Back when I was a baby, there was some controversy over the Irish Catholicism of Candidate Kennedy. I didn't participate in that sort of thing, obviously, but I heard enough about it so that it was a big deal. Eventually, Kennedy was shot, and so finally was his brother Robert. I suspect that if I read whatever the most notable Irish newspaper in America at the time, I would hear all over the editorial section how blatantly anti-Irish it all was. And the chorus says 'huh?'
I do read the headlines from The Root every day, and they serve to remind me of a number of things. Primarily however they remind me that the American Left is at odds with itself with regard to its multiculturalist principles and priorities. That comes out as frustration with its racial narrative and the actual way that successful ethnics express their power in America.
America is a melting pot, but only the Civil War made it hot enough to melt Africans into citizenship. The Civil Rights Movement, often interpreted as a grass roots revolution, demonstrated a different kind of heat that melted glass ceilings and second-class citizenship. But between you and me, it was the triumph of Thurgood Marshall's legal practice and that of his amicus partners. I've always expressed my interpretation of the progress of the African in America as one of human rights to civil rights and continuing on towards social power. But I am rather convinced these days that there are only civil rights in law and the rest requires old fashioned clout of the sort that is never arrayed for the masses outside of revolution. In other words, the only people who get 100% Civil Rights - the only kind of rights there are, are the rich and powerful. Everybody else gets a gentleman's C, and as such they follow the prerogatives of class, education and general human fitness. Nevertheless certain aspects of these rights and privileges accrue through the example of those who amass social capital, of which African Americans have a goodly share, and quite frankly have enjoyed since society girls started dancing Uptown. You could ask Sir Duke or Marion Anderson if they were still alive.
None of that changes the fact of the Black Power Struggle which always and everywhere refused the very idea of assimilation. America is no melting pot to them, but a lumpy salad and they like it lumpy, with a particularly tart flavor of relativist salad dressing called multiculturalism. But everybody knows a black olive is fundamentally different from egg whites...
You must keep this in mind when reading contemporary accounts of the complaints of the so-called 'African American' and discussions of 'race' attending such debate. I was reminded of this starkly last week as I tuned in to some of my old favorite reggae albums, notably that of Steel Pