On a surprisingly mild January afternoon in Harlem, the day of the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, my barber predicted that Senator Barack Obama would win by a landslide. He shut off his clippers and took the floor. “We need to pull for him. I’m sick of people saying, ‘They’ll never elect a black president.’”
A well-groomed man perhaps in his late thirties reminded us from the chair where his thick beard was being seen to that Obama won in Iowa, which was 98 percent white, and that he was about to win in another state that was 98 percent white. He said that he was ashamed of David Patterson and Charles Rangel, “our elected black officials,” for not endorsing Obama, because no matter who got the nomination, the Democratic Party couldn’t win the presidency without the African-American community, and therefore it didn’t matter how angry at them for not supporting Clinton during the primaries anyone might be down the road.
I was going to point out that Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV had come out for Obama when an even younger man with a heavy Jamaican accent said from the chair where his head was being shaved that it all depended on how developed was your racial consciousness. This young man, the black sheet still tied around his neck, got up and preached about Obama’s readiness. I thought of the scenes in Richard Wright’s fiction that present the black barbershop as a place where black people reveal what they really think, because black barbershops are more private even than black bars. Denny Moe’s, at 133rd Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, with its polished tiles, pretty receptionist, and flat-screen TV for the play-offs, looked nothing like the small corner shop of my midwestern youth, but it served the same function as a forum.
The Jamaican youth, exhorting the few patrons in the large shop, seemed to represent the increased percentage of the black population who are immigrants. The youngest barber on the premises looked as much Latino, Italian, or Arab as black, one of those newfangled American youths about whom you can’t guess anything, what nationality they are or where they’re from, until you hear them talk or they tell you. He dapped fists with the dark-skinned Jamaican youth. I felt I was seeing a new youth vote, not just a reinvigorated black vote. There was a woman barber who went about her work and didn’t join in. Because she was young, I wanted to assume that the “Obama for President” placard in the window spoke for her as well and that she would be annoyed or defiant if told that she was putting race before gender in supporting him.
In the past two presidential elections, black voters complained that they were taken for granted as the Democrats fought for the center ground only to find in both contests that there was no center, just one side or the other. On the side that black people for the most part were on, all too many of them found not enough polling stations in their neighborhoods, employers unsympathetic to their willingness to miss work in order to stand for hours on line at what polling stations there were, and challenges to their registration, never mind the shame of the Florida and then the Ohio results. However, dread of what the other side is capable of wasn’t in evidence in my barbershop the afternoon of the New Hampshire primary, not even the mutterings that maybe “they,” whoever “they” are, will kill Obama if he goes too far. Instead, there was excitement, the sense that something historic was happening, that an unprecedented national narrative was taking shape.
I was struck by how far the story had moved since the autumn, when many were saying that Obama’s campaign had unraveled. Back then, Senator Joe Biden was derided for calling Obama “articulate” and “clean,” but George Will was speaking from the same assumptions and in a similar code when on a Sunday morning talk show shortly after Christmas he called Obama “a great getting up in the morning time,” because he wasn’t Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. Obama is the assimilated black, such commentators want to say, as if an assimilated black didn’t think about civil rights or, worse, as if civil rights were a narrow, passé issue. Meanwhile, Obama’s candidacy is somehow separate from the success of black athletes and independent of the trust Oprah Winfrey’s huge audience accords her. He is an expression of a general change, not the product of a star system.
He may not be identified with the Congressional Black Caucus, but his path has been prepared by the thousands of blacks elected to local, state, and national offices since the days of the National Black Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. Though, paradoxically, the low percentage of black people who register to vote has always been a frustration to political activists, black people have been visible in politics—and other professions—for a while. White America got used to black people turning up everywhere, except next door. Obama’s way may also have been prepared by a generation of black anchorpeople on local TV stations, and years of hearing their mid-Atlantic accents.
People have been talking about the demonization of black youth since the introduction of harsh sentencing guidelines during the Reagan years, but it turns out that the nation had been absorbing another image of black people right alongside the lurid tales of gangs and guns. Because of affirmative action, the picture of America has changed. However unpopular it has been as public policy, affirmative action has succeeded in integrating the middle class. Obama is not exotic to white Americans. He is familiar, the really nice black guy who went to school with your son.
Though Obama has been praised by some for not making race an issue in his campaign, and for not coming off as the black candidate, his race most certainly is crucial to his broad appeal. Black people can appreciate as much as white people the inclusiveness of his mixed-race heritage and that his story is in part that of an immigrant. But this is not a color-blind election. People aren’t voting for Obama in spite of the fact that he is black, or because he is only half-black, they are voting for him because he is black, and this is a whole new feeling in the country and in presidential politics. Forty years ago, Robert Kennedy was sharply criticized for saying that a black man probably could be elected president of the United States in fifty years’ time. “Victory tonight,” my barber, Mr. Sherlock, said as we shook hands.
Barack Obama was born in 1961, three years before the Freedom Summer of student sit-ins and nonviolent marches, when their political faith helped black Americans to face down the power of white mobs, fire hoses, and sheriffs with dogs. We look back on those times as the innocent days before Black Power and FBI shootouts, when white allies were still welcomed in the struggle. Obama’s mother, a white, eighteen-year-old coed at the University of Hawaii, married its first African student, a Kenyan in his early twenties. When he went to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in economics, he left his wife and two-year-old son behind. After his return to Africa, he saw his son only once, when Obama was ten years old. He died when Obama was in his early twenties.
Obama’s quest for the meaning of his absent father’s life becomes a search for his own identity in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. First published in 1995, beautifully written, it is the story of his youthful disaffection and salvation through community organizing in Chicago. He describes his childhood and adolescence in Hawaii, where “there were too many races, with power among them too diffuse, to impose the mainland’s rigid caste system.” Hawaii had been interrupted by Djakarta, where Obama lived between 1967 and 1971, when his mother married again, to an Indonesian engineer who would teach him how to defend himself and how to change a tire. His stepfather’s brand of Islam accommodated elements of animism and Hinduism, but Obama understood in retrospect that the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965, and the massacre of Communists and ethnic Chinese, had changed his stepfather from the idealist his mother had met at the University of Hawaii to an incommunicative man intent on surviving in the new regime.
Unable to afford the International School in Djakarta and wary of the education he would get in the local schools, his mother eventually sent him back to his grandparents in Hawaii, to Punahou Academy, an elite prep school, where Obama encountered race in the form of white boys amused that his father was of the Luo tribe and a white girl who wanted to touch his hair. He distanced himself from the one other black student—“a part of me felt trampled on, crushed”—and in time was left alone, once the novelty of his presence had worn off, though his sense that he did not belong only increased. Before he left Indonesia, his mother had taken a job as an embassy secretary in order to pay for supplementary lessons for Obama from a US correspondence course. She woke him at four every weekday morning to give him three-hour English lessons. Obama realizes that she, “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism,” kept alive his connection to America, to black America:
She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King. When she told me stories of schoolchildren in the South who were forced to read books handed down from wealthier white schools but who went on to become doctors and lawyers and scientists, I felt chastened by my reluctance to wake up and study in the mornings…. Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.
This is reminiscent of Langston Hughes, who recalls in his autobiography that in the isolation of his Kansas childhood he was brought up on tales of racial heroism told to him by his grandmother, a widow of John Brown’s raid.
Where Hughes submerged himself in the urban Black Belt to come into contact with a black identity, Obama had a “color-coded” popular culture of television, film, and radio that offered him “an arcade of images” and styles to choose from. He played basketball “with a consuming passion.” He made white friends on the court and reminded his angry black friends that they weren’t “consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem.” People were pleasantly surprised to meet a “well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”