Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Audacity to Hope, part one of two

Got a black man running
But I wonder if he get in,
Who he gonna open up the door for?
I don't want to discourage my folk
I believe in hope,
I just want us to want more
Politricks is a game, how they keep us contained,
Gotta be more that we can hope for.
Democrats and Republicans
Just two sides of the same coin.
Either way it's still white power,
It's the same system, just changed form.
You wanna vote? Please do.
Cast your ballot, let your voice be heard.
But what I do wanna say is
After the election you'll see, mark my word.

--Dead Prez, "PolitricKKKs"

But on a positive side,
I think Obama provides hope - and challenges minds
Of all races and colors to erase the hate
And try and love one another, so many political snakes
We in need of a break
I'm thinkin' I can trust this brotha
But will he keep it way real?

Every innocent nigga in jail - gets out on appeal
When he wins - will he really care still?

--Nas, "Black President"

I spent much of the last few weeks feeling rather hopeless. I could do nothing but watch helplessly as my finances turned into a big fat mess thanks to a bounced paycheck. The stress literally made me feel chilled and nauseated. Unrelated except in the feelings it produced, I also watched helplessly as polls showed public opinion in California swinging toward Proposition 8. This proposition will have zero effect on me and my family, but still it consumes all of my emotional energy. I know enough people it will hurt and I know there are thousands more I've never met. Other injustices--instances of racism, sexism, war--produce similar feelings of sickness and anger in me, but this particular one has beaten me down so much because my family and friends, my religious background, my geographical location, and my sexual orientation have placed it at the forefront of my life.

The thing that started to pull me out of that pit of despair last week, even before the financial situation resolved itself, is another thing that has very little to do with my personal life: a mixtape put together by a bunch of hip-hop artists in support of Barack Obama. Now, I'm well aware that Obama is no Messiah. I'm not expecting Obama's America to be one where the streets are paved with gold (or cheese, if you're an immigrant mouse). The political hip-hop duo Dead Prez, breaking from the rest of the hip-hop industry that uniformly praises the advent of a black president, warn that when Obama is in office we'll see he's no different from any other politician, and tonight my friend Theric expressed a similar view. I'm not going to discard the opinions of either Dead Prez or Theric because they both make valid points, but I do think that both express a cynicism that I hope proves unfounded.

The reason that mixtape gave me hope is because it's evidence of a small miracle. You have to understand, hip-hop is not known for its optimism, particularly when it comes to politics. Hip-hop has its roots in a culture that has found itself beaten down and ignored by the government for centuries. Noting that as a young man he never saw a reason to vote, Jay-Z says, "Politics never trickled down to urban areas because we don't affect who's in office." He notes the cyclical problem of urban blacks not voting because politicians don't care about them and politicians not caring about urban blacks because they don't vote. This status quo is reflected throughout the past thirty years of hip-hop's existence--pick up any rap song that goes even slightly political and you'll find lyrics expressing a complete distrust of any and everything related to government. If you don't believe me, go listen to Public Enemy. The Barack Obama mixtape represents the first time in hip-hop's history (as far as I know, anyway) that artists across the board have come together in support of a presidential candidate. It represents the first time many of these artists--artists who young people across the nation, black and white (and every other color on the spectrum), look up to--have expressed hope in America.

As Theric points out, presidents have far less actual power than we tend to think. One thing they do have power to do, though, is to inspire the American people--and for that matter, the world. Our current president has spent much of his two terms trying to inspire fear. Barack Obama inspires hope. Theric agrees with me on this: Obama "will probably be good for the soul of America if elected," he says. Perhaps where we differ is in the weight we place on having that quality in a president.

I don't have 100% confidence in Obama's ability to solve all the nation's problems. I don't even have 100% confidence in his ability to solve some of them. But I do have hope that four or eight years into an Obama presidency America will be a better place than it is now, and that hope in and of itself gives me more hope.

(to be continued)


TK said...

I found this interesting - perhaps only a sign of my own way of thinking - or even ignorance - but I was surprised to read the words to 'Black President' because I've never seen this election as that much of a racial issue. Or maybe I just don't see Obama as black. Is he, really? Or just enough so (to be used) to appeal to the black vote? Maybe my thought, there, relates more to your comments about how much power the pres REALLY has. And I wonder, if he was REALLY black (I mean, in the way that these lyrics express hope for) would the (real) powers that be (in politics) let him run?

I also see a different dimension, knowing he was raised in Hawaii, where racial differences represent something different than what they do in mainland America. To me, being from Hawaii, that's something in his favor. But I don't know that it has a whole lot to do with whether or not he'd be a good president. And if he's elected - or not elected, I certainly hope it will be because he does - or does not - have what it takes to run this country, and has nothing to do with whether or not he's black!

Anyway, I just don't see racial issues as something that will ever be 'voted out'. I think the only REAL power, there, is on a more individual basis. Maybe something akin to the idea that 'you can't legislate morality'.

Mr. Fob said...

Obama's race matters to a lot of black people--or at least to a lot of black musicians, which I'll admit is about the extent of my interaction with black America. As one rapper put it, "I never thought I'd see a president who looks like me." He may be half-white and he may have grown up in Hawaii, but he still has a connection to the black community and he's wisely played that up, being interviewed about his thoughts on hip-hop and working hard to represent the working class despite his own rather elite background. And even though he grew up in Hawaii, in his memoir he speaks of experiencing racism--he did, after all, go to Punahou, which isn't known for its racial diversity. The fact that as a college student he got involved to some extent in the Black Power movement also buys him some "street cred."

But you're right, it's his whiteness--or at least what popular culture associates with whiteness--that makes him palatable to the rest of the population. Perhaps not so much the fact that he's half-white as the fact that he comes from an upper middle class background, is very educated, and speaks standard American English. Few black men who grew up in, say, the slums of New York could achieve the same mass appeal.

Ideally an Obama presidency would have such an impact on race that we begin to redefine what it means to be black or white. If nothing else, it's a step in that direction.

Lisa said...

I agree with what you said about Obama. At least he will inspire and that is when change can finally occur in individuals.

Th. said...


I haven't changed my mind.

In my opinion, four years of a crappy president who is good for our soul won't hurt us. Four years of anything is just a blip in history.

One of Lincoln's platforms (and on the reasons the New York Times endorsed him) was "Hey! It doesn't matter what I think on things like slavery! Presidents can't do anything. What matters is that you can trust me to be constitutional and respect Congress, the real power."

I don't get that from Obama (or any presidential candidate in my lifetime), but still. I'm feeling like taking a chance.

Mr. Fob said...

Lisa: Does that mean that five out of seven siblings are voting for Obama? Go us! (And maybe more--I haven't heard for sure who A & T are voting for.)

Th.: Hooray for taking chances! Curiously, do you think it was true that it didn't matter what Lincoln thought about things like slavery? Cause I know the Civil War didn't really come out of the anti-slave benevolence that elementary school history books teach us about--at least not in so clear-cut a way--but it still seems to me that Lincoln's position on slavery made a bit of a difference, to put it mildly. But I also recognize that in matters of history and politics you tend to be better-informed than I.