Obama, Race, and the Right Side of History

The more people get to know Obama, the more people listen to him speak and not just rely upon other peoples' insights, the worries that it's "too soon" or "people just aren't ready" will start to melt away.
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ABC News reports that Sen. Obama spoke to a "mostly black audience" last night at the world-famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Hmm. From where I sat in the mezzanine, the makeup of the audience was under whispered debate. 1 in 5? 1 in 4? Maybe. No. The guys behind us debated this. My friend Trey and I debated it. While the place wasn't as white the home town crowd at a Utah Jazz game, I feel I can say with certainty, after walking past the wrapped-around-the-block lines 2x (once at 6:30pm, and again at 7:30pm), that while there was plenty of color in the audience, this was in no way was this a "mostly black audience."

I ask: is there anything wrong with that?

It was clear that Obama pulled a great cross-section of progressives, young and old, every shade of the spectrum to attend this $50 a head event. What could be called "skewing white" I think of as simply support that is more representative of America as a whole. Why Obama pulls this kind of support, Juan Williams explores in today's Times . Regardless of the why, I'm still struck by the image of two young white men two rows down, who literally high-fived and clasped hands when Obama entered the stage. Now, perhaps they'd just won some bet about whether his neck-tie would match the backdrop. All I know is that I witnessed unchecked enthusiasm and affection, and I was moved.

Chris Rock gave the best line of the night, and it's already getting tons of play. After acknowledging that lots of white people came Uptown for the event, he talked to black folks in particular: "You'd be real embarrassed if he won and you wasn't down. 'I had that white lady. What was I thinking?'"

However, to me, the most beautiful and radical ideas were posited by the speaker that introduced Chris Rock, and that was Professor Cornel West. Prof. West came on like fire and brilliance in his black suit, black tie, and hanging loop of gold watch chain. He asked the crowd how it felt to be on "the right side of history." He rhetorically put his arms around Obama's shoulders, saying Obama was "his brother, companion, and comrade...[that] there's a difference between being eloquent and articulate. [Obama's] eloquent. He's a good brother...his character and judgment always trumps the pseudo-rhetoric about his experience."

Prof. West went on to make the case for something rather radical in contemporary American politics: embracing a candidate for who he really is--his authentic self--and not who we wish he could be, or insisting that he should be like those who came before. He spoke of how we don't expect one great musical artist to sound or be like any other great musical artist--and that we shouldn't expect Obama to be a carbon copy of the great civil rights leaders of the past, either: "We accept Obama for who he is."

And who he is is someone rather special. The more people get to know Obama, the more people listen to him speak and not just rely upon other peoples' received insights, I predict that the worries that it's "too soon" or "people just aren't ready" will truly start to melt away. Obama hasn't been thrust out there like some unripe affirmative action candidate. As the Time cover says, this man is a contender.

Having watched one too many politicians cross the River Styx--that process of losing true connection to their authentic, best selves, and with that, connection to their core principals, becoming, as my friend Trey calls "pod people"--how refreshing it is to be exhorted to embrace someone for who he truly is: an amazing universe unto himself, someone who knows deeply how black men have to wear "the mask" in this culture, but also knows that his own face is beautiful and good enough to win people over in this election. And at home and abroad, once he's our president.

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