses but chose not to suck the face of a pig this time around. They walked into the darkness where the colored players usually remain invisible and found their very own colored man. With trunks raised high, they elected moderate Michael Steele to take charge of the Republican National Committee. Change we can believe in.
It was an off-angle embracing of Colin Powell and a kicking to the curb of Rush Limbaugh, who is not so much a loose cannon as a loose and scratchy radio signal now no more comfortable than a hair shirt. John McCain, the whinnying maverick, is still out of step with his party because he seemed to defend Limbaugh after an Obama aside about the radio hambone, not realizing that a bone is hard to lift with hooves. One might have assumed that the Alaskan hambone made that brutally clear to McCain, but he will, apparently, remain mavericky to the very end.
The grand old elephant has learned fast because nothing gets traction quicker in politics than the hard medicine of an ass-whipping so definitive it seems almost contemptuous. Beginning with the "Southern strategy" of Richard Nixon, the Republicans sold out to rednecks disillusioned by Lyndon Johnson's civil-rights legislation. Johnson may have had ears the size of an elephant but he was a turncoat when it came down to things here on the ground—or down there on the ground. From Nixon through Reagan, it was pure and simple: Racism, displaying the Confederate flag on government buildings, and a segregation that was melting away were only aspects of the rights of individual states that had their own way of life. Those rights may have been unconstitutional, but a choice was better than an echo.
Other things were done also, to borrow Governor Palin's favorite sentence construction. The knuckles of the party soon ached terribly from thumping Bibles and scraping them while struggling to put the voting booth in the amen corner. That corner was made slippery with a little smear grease so that the elephant could get its bulk all the way in. God would be pleased.
Though promising "a permanent Republican majority," Karl Rove, the spiritual son of Joe McCarthy, ran out of ammunition this time around and not a smear stuck to its target. Brother Karl became a part of the cloud of unknowing. That plummeting cloud was already inhabited by the think-tank nerdniks who convinced Bush that Iraq was right there waiting to be plucked, put in a barrel, and wheeled to market. Unopened cases of Champagne were never shipped to Iraq. Gov. Palin suggested that they be put up on eBay.
Rough public lessons, no matter how apparently unelephantine, were wrought by deregulation and made becoming something of a turncoat the only reasonable choice. Yes, it was time to become the party of the people and listen to the blues songs muttered or sung around the kitchen table. Even Brother Karl said so.
It was not the time to listen to tales of corporate jets, the rigors of maintaining second and third homes, and how a bonus of a few million would have been all right last year, but this year the wife left and wants an arm, half a leg, and all of the cartilage from both knees. Something was just proven when the president advised those companies that received billions of dollars in public bailout funds that it would be prudent to cap the salaries for those in the upper rooms at $500,000. Yikes. The Republican of the past is like the man to whom Bessie Smith slipped some updated blues information—"You been a good old wagon, but daddy you done broke down."
Who knows? The elephants might start loudly marching through the bush and begin working with longtime black community activists like Harlem's Geoffrey Canada, who has been so publicly disturbed by gang violence and the co-signing of the gangster "lifestyle" by irresponsible rappers. The Republicans might take some surveys and find out exactly which techniques have had the most success at bettering the public schools and build a sound political agenda on those objectively shared techniques. They might also retool No Child Left Behind so that it means something wonderfully appropriate from coast to coast. That could begin persuading black and Hispanic voters that there is more to the changes in the GOP than the skin tone of the man running the RNC. It would also show that the elephants take quite seriously preparing the nation's greatest natural resource, our populace, for competition in the world economy.
There might even be some constructive thoughts on health care and the consideration of bills intended to beef up local law enforcement while demanding the kind of community outreach meetings that could bring the police closer to the embattled neighborhoods that have become our concrete killing fields.
Serious thinking should lead to the budgetary benefits expected of the pachyderms among us. If the Republicans put James Q. Wilson on the case, they might figure out how to prevent, or greatly reduce, the levels of anarchy that literally cost the nation billions in medical expenses on a yearly basis. You know: a penny saved.
What time better than now to redefine urban renewal in terms of community good, better schools, and the saving of billions of dollars that could be directed to long-range plans for ongoing uplift shrewdly intended to make our country a better competitor? Perhaps the elephants will conceive their very own ideas with an eye toward some of the deepest realities facing us all and we will all be forced to say, "What a wonderful country. You never know what to expect."
Actually, we usually do know what to expect, but we have both a brown-skinned president and a head of the Republican National Committee who looks as though his dark forebears might have been from Ethiopia or Somalia. If all goes well and the startling peculiarities of our American luck hold up, the distinctions of those paint jobs might add up to something far beyond disillusionment and disappointment. But you never know: the blues always remains within striking distance.
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.