Saturday, July 12, 2008
Barack Obama, Baby
"Can't he just find some hostages to rescue and shut his damn mouth?" This from Marcus, my old friend, who was discussing with me Jesse Jackson's recent dumb remarks about Barack Obama. A lot of people are writing this off as, oh, that's just Jesse Jackson acting up again, but I'm not so sure. It speaks to a much bigger problem, one that we need to address as a country.
Yes, kids, I'm going to get political here. Forgive me. I'm a little leery about posting this blog, in fact. One cannot discuss politics and race without making someone angry, but this has been on my mind a lot lately, so here goes.
When I was growing up in the suburbs on the south side of Chicago, I was pretty well convinced that Martin Luther King had done his job. With the Montgomery bus boycott and the integration of America's schools, as far as I was concerned everything in America was now okay. But here's the thing: everything in America is not okay, and Chicago lives and breathes every day everything that is wrong with America.
I'm not just talking about the economic and racial boundaries. There are certain lines that I will never cross after dark. The school where I teach is in a neighborhood where I won't go at night. We've had incidents that have led some teachers to ask security guards to walk them out to their cars at night. One teacher came out at the end of the school day to find his car had been set on fire. I took my homeroom outside after lunch one day and had to hustle them back inside one day when I realized that the car backfire I heard was actually gunshots.
It's not safe. It's not. And we send our kids home to this environment every day and wonder why only six in ten of them will graduate. Of those six, the majority are girls. In this country, african-american and latino boys have a better chance of going to jail than going to college. I'm not making this up.
We are a culture that is still in the middle of a racial and ethnic crisis, and it amazes me every day how many people blindly go about their daily lives ignoring it. In my city of Chicago, however, it's impossible to ignore it. Gang violence has escalated here in recent years. The murder rate in Chicago is higher this year than it was last year, and last year was higher than the year before. People don't feel safe in their neighborhoods, and yet they have to use heroic measures to cross the invisible racial and class lines that separate the north from the south side in this city just as clearly as the Mason-Dixon line does for the rest of the country. If you'd like to read a book that gets this problem across far better than I ever will, get your hands on Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago. One of the authors of this book, Lloyd Newman, is related to one of my students. Her mother strongly disapproves of what he says about their family, but she doesn't disagree with the problems he discusses. If you have any connection at all to the South Side, you can't disagree. You can't.
It's little wonder, then, that Chicago has long been the center of the continued Civil Rights movement in the United States. Three of the most influential african-american men in the country live in my neighborhood. I'm a bit bemused by that, if you want to know the truth. Often, I will know that there's going to be something on the news tonight simply based upon what building has a news truck parked in front of it.
The first one is Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the nation of Islam. Now, if I'm being honest, I'm going to tell you that Farrakhan has always frightened me a little. When I was a child, it seemed like his face was on the news every other day, and it seemed like he was always angry about something. Like his mentor Malcolm X, Farrakhan has in recent years stepped back from some of his earlier rhetoric, but. But. This is the man who called Judaism either a "gutter religion" or a "dirty religion," depending upon your source. This is also the man who called homosexuality a sin and said it was his duty to lift them "up to the standard that God wants them to ..." I could go on, but I won't. Suffice it to say that he frightens me. The word on the street right now is that he's so ill that he might be dying and still he frightens me.
It's the hatred, you see. It's the assumption that just because I'm white, I'm complicit with everything that's wrong with this country. It's an assumption that I have to fight all the time in my classroom, students assuming that because they're black, I'm not going to care about them. I want to ask them why. I don't hate you; why do you hate me?
When I was a child, I walked down to our local park by myself because none of my friends were around and I figured I could find someone to play with. And I did. Two african-american girls about my age were playing on the playground equipment and I ran over to play with them. One of them was relatively friendly and the other was not. In fact, about five minutes into our play, she saw I was on the edge of a ledge and pushed me off. I didn't fall far -- only about five feet -- but I fell hard. As I lay there in the dirt, all I could ask was why. The other girl said, "Sorry. It's not you. She just hates you because you're white." I ran home crying.
At the time, I couldn't process what had happened to me. In fact, I don't think I ever even told anybody, simply because I blamed myself for what happened. I told myself I must have done something wrong to make her hate me. But here's the thing: I didn't do anything wrong. I was just a little girl trying to play with another little girl who'd been taught by someone to hate me. And at that point in our country's history -- late seventies/early eighties -- there was a whole lot of hatred to go around. What a lot of people who have no contact with poverty-ridden urban communities don't understand is that it hasn't gone away. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X made great inroads, but then they were murdered, and the hatred hasn't gone away. The blame. I agree. Someone should be blamed. But who?
It's funny. Whenever I used to get down on myself, I always used to joke to my friends that no matter what happens in my life, no matter how badly this boyfriend or that has treated me, at least I don't live in a place where there are bodies in the streets. This is not a war zone, I'd tell them, thinking of Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine. But then I moved back to Chicago and realized I was wrong. This is a war zone. There are bodies on the streets. Just a couple of weeks ago a kid from the local grammar school was gunned down by some kids from the local high school a couple of blocks from my house. I heard the gunshots that night. I live in a relatively good neighborhood, but my neighborhood backs up against one that's not so good. On my way to work, I drive past burnt out buildings and crack houses and all I can do is wonder what is this America that I live in?
