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“Cobb is especially good on the contrast between Obama and Jesse Jackson, whose celebrated work had opened many doors for Obama, but who now failed to inspire most young African-Americans. Obama embodies the face—multiracial and cosmopolitan—of the next generation, and his ‘ultimate significance may be less as a president than as a harbinger of what comes after his presidency.’ A rich, provocative meditation on the importance of Obama’s election.” —Kirkus Reviews
“William Jelani Cobb has written a smart and observant reminder of the candidacy and election of President Barack Obama....This little book is packed with common sense observations that are given weight and meaning through Professor Cobb’s academic and historical insight.”—Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University
“Barack Obama’s presidential campaign shone an incisive light on the nation’s attitudes about race and on the roots of black political empowerment. William Jelani Cobb provides a wealth of historical background and an eloquent appraisal of the present, as he narrates how a grassroots movement and a cadre of young people (the Joshua generation) successfully fought the established political machine for the hearts and ballots of the black community. An insightful and thought-provoking book.” —Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP
“William Jelani Cobb’s The Substance of Hope is a deft analysis of many vectors brought to bear on the unexpected rise of Barack Obama. With a specific eye towards the overlap between race and age, Cobb deconstructs the politics of the civil rights generation in the Obama age with nuance and honesty. A provocative book, from a provocative mind.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Beautiful Struggle
On January 20, 2009, a black man stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, placed his hand on a Bible held by his wife, and was sworn in as president of the United States. I was there that day, frozen nearly solid but still awed by the magnitude of what I had witnessed—nothing less than the passing of an old era and the initiation of another. I was born in August 1969, sixteen months after Martin Luther King Jr. took his fateful step onto that balcony in Memphis. I am part of that generation reared in the seemingly permanent shadow of King's life and the violent way it ended. I have often taken solace in that speech he gave on April 3, 1968, the one where he seemed to dip his toe into the waters of his own mortality as if he somehow knew that he would soon be fully immersed. In that speech he uttered his contralto prediction that "we as a people will get to the Promised Land." Since then, at points when our community prospects seemed most bleak, many of us have fallen back on those words, believing that a man who saw his own fate so clearly was capable of seeing ours also. For many, that inauguration day in 2009 was validation of King's promise.
For the entirety of this nation's history the phrase black president had been a contradiction in terms, but in the course of a forty-two-word oath, its terms were reconciled. The moment was not simply about words—that was only one of many reconciliations both grand and minute. Consider this: In 1908 Jack Johnson defeated a white man for the heavyweight championship, and race riots erupted in the streets across the country. One hundred years later Barack Obama defeated a white man for the presidency, and the streets were filled with riotous laughter as millions of people simultaneously broke into the Electric Slide.
In addition to bearing the burdens that come with the presidency, Barack Obama is freighted with the vast weight of his own symbolism. His position is so unique and so far outside our expectations as to make him a metaphor for a metaphor. It is possible, almost unavoidable, to see Obama's entire life—from birth to i nauguration—as a referendum on civil rights causes. This biracial black lawyer who relied on millions of black voters to help him win the presidency serves as an unmistakable reminder of the NAACP's legal battles to end the "white primary" in the 1930s, its campaign to end segregation in law schools in the 1940s, the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Without the civil rights movement, the marriage of Barack Obama's African father and his white American mother would have been illegal in most states of the South.
The headline for the New York Times on November 5, 2008, blared from the page: RACIAL BARRIER FANS IN DECISIVE VICTORY. Obama's name appeared in ninety-six-point type. Only three events in the paper's history—the Apollo landing, Richard Nixon's resignation, and September 11 attacks—were heralded with equal dimensions. At Ebenezer Baptist, the church once pastored by Martin Luther King Jr., the congregation gathered for a Watch Night service. It was a deliberate recasting of history, an echo of those slaves who gathered on the last day of 1862 awaiting New Year's—the day the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect. In Nairobi entire communities stayed up throughout the night, anticipating the moment when one of their own descendants would be declared the new president. And in Grant Park in Chicago seven hundred thousand people jammed into the space along Lake Michigan to hear Barack Obama say, "Change has come to America."
And it has. But the dimensions and contours of that change are not yet apparent. We will not know its full yield, the ways in which it will alter race and citizenship and possibility, for many years to come.
