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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.