Sen. Barack Obama: In America, a dual audience
Sen. Barack Obama measured his words haltingly before the
National Association of Black Journalists, wary that the people he claims as his own do not accept him unconditionally. Turning to the crowd with his left index finger, he set up the straw man sustained by the media who have posed the question, "Is he black enough?"
"It's not because of my appearance, presumably," he said of the "puzzling question" irritating him as 3,000 NABJ members looked on. Reviewing his skills as an organizer in Chicago housing projects, a substantive stump speaker, a sponsor of judicial race-fairness who has "devoted his entire life to civil rights," Obama rated his record on black community issues as superior to that of any other candidate running for president.
The "black enough" question "says more about the attitudes in the African-American community than the larger community," he offered. "What it really lays bare, in part, is [that] we're still locked in this notion that if you appeal to white folks there must be something wrong."
Indeed, this notion persists among African-American voters of a certain age and sensibility.
The notion of a "dual audience" dates to the Harlem Renaissance as a literary concept coined by writer James Weldon Johnson, who penned what came to be called "The Negro National Anthem": "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." The United States is "made up of two elements with differing and often opposite and antagonistic points of view," Johnson argued, "both white America and black America." If the author fulfills the expectations of the white audience, he wrote, he outrages his black audience; if he satisfies his black audience, he bores his white audience. (A certain columnist grapples with this duality still.)
Obama seemingly grants whites their innocence on matters racial, but black Americans with roots in slavery, north and south, view things quite differently. They have seen no evidence of this integrated, American sensibility across racial lines. "If I lose this election, I don't believe it will be because of race," Obama told the NABJ crowd, expecting only a "small percentage" of whites to vote against him because he's black.
"I interact with people in very unlikely places," he boasts, "small farm towns in Iowa, old mill towns in New Hampshire." Yet, it's a sure bet that these farmers and mill workers hold a view opposite to that of most blacks on such issues as open housing, affirmative action, racial parity in all facets of American life, recent Supreme Court decisions and such matters as Barry Bonds' home run derby, Michael Vicks' suspension, to say nothing of reparations or an apology for U.S. slavery.
Despite this divide, Obama seems to sense a white American will for racial fair play - including judgment of him as a candidate.
Such hopeful assumptions are considered breathtakingly optimistic, if not naive, by the average black American with slave and Jim Crow roots stretching back centuries. They find it necessary to deal with both the self-help solutions to the consequence of slavery, as well as with the villains who created the horror and their descendants perpetuating the injustice still.
Spared such entanglement, Obama is the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas who, with her parents, raised him imbued with a zeal to wipe the slate clean of lingering, untidy race conflicts. As an exceptional student, he's conversant with slave history and its horribly bloody aftermath, but appears to bear no emotional scars or attachment to this historical circumstance.
This liberation frees up the senator for battle; however, he chooses to deal mainly with the suffering victims of this horror rather than the villains.
During the NABJ plenary and to the smaller Trotter Group meeting, Obama came not as a politician seeking votes but as an ambassador from a sovereign state. He chastised African-Americans who dared not accept him fully as a brother. Quite correctly, however, he detects in their pondering about him a fear of being turned away yet again. This much he can teach African-Americans, as he told the NABJ: "Why defeat ourselves ahead of time?" As for white Americans, Obama can instruct: "The African-American community is not a separate America, but is America. When it is lagging behind ... it's a blight on America."
Should Obama convince each side to listen, he may indeed go down as America's best hope.
Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.
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