In the meantime we have filled that space with the metaphors. The American creed of "Out of many, one" has been turned on its head, a character defined by the ideal of "Out of one, many." Barack Obama is the black president and thus the American Mandela, the yield of a once-enslaved people's aspirations toward freedom. He is a biracial man with family members on four continents—and therefore is the face of the next generation, one that is multiracial and cosmopolitan. His family is a testament to globalism. He is the Democrat who won 53 percent of the popular vote and thus is the punctuation at the end of the Reagan Era. His policies defy the traditional categories of liberal or conservative, thus heralding the end of the tread-worn arguments over the 1960s culture wars. He is shorthand for celebrity, for digital politics, for change and for hope. And somewhere, beneath all that, is a human being who happens to be the forty-fourth president of the United States.
There are other metaphors. A century ago W. E. B. Du Bois published an essay titled "Of the Meaning of Progress" in his collection The Souls of Black Folk, in which he recounted his days as a teacher in small-town Tennessee. More than a summer job, his task, as he saw it, was part of a monumental undertaking to uplift the race. Ten years after leaving the town, he returned, now a respected professor and the first black man with a Ph.D. from Harvard, but he found that the progress had not been uniform. Some of his former students had died unexpectedly, while others remained mired in conditions scarcely better than slavery. Du Bois's own accomplishments marked a step forward for the black community, but what that meant in the context of the times was hard to interpret precisely. There. Another metaphor, another attempt at bringing light to a circumstance so novel as to be a source of both inspiration and confusion. Obama's election represents progress, its meaning as complex and cryptic as life in Du Bois's Tennessee town.
It is difficult, in fact, to read Dreams from My Father without hearing other echoes from Souls of Black Folk. The Harvard-educated black president had an unwitting kinship with the Harvard-educated black scholar. Both men grew up fatherless in environments where blacks were a small minority. Both men's searches for identity were intricately bound to their ability to decipher the meaning of race. In the early pages of his memoir Obama tells of a haunting a magazine image of a black man who has bleached his skin, in a failed attempt to come closer to whiteness. It becomes a moment of reckoning for him. Du Bois spoke of the point in his childhood when a playmate rejected his friendship and the difference of his skin first dawned on him. These tales are compelling precisely because they are typical. In a society where race is as ambient as air, such moments are usually the hard but regular features of life, not the beginnings of existential journeys.
As a young man, Du Bois left his childhood home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, for Tennessee and Fisk University. There he first encountered black communities, came to understand black culture, and began to grapple with its implications for his own life. Obama began college in California but then transferred to Columbia University, in part because of its proximity to Harlem. Later Chicago's South Side came to serve for Obama the functions that Nashville had for Du Bois—a literal starting place within black America. Their unique experiences made both men variables in the racial equation. Du Bois lived ninety-five years, authored volumes of history, and became the godfather of the civil rights movement. Obama's meaning to race and democracy in this country has yet to be charted, which perhaps more than anything else is the reason we find the story of 2008 compelling. Beneath all the celebration, the commentary, and the joyous merchandising of an American moment, lies this unanswered question: What is the meaning of this progress?
The man who became president waged a twenty-two-month campaign against cynicism. It was a clever bit of wordplay. Had he railed against racism, he would have found himself exiled to the fringes—Al Sharpton territory. Even the most righteous mention of discrimination would likely have alienated white voters. But cynicism was fair game. Your doubts about a black man becoming president weren't racist—they were cynical. None of the old deflections, none of the head fakes or portable indignations, came into play. No talk-radio hosts advocate cynicism. No black leaders picket against it. If the word racism lost its abrasive power somewhere in the Nixon era, cynicism still has no defenders. Doubt, pessimism—t hose things are downright un-American. But beneath the word game, Obama was asking one portion of the country to slough off two centuries of its history and asking another to believe that the first was willing and capable of doing so.
All politicians need large enemies against which to define themselves: The usual suspects include "the lobbyists," "the special interests," "the media," and the nameless, greed-infected CEOs. Obama took occasional aim at those targets but also waged war against a national mood, a jaded disposition. For eight disastrous years the American economy had been pushed to ruin and vengeance had become a substitute for foreign policy, so this strategy was understandable. As he sought the confidence of millions of skeptical voters who could not pronounce or spell his name at first, battling cynicism made sense. But what went unstated and nearly unnoticed was that in battling cynicism, he was challenging black voters as much as white ones. He was asking black America to step away from its own perspective of history and believe that a black man could become president. That required both audacity and vast reserves of hope.
Certain cynical luxuries come with being black in this country, like the ability to shrug off the dime-store rites of patriotism. We've generally seen America through a perpetually raised eyebrow, a yeah, whatever perspective that comes with the terrain on this side of American history. This is not fatalism, the belief that change is impossible. Rather, it is the knowledge that for every bit of it you achieve, you will pay a premium plus interest.
