Friday, August 29, 2008
“They said this day would never come.”
Those were the first words of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on January 3th, 2008, the night that he won the Democratic Party’s Iowa primary. Eight months later, those words are metaphoric for the perseverance of Black people in this country. It is a perseverance that was exhibited by the conscious citizens and dedicated activists of the Civil Rights Movement, and defined by the inspirational leadership and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a perseverance that is emblematic in the work of the Hip-Hop Community and young Blacks today.
The discrimination, injustice, and inequality that people of the African Diaspora have faced in the over two hundred plus year history of the United States are among the ugliest scars inflicted in history. Yet these scars could not destroy the splendor seen in the spirit of these people.
The bravery of slaves to escape the oppression of slavery; the determination of abolitionists; the passion and fire of activist like Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X; the bravery of Freedom Summer volunteers to be beaten and bloodied for the sake of continuing the mission of voter-registration for Southern Blacks; the courage of Civil Rights leaders to march in Selma, Alabama and cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, knowing the violence that waited for them. And through the pain, the character that Blacks have shown displays the beauty of their spirit.
It is this beauty that could allow rappers like Talib Kweli and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates to describe the Black experience as “The Beautiful Struggle.”
This exact struggle, this exact experience, is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr described on August 28, 1963, in his “I Have a Dream” speech. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation claimed to free Blacks from slavery, and set the course for their equality, Dr. King explained how “the negro still languishes in the corners of society… and still finds himself an exile in his own land.”
Yet while King eloquently and poignantly narrated how the rights that America claims to protect, and the promises it claims to ensure, had been intentionally and systematically denied to Black people, he also explained how it was not an undefeatable situation; for him, it was not a permanent condition. On this day, Dr. King championed a call to defeat this injustice. He announced to the world that a movement was underway, filled with citizens who would no longer stand for the indignity of racism to continue.
Most lasting though, was how Dr. King explained that this movement would be the fulfillment of a dream. A dream steeped in Blacks having equal rights; a dream where racism would be eliminated; a dream where Blacks would be apart of the American promise: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Martin Luther King, Jr wanted the future to have “the America dream.”
On the forty-fifth anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Barack Obama’s accepted the nomination as the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate. In becoming the first Black to receive the Presidential nomination from a major political party, Obama embodies a piece of King’s dream.
In his nomination acceptance speech Obama laid out not only a political agenda, but a vision for a transformation of America. One that focused on Americans seeing their common humanity, and which highlighted that the “change” his campaign has focused on means developing a communal effort to make America’s promise available to all its citizens. This speech set forth a plan.
It is Barack’s ability to do grassroots organizing on a national level; his way of transforming words about tomorrow into actions we can do today; and his capability to make many believe that we are not bound to where we are at and that we can turn this society into what we want it to be, that makes Obama’s leadership apart of Dr. King’s dream.
And as Obama’s leadership attempts to continue Dr. King’s dream, it is the Hip-Hop community that can guide the change on ground.
The Hip-Hop community is the quintessential example of “the beautiful struggle.” The range of Hip-Hop music serves as a narrative that speaks about the post-Civil Rights Movement Black experience, through the voice of its youth. The music tells stories of pain, struggle, fun, isolation, poverty, success, exploitation, violence, coming-of-age, and sexuality. For many, the culture became a tool for survival; an outlet used to express the complicated dealings and circumstance a new generation was (and is) dealing with.
Hip-Hop is also intrinsically tied to the ideas of optimism, hope, and dreams. In its formative years, the music was seen to be nothing more than a fad. It was not viewed as viable. They said the day would never come when Hip-Hop would be more than a pasting trend.
A generation of young people believed in it. They saw its potential and worked not only for the art form to be respected, but for it to be sustained as well. They were not afraid to dream.
Now, the dream is a global cultural phenomenon, a respected musical platform, and a source of economic opportunity.
The strength of the Hip-Hop community is its ability to be innovative, creative, determined, and…to organize. Often the culture does not receive the credit it deserves for its ability to bring young people together.
Hip-Hop has an outstanding ability to disseminate information, spread a message, and organize itself. It is an art form that requires constantly being attuned to the latest cultural trends in urban communities, and to the work being done by a number of artist in the genre (regardless of whether they are famous or not). Hip-Hop fans are among the most technologically astute communities. Viral marketing, social networking, message boards and blogs are how members develop fan bases, share news, pass along information, and expand its audience. All of this shows a tremendous ability on the part of the Hip-Hop community.
In addition to this tremendous skill-set there is a political consciousness fermenting not just in “progressive” Hip-Hop circles, but in mainstream music too. This summer has seen Rap superstars Young Jeezy and (infamously) Ludacris both make politically-charged songs like “Obama is Here” and “My President is Black.” These songs show keen connectedness to the current political climate.
There is also historical awareness as well. West Coast artist The Game teamed with Nas to record a track entitled “A Letter to the King.” With Hip-Hop’s large youth audience, these are powerful messages.
During the Civil Right Movement and the Black Freedom Movement, young people were at the center of the work and vital to spreading the movement’s message. Groups like SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) were founded and/or maintained by students and young people. They were inspired by leaders like King, Ella Baker, and others to organize and work for the cause.
It is undoubted that Barack Obama is in the mold of these great Black leaders. It is also undoubted that in this campaign he has seized an overwhelming majority of not only Black voters, but young voters as well; and this was mostly due to a campaign team filled with young people that utilized the internet and technology in ways never seen before in a Presidential election.
But the involvement of the Hip-Hop community could not only expand the audience, but also actively engage many of the young Americans who are the most furthest removed from the promise of America. Not only could this help them become politically involved and lay the seeds for change in some of the largest areas of concentrated Black poverty, but it could provide the leadership training and political mentorship that creates a structure for organizing. And while the Hip-Hop community has exhibited political awareness, how powerful, and how much more skilled, could it be with Barack Obama’s mentorship?
James Baldwin once said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
Barack Obama is a leader prepared to bring America past the terrible history that is still present. The day has come for those who have endured the beautiful struggle to be fully included. That will bring the dream to reality.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Last night HBO showed a documentary entitled, "The Black List, Volume One." The program features Blacks from various backgrounds talking about their life, their memories, their hopes, their fears, their opinions, their present, and their future. It was candid in that it truly conveyed the variety of people from the African Diaspora, and allowed them an uninterrupted opportunity to just talk.
On the show, Chris Rock spoke about something his father use to share with him. His father said that "you can not beat the White man by a point or two; you can't have 6 and he have 5. You can't let the scorecard go to the judges, because you'll lose. You have to knock em out."
That story made me think of something my mentor Fordham University professor Dr. Mark Naison said this week. He cited how Barack Obama needs to follow the example Harry S. Truman and James Brown by tirelessly working. To be at every single place were you can find working-class people. He said this is how Barack can win over working-class America.
Chris Rock’s story made me think of Dr. Naison’s analogy: Barack Obama is going to have to knock out his opponent; and the only way to do this is to outwork him.
My other mentor, Dr. Brian Purnell, pointed out that he needs to out work him in a way that is meaningful. Dr. Purnell spoke about the work of Bobby Kennedy. He said
“Before his decision to run, Bobby spent time in some of the poorest, most struggling sections of not only the country, but the world!
As Senator Kennedy, before he was the official candidate, Bobby visited America's urban and rural impoverished ghettos; he even toured mines and slums in South America.
By the time King was murdered, Bobby was able to speak…to people who were enraged and hurt and they felt him in a way that would have been impossible if he did not learn to empathize, internalize, as well as intellectualize people's economic and social pain in an honest, direct way.”
Indeed, this comment brought me back to the work Senator Obama did before he was even a senator; when he was a community organizer in Chicago. And it reminded me what Obama needs to continue doing.
He needs to be in the housing projects of the Bronx; in Atlanta's or Michigan's troubled school systems; in the streets of urban Philadelphia and Baltimore; in towns like Flint, MI, or Youngstown, OH; in the communities of Liberty City, FL. Senator Obama needs to be there not for photo-ops, but to hear and (most importantly) feel the struggle.
What makes a leader great is their ability to feel their people's struggle enough that they can resonate it to any crowd, to any audience. And that feeling within them, becomes strong enough for the people to believe in them.
Barack's brilliance is that he attempts to convince all of us to be leaders, by trying to make us see the best within ourselves. Obama is trying to follow in the spirit of what a great leader does: Love us at our worst, because you want to help us be our best.
Racism, sexism, patriarchy, elitism----all of these show America at its worst. And all these things have been salient over the past twelve months of this Presidential election. It has been really ugly. But most illuminating, it shows we may not be as far past prejudice, inequality, discrimination, and segregation as we would like to believe.
On Charlie Rose yesterday, Connie Schultz of the Cleveland's Plain Dealer said how people that say "they don't really know Barack Obama," "is he patriotic," or "is he really one of us," are all code for race. For me, it sounds like "I don't know this Black man; and I don't trust him either."
For nineteen months Barack has been trying to transcend the idea of race. Even his Philadelphia speech attempted to directly face his own identity within America's racial construct, but to confront it in a way that allows us to move past it. And as Schultz evaluation points out, it hasn't quite worked out.
Obama can only attempt to inspire change. The rest is left for us: to really look inside ourselves, and examine our beliefs and behaviors.
In the face of mainstream press coverage that over the past ten days has ridiculously emphasized every negative and every doubt that exists about Barack's resonance with "working-class America" (AKA White people who are not convinced yet); in the face of still being bombarded with rhetoric about a Democratic candidate who lost already, but yet the media still harps on every single day; in the face of a Democratic political dynasty that is still visibly upset about their improbable lost during this campaign, and still will not exhibit a visible, sincere advocacy for the winner of the contest; in the face of all of this, last night Michelle Obama still found a way to give a exceptional opening night speech that exulted her roots, her husband, her political party, and even the unyielding Hillary Clinton.
She was truly inspirational.
And so tonight, my only hope is that Hillary Clinton is gracious. Gracious enough to humbly acknowledge her defeat head-on, to recognize the large constituency that still clings to her, and to be self-less enough to turn it into a sincere call to support Barack Obama.
Otherwise, she and the Clinton legacy will only mirror the very bitterness and resentment Barack pointed out in his March race speech.
Race is still an issue in America because of all the other issues that come along with it: prison-industrial complex, funding for public schools, etc. Race is still an issue because it underpins some of the foundational problems of this country dating back to it "founding fathers." Race is still an issue because it works at the intersection of so many of America's contemporary problems.
This election brings out the issues of the times, if you can look past the political squabbling and media rhetoric.
What we need from a President, what we need from our leaders, what we need in all our communities, are truth-tellers that help us see these issues. We need people who love us at our worst, because they want to help us become our best.
That's what we need in a President.