Dispatches from DC: Election Day 2009
by Shani Jamila
Inauguration Day, 2009! It's been two months since the night that catapulted progressives throughout the country- and indeed the world - into a state of incredulous euphoria. Barack Obama was elected President of these United States. In Washington DC thousands of people flooded the streets dancing on top of cars as if it was an intellectual Freaknik. Multiracial African drum circles spontaneously gathered to announce the arrival of the first Black president, grown ass men went skipping down the sidewalk yelling out "Barack!" like they had Tourettes, and U Street became the site of what was arguably the largest en masse electric slide in recorded history. The sheer joy, not just on Black and brown faces but on white ones too… the naked possibility of it brought many to tears.
That same energy is still pulsating through the city, in a deep thrill that most African Americans have never known. In my travels throughout the African diaspora, I have regularly remarked on the deep sense of nationalist pride possessed by people who come from countries where they see their reflection in the highest echelons of leadership. As we enter this now time, where the symbolic power of Obama's presidency has catalyzed the reimagination of racial identity in this country, there is undeniably a new sense of belonging that has arisen for many U.S. based Blacks. For the first time in this country's history, Blacks felt invested enough in the outcome to vote in higher percentages than whites. Our heightened political participation, reflected in slogans like "Refuse us 40 acres and a mule and we'll take 50 states and the White House," means that a historically disenfranchised people now see the "us" in the U.S. Whatever one's political perspective on that fact may be, it is clear that with this election the boundaries of blackness have been expanded in a way that is unprecedented. Due to it, we as a people are forever changed.
We strut a little deeper, hold our heads a little higher, smile a little broader. We temper our brimming joy with a protective caution, clear that this bouquet of emotions does not relieve us of the responsibility for critical analysis. To truly understand, let's take it back a bit to when the news of this transformative time first began to sink in…
The news spread throughout Black America as fast as the sound of hands being placed on hips from coast to coast. He called him a what?? Yeees, honey. On November 19th, 2008 Ayman al-Zawahri, deputy leader of Al-Quaeda, released a video in which he declared President Elect Barack Obama a "house negro."
While it is strangely remarkable that of all the racial cliches to employ, this one came from that camp, the discussion was not new within our own communities. In fact, al-Quaeda is not the first to call out Black White House operatives - some of our most brilliant minds have done the same. For example, Harry Belafonte famously made the same "house negro" characterization of Powell and Rice in 2002. Well before the disastrous advent of the Bush administration, Audre Lorde questioned whether you could effectively use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house. And just as al-Zawahari's insult was not singularly targeted (he included Condoleeza and Colin in his epithet as well), our analysis also extends beyond Barack to the general ascendancy of Black faces to nationally known positions of political prominence.
It is an interesting paradox of this historical moment that even as Black faces have become more visible in the political realm, our community is facing crises the likes of which we have never before seen: the devastating impact of mass incarceration, exploding rates of HIV and AIDS, rampant illiteracy that is the product of failing school systems, etc. Many attribute this to the catastrophe of conservatism that has assaulted our political system for the past 8 years. But it is of note that al-Zawahari's comment demonstrated no distinction between African Americans who ascended to positions of prominence due to their affiliation with the Republican party, and Obama who campaigned on a Democratic promise of change. Rather, there is a line being marked in the sand between Black politicians and the larger community they hail from.
By its very nature, the term house negro is meant to evoke an elitist life of privilege and relative comfort in the midst of your people's suffering. Many house negroes were, like Obama, the products of a mixed race lineage- although at that time this fact would have been due to the institutionalized rape that characterized enslavement. But the reality was that resistance was not solely contained to a certain segment of the community. Many house negroes (who by virtue of their daily proximity to whites were rendered more at risk for sexual assault) were able to utilize their access to rebel against enslavement in ways others couldn't, e.g. spitting in or poisoning the food they prepared and stealing supplies to sustain their own families. In fact, seven generations ago my own great-grandmother learned to take meat from the big house by putting it in a sack and dragging it back to the slave quarters just before daybreak- when she had the cover of night and the dew was heavy on the grass. By dawn, the sunlight would perk the grass back up and there would be no trail to indicate her steps.
I provide this example to say we got to get deeper y'all, move beyond old stereotypes that are both inaccurate and don't serve us. To be clear, a conversation about the evolution and implementation of Black leadership is valid no matter what community you come from, especially when that leadership now governs a multi racial country and functions as a world leader. Many of us are anxious for Obama to articulate stances that are more progressive than the centrist stands he has taken to date. But when people outside of our community feel entitled to publicly employ racial epithets, whether it is the political extremists of al-Quaeda or the liberal entitlement of Ralph Nader's Uncle Tom reference, it is beyond Barack. Neither has the cultural capital to be able to employ these slurs without repercussion.
At this point, regardless of anyone's personal perspectives about his politics, Barack may be a house negro, but as I've heard it said he is the White House Negro. How he chooses to play his position remains to be seen.
U.S. Blacks in the Global Imagination
There are a lot of comparisons being made between our new President Barack Obama and Black leadership of previous eras. While there is certainly no question that he would not be in this position if it had not been for the work of countless Black people before him, many of these efforts are ill advised. For example, when al-Zawahari went on to say that "Obama is the direct opposite of honorable Black Americans like Malcolm X," he was drawing a false parallel. They are both tall, slender, light skinned Black men with a tremendous gift for oratory and an inspiring passion for politics. They have both provided the tee shirt industry with a spike in sales. That is where the similarities end.
As Cornel West has distinguished, Barack is an American leader who is Black while Malcolm was a Black leader who was American. While I am loathe to prioritize identities as such, these are two fundamentally different constructs. Malcolm gave his life for the forceful advancement of Black people. Barack did his damndest over the course of the campaign to render his Blackness inconsequential. In fact, when confronted with the discourse of a man much closer to the legacy of Malcolm - Reverend Jeremiah Wright- he distanced himself. But this is not about a comparison of their individual personalities - in their respective ways both have done much to positively impact the Black community. This is about a historical moment in a movement of people of color.
On a large scale, this construction speaks to the ever evolving space that U.S. Blacks occupy in the global imagination. Historically, we have been identified as the anti-America, both here and abroad. Here, we were legally barred from citizenship and counted as only 3/5ths of a person. Abroad, Black folks were seen as cultural ambassadors and human rights advocates, people willing to suffer unimaginable abuse for the sake of challenging this country to claim our and its full humanity. This is what Al-Quaeda's Malcolm reference was meant to evoke, and an examination of whether this status has changed is both valid and necessary.
What kind of cultural and political ambassadors have Black folk become? Before the advent of the Obama administration, the appointment of Black conservatives to high profile political positions has meant that the face of African America in the global gaze has morphed from Martin, Fannie Lou, Malcolm, and Josephine to what the late Damu Smith called the three C's- Colin, Condeleeza, and Clarence. The masses of people on the ground who give their lives to work in the continuum of Black struggle, including those in third party politics who also ran for President in 2008, are not given their due shine by the mainstream media. Therefore, this distorted impression of Black America, combined with the targeting of Black and Brown communities by the military industrial complex, means we are disproportionately represented as the face of imperialist occupying power in other countries of color.
What we are witnessing is the browning of American imperialism. And this is the double edged sword of Obama's victory- Black Americans now feel more included, but in what? Did we just, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "integrate into a burning house?" Or will we be able to harness this desire for change percolating in the air, and in the tradition of our greatest ancestors work to redirect the country to a human rights agenda?
The Politics of Possibility
In the months leading up to the election, I'd argued that this was really a proxy referendum on white supremacy. If McCain could be elected after eight years of Bush - especially when he and his choice of running mate were so obviously inferior to the Democratic ticket - with up to three Supreme Court justices on the line and the fate of key cases such as Roe v Wade hanging in the balance… when this country could leave its own citizens to rot in Gulf Coast waters while sending money and manpower overseas to fight in immoral and illegal wars… when the economy has gone to hell at the hands of a Republican empire…. If in the face of all that we did not have a President Obama at the end of it, the only rationale would have been racial prejudice.
And I fully expected that American racism, woven so intricately into the fabric of this country's culture, would have been strong enough to withstand the qualitatively different capabilities of the Democratic and Republican candidates. This is why - for a full week after I danced teary eyed down these DC streets - the first thing I would do when I awoke was smile an incredulous smile, and then quickly scan the headlines to make sure it was still true. The blow to white supremacy that Obama's election signifies is a triumph beyond measure. However, while his election definitely signifies a large shift in the racial landscape of this country it most certainly does not merit the post racial paradigm being bandied about by pundits domestically or globally. The goal should be to celebrate our diversity and get post-racism - which means a dismantling of structural inequity in addition to individual triumphs.
The true blessing of this moment is the transcendent politics of possibility that his election signifies for all. Events we never dared to imagine have proved possible. Can we all be inspired now to believe bigger about bringing an end to the epidemic of police brutality, and to the massacres in Gaza, Iraq, Darfur and the Congo? As Tavis Smiley asked, can we build the grassroots movement that will be the Frederick Douglass to Obama's Lincoln? Can we, in the words of the World Social Forum, make another world possible?
Today, as I move with millions through these DC streets, I am buoyed with the hope that answers in the words of My New President (!!!!!)- "Yes, We Can."
Shani Jamila is the host of Blackademics on Pacifica Radio's WPFW 89.3 FM.
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