Older folk reserve the term backsliding for those Christians who understand the righteous path but habitually wander back into the thickets of sin. American history is one of democratic backsliding. In 1865, just after the Thirteenth Amendment formally ended slavery, friends of Frederick Douglass approached him about disbanding the old antislavery societies. Douglass advised them that it would be unwise to do so. Slavery was no more, but "we must see what new shape this old snake will take next." His warning proved prescient: In place of slavery came the bitter regime of sharecropping and the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. Lynching revoked freedom. Decades later, on the verge of the first world war, W. E. B. Du Bois urged blacks to close ranks with the nation and fight in the war, even in a segregated army; he believed their patriotism would yield a freedom dividend at home. Instead, black soldiers upon their return were lynched in uniform.
The ghosts of Memphis haunt us still. The disbelief in progress is tied to the image of Martin Luther King Jr., sprawled on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel. And that of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom. And Medgar Evers's blood-ruined driveway in Mississippi. And any of the nameless catalogue of casualties, men and women guilty only of taking the Constitution at face value.
The fruits of this history were visible in the initial reaction of many African Americans to Barack Obama's candidacy. A year before the inauguration I walked the streets of Denmark, South Carolina, knocking on doors and handing out Obama campaign materials. In those days Hillary Clinton held a significant national advantage over Obama among black voters. They held her husband in high regard; she had greater name recognition and massive financial advantages. Time and again I encountered people who believed they were doing Obama a favor by not supporting him. "He has two small children," they would point out. "He needs to be around to see them grow up." Or "I want to support him; I just don't know what might happen ...," and the sentence would trail off, leaving bad echoes of the past to fill in the blanks.
In asking for their vote, Obama was necessarily asking people to part with this inheritance of doubt. In February 2007 the Obamas sat down for an interview with 60 Minutes. Steve Kroft delicately asked Michelle Obama whether she feared for her husband's life. Her reply was, "As a black man, Barack could be shot going to the gas station." This was a statement that could have been comforting only to black people. At that crucial moment she decided to be optimistic, albeit in the most cynical way possible. The possibility of violent death is truly a bitter, unspoken reality for black men in this country. Black males are nearly ten times more likely than their white peers to be victims of homicide. Michelle Obama was born and raised in Chicago, and her statement reflected a certain South Side pragmatism: If going to the store means taking your life in your hands, why wouldn't you run for president? It was simply a matter of relative risks. Four of forty-three presidents had died violently. The stats for a black man who resides on the South Side of Chicago might be roughly comparable. In either case, her response put a different spin on the issue of his safety.
In January 2008 Caroline Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama for president. Like many people that year, she reported that her children had convinced her to support his candidacy. A common storyline of the election was that younger Americans identified with the cool candidate, regardless of his race, and convinced their parents to vote for him. In black America that story had a particular twist: The younger generation convinced the older one not only that he could win but that he could be safe. This was the hidden implication of Obama's theme "Change you can believe in"—it meant different things to different people. For one portion of the public, it meant that a nation could change its path, reaffirm its commitment to democracy, and meet titanic challenges. For another, it meant that a man could step outside the rules of history and live to tell about it.
This battered belief in progress—however fragmented and however great the costs—is the most fundamentally American aspect of the black experience. But the ligament of hope was not enough to support the idea of a black president. Prior to his entry into the election, only a handful of African Americans believed that Barack Obama could win—and all of them lived at the same address on the South Side of Chicago. In the face of history, their doubt was more akin to realism than cynicism. Between 1876 and 2008 a grand total of three black people had been elected to the U.S. Senate. Only two had served as governor. The most powerful African Americans—Thurgood Marshall, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas—gained their positions through pol itical appointments, a testament to the influence of their white patrons but certainly not evidence of an ability to actually win elections.
For these reasons the road to black support ran through a state with a 94 percent white population. Victory in the Iowa caucuses was a necessity, the closing argument in Obama's case to black America. I viewed the Iowa returns at a watch party on the northwest side of Atlanta. State senators and city council reps politicked around the floor. Reverend Joseph Lowery, the civil rights icon and former lieutenant to Martin Luther King Jr., sat on the far side of the room; local pols pooled around him, trying, it seemed, to gain endorsement by proximity. When Obama was announced as the winner of the caucuses, the party roared. But what struck me was the look of shock on the face of an older black man near me. His jaw literally hung open, and he stared at the screen for long, speechless moments, his hat askew. He was seeing something, a version of America, maybe, that he had never expected to witness.
Excerpted from The Substance of Hope by WILLIAM JELANI COBB Copyright © 2010 by William Jelani Cobb. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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