Not too long ago, in the midst of all the aftermath from Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West (who also just happens to be from the South Side of Chicago) went on television and said George Bush hates black people. My white friends couldn't get over this. How could he possibly believe this? they asked me. How could he possibly not? I'd reply.
He's not the only one who feels the way he does. I think of poets like Amiri Baraka and Lorna Dee Cevantes and remember how much my students relate to what they have to say and think: no. He's not alone. And Farrakhan is the most public figure who is saying what a whole lot of people are thinking. Farrakhan, who lives in Chicago. In my neighborhood. He lives close enough, in fact, that he probably heard the gunshots the other day, too.
Farrakhan lives a couple of blocks from me in this cool brick house right on a corner in the middle of a street populated by beautiful house after beautiful house. I drive past it on my way to the gym, and there's always some kind of security vehicle out front. Just across the street is a row of gated, fenced townhomes that my students tell me is connected to the main house by an underground tunnel under the street. The kids made it sound as if this were necessary because Farrakhan is afraid of death threats (Malcolm X's daughter Qubilah Shabazz was famously arrested about twenty years ago for planning his murder) and protects himself and his followers by avoiding the street.
When I asked someone from the neighborhood if this is true, I was told "probably." However. There are all kinds of underground tunnels all over Hyde Park and Kenwood because it was a hotbed for the underground railroad before the Civil War.
This explanation pleases me. The other, for obvious reasons, does not.
Recently, Farrakhan made the news because he'd endorsed Barack Obama for president. Obama's campaign, however, immediately distanced itself from Farrakhan. "Senator Obama has been clear in his objections to Minister Farrakhan's past pronouncements and has not solicited the minister's support," said a spokesman. This is a man who led 1995's Million Man March in Washington. Nitpick if you want about numbers, but he got nearly a million african-american men to get on buses and go to Washington to convince our lawmakers that they needed to do something. He has a huge influence on a great many men and women, but Obama had no choice but to distance himself from him. His greatest asset, his mouth, is also his greatest liability.
The next person in my neighborhood doesn't actually live in my neighborhood. However, his headquarters, Operation Rainbow Push Coalition, is just down the street from me.
It's a gorgeous building, and truly an asset to the community. One of the biggest issues, I think, that people have had with Jesse Jackson in the past has been the fact that he's such a talk, talk, talker. His talking has gotten him in trouble more than once, but let me tell you something: what they don't show you on the news is that his talking gets things done. Rainbow Push always, and I mean always, has some kind of program going on in the community. Last weekend there was a truck parked out in front where people could come for free medical care. There was a line up and down the block of people taking advantage of it. This is the norm not the exception for Rainbow Push. . They are hugely influential and do so much good that anyone who has spent any amount of time around them has to admire what they do. People who live in the suburbs with manicured lawns do not understand the level of poverty in our cities. We need organizations like Rainbow Push because our government is doing little to help people break that cycle of poverty.
Say what you will about Jesse Jackson and his rhetorical scare tactics, the man is the only one in the city of Chicago that I've seen have this level of positive influence on the surrounding community.
Now, don't get me wrong: Jesse Jackson's mouth has definitely undermined the good he has done in the community. For instance, during his 1984 campaign for president, Jackson referred to New York City as "Hymietown." Jackson was rightfully criticized for this anti-Semitic speech at the time. And here again, I have to wonder: why all the anti-Semitism in the black community? It makes no sense to me.
I just spent a little time doing some research on this because honestly, it all happened when I was a little kid and my memory of it is cloudy at best. Strangely, it was Farrakhan who leapt to Jackson's defense, saying somewhat frighteningly, "If you harm this brother, it'll be the last one you ever harm. If you want to defeat him, defeat him at the polls. We can stand to lose an election, but we cannot stand to lose our brother."
Farrakhan is right; we cannot stand to lose him. He has done some great things, and promoted racial dialogue in a way that few other men can. An incident from several years ago springs to mind. At a high school basketball game, some students from Brother Rice high school began taunting a boy from another school, calling him "Buckwheat." Soon after that, it made the news, and Jackson got involved. He went to Rice and had a meeting with students and administrators and talked about why this incident occurred and what we can do to stop it from happening again. Now, I'm not saying that he solved anything. Indeed, the majority of people in the Rice community were supremely embarrassed by nastiness from a few vocal kids, but the fact remains that white folks in this country still find it reasonable to say such things, and Jesse Jackson is one of the few people powerful enough to get it across that it is not. It. Is. Not.
