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Barack Obama is a black man

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Barack Obama is a black man. Anyone notice that? He's not only our token "first black president" in waiting. He's a genuine, self-identified, black man. With all that means right now, right here, today, to him and to all of us.

It means, for example, that he knows other black men. He's talked to them, broken bread with them, argued with them and beat them at pick up games if not at bowling. They have shared their successes and supported each other in struggle. Who knew black men might hang out together? Someone alert the media.

It also means that, because of who he is and because of the things he values, he's worked in the black community. He has tended to it just as all our sons tend to our communities if they are right thinking, right acting, right loving people. And that means, he loves that community, loves its beauty, its ugly, and that chip on its shoulder because you know, sometimes you need that chip to get you through trouble. (I'd rather have a chip on my shoulder than nothing at all to hang on to when something just right there is needed in the absence of a cultural highway or of institutional support or of community resources.)

When Obama says he wants to perfect our Union, he might sound somewhat ethereal to some of his listeners. Perfection is colorless, isn't it? There are some of us who hope perfection is the relief from coping with difference, with things we don't know or people we don't understand or practices and rituals that are not ours.

That Americans may imagine their perfect Union as devoid of color is sort of like Dorothy knowing that Kansas was more lovely than Oz before she hit the Emerald City strip. What we give up without venturing to imagine, so much our loss.

I don't think Obama is saying that we should forget who we are, or who he is, in order to get to that more perfect union. We've had enough of the pretense in this country that we've overcome racial tensions. In fact, we have a surplus of pretense. The Pentagon could shoot pretense into outer space every day (which they may do anyway) and we'd still have plenty on our hands. Well, maybe there is a virtue in "fake it till you make it" -- but, that virtue depends upon knowing that you are faking it. And in being honest about where you are on the road to Making It.



America is a funny little place. We are taught to survive as individual units. We don't do families as well as some countries do, and, we are worse at doing groups like communities, let alone subgroups, like ethnic communities. That has something to do with the Puritans who got here first and basically said, you're on your own, people. And it's also about the hype that this is America, we are all Americans - as if we were so many Navy beans in a pot. But when you think about it, being an American usually involves also being a lot of other things, all in one package, all in one skin. We are Heinz 57 -- that's who we are.

Our America dusts off a founding resentment to greet each wave of immigrants. It's what we do. And the most stinging, most enduring resentment is reserved for the wholly unwilling immigrants that survived the Middle Passage. We may be unforgiving of field workers that cross the Rio Grande but that's nothing like the not so latent hostility this nation harbors for those people who originally outed the limitations of American democracy. They might have built our Capitol but we sure don't want to know their black ghosts hang out around that white and green monument. Or at very least, we feel deeply shamed by those shades. We are a people bound by history to the worst in human nature, by human nature, to human nature. May we someday find the strength in our human nature to ask forgiveness and to forgive ourselves.

In that context, it's completely unsurprising that the American corporate media fans racial tensions to engage their viewers when we have the audacity to run a black man for our presidential nominee. It's no surprise at all that Senator Obama's opposition uses the race issue to get attention, let alone support. This is one of our national themes. This is what we do. We've organized whole industries and major cities and domestic policies around the ongoing national narrative of how we live with the idea of race. What is one primary season -- a drop in our national bucket.

I have a great deal of faith in Barack Obama. Not in his relative conservatism or even, in his ability to wrestle with the corruption in our government without breaking a sweat. I have faith in him, in that person. I have faith in him as someone who is a good son of the family, as someone who not only talks about a village but who worked for years in that "village" -- and, without a ghost writer at that. In someone who will not stage a thrice crowing co*k to denounce Jeremiah Wright in time to control the next news cycle. Obama not only knows better and more deeply than that, he can do better than that. I expect him to do better than that.

I accept the fact that white people -- and, other people as well, people to whom establishment approval still doesn't stink rankly enough yet, people who are willing to walk through life cut off from good, deep breathing -- will go into convulsions every time some kind of "blackness" is exploited by the American media.

But you have to ask yourself, what were we thinking to back this very gifted man and yet, to be so unready to understand, in honest and in practical terms, what this contest would entail for all of us? Did we not anticipate these repugnant, race baiting "news days"? Did we not realize that a country built by slavery would, at some level, rebel at taking the last step away from that horror and into a new, different day, in imagining a black man as its leader? Perhaps there are changes, however slow, so painful that the enduring organism just balks -- no matter if that change is the surest way to health and wholeness.

There is no way I can support Obama without also supporting the mission of Jeremiah Wright or of Trinity church or of all the children who look up to both of these men. To try to support one without respecting the other is just another form of repudiating both and all of us, of failing those children and of failing America in the most basic way.

This is our story. We are writing it. This is our choice to make. Let's make a good one for the shades of all our fore-bearers, for the children. We can do that.

 

Elizabeth Ferrari is a San Francisco author and activist.
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