A few years ago, when I was living in New York, I experienced Jackson's charisma firsthand. It was on an airplane from Chicago to New York -- for some reason, I'd managed to score some tickets towards the front of the plane, near first class. Just before the plane was about to shut its doors, there was some commotion in front and Jesse Jackson walked on the plane. I was sitting on the aisle and I had a clear view of him, so clear in fact that our eyes met and he nodded to me. I smiled back. I admired him greatly at the time.
This, of course, is why it's so distressing to me that Jackson should say what he said about Obama. Jackson is at a place in his life and his career where he should have risen to the role of elder statesman. He wields a great deal of political power still, but his actions in recent years are taking away from what should be his time of greatest influence. I used to respect Jackson a lot; now I just wish he'd use better judgement.
For those of you who managed to avoid the maelstrom of political coverage on this, Jackson was being interviewed by FOX news (which is the first surprise to me; why anybody would want to be interviewed by FOX is beyond me) and he leaned over to someone during a break and said that he'd like to castrate Obama because he was "talking down to black people."
Even Al Sharpton has criticized him for this behavior, and that's saying something.
I was at a nail salon on 95th Street a couple of days ago discussing this latest incident with my sister-in-law Vivian. An african-american woman sitting across from us at the nail-drying machine just started laughing. "You know what I think?" she said. "I think he's just like my father. He's turned into a crotchety old man who thinks he can say any damn thing he wants just because he's old and age gives him certain rights. He just needs to shut his damn mouth now. He's already done his talking."
Then there's my other neighbor, the one that all of this talk is about. The really famous one. You know, the one who's running for president? He lives two blocks from me. I'm not kidding. I've got all kinds of stories of almost-brushes with him.
Last October, I had a Halloween party and Natasha, one of my guests who'd parked up the block had to stop and wait for her friend to get something. She just happened to wait on the corner in front of Obama's house. A Secret Service agent confronted her before too long. "Um, excuse me ma'am?" He told her she'd have to move along. They were being particularly diligent because Obama was getting a lot of death threats at the time.
I like to surprise people with how accessible he is to the average girl on the street. My friend Debbie comes walking with me in the neighborhood sometimes. When we walked on the sidewalk right in front of his house, she couldn't believe it. There were all kinds of SUVs idling in the street in front, but we were able to walk right by. Minutes later, the motorcade sped by us and Debbie swore she saw Obama in one of the windows. I like that about him. I like that he's a presidential candidate that I can see if I walk by his house.
Barack Obama is a different kind of activist. I'd hoped that he'd be able to escape from the battlefield rhetoric that have plagued both Jackson and Farrakhan, but he's had problems, most notably because of his associations with them and from people like them.
Most notably there is his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the minister of the Trinity United Church of Chicago. Wright was roundly criticized by everyone near and far for his anti-American, racist diatribes in sermons. What's funny about this is that I, too, heard this on the news and accepted what everyone was saying about this guy as truth. Then I found a news outlet that actually ran his remarks in full. And here's the thing: he's not entirely wrong. He ruins his message by tarring it with the same anti-white, anti-Semitic brush that has painted Farrakhan's and Jackson's remarks over the years.
He speaks of the problems where young black men are more likely to go to prison than college, and the reality that racism is alive and well in this country. He speaks of how impossible it was for Jackson to get elected, and how black women are sexually objectified. He also speaks of America's penchant for invading foreign countries when it suits our own needs and our lack of action when we should morally take it, like when we left Nelson Mandela in jail for decades. He speaks of the AIDS virus, and how racism may well account for America's lack of action in fighting it and establishing health care for all Americans. He speaks of children who cannot read, and our refusal to spend more money on education. He speaks of many things like this in his speech, and he's not wrong.
His problem is that he blames racism for things that have no connection. He speaks of Zionism as something that has something to do with our lack of action on other fronts. He speaks of AIDS as a deliberate attempt to kill the black man. He speaks of white supremacy as if all white people believe in it.
When these remarks first came to light, Obama dismissed them as speech coming from "an old uncle that I sometimes don't agree with." As the story gained power and attention in the media, Obama divorced himself more fully from Reverend Wright, because it began to be clear that he cannot let himself be associated, even a little, with anti-white or anti-Semitic speech. It is a lesson that Jackson and Farrakhan learned for him.
Obama himself has never made remarks like these. This is an important distinction to make, because he has been accused of racism simply by association with Reverend Wright. Here's the problem with this accusation, one that people in their whitebread suburbs don't understand: it is speech that is widespread and inescapable in certain communities, especially on the South Side of Chicago. Look at the rhetorical genealogy we have to follow here: Jackson and Farrakhan and now Wright. I would have been far more surprised if Obama hadn't had an association with someone who spoke like this.
It is a problem. It is a gigantic problem. The speech of hatred does nothing to advance the cause of civil rights in this country, and gives political leaders reason to ignore the african-american cause. They are not wrong about the problems in this country. They are wrong to promote racism while discussing them. We will never move forward as a society until people realize this. The civil rights cause has stagnated since 1968. Finally we have a black leader who can do something meaningful to advance it. Finally. All he needs to do to get this done is divorce everyone who has come before him.
And that, my friends, is the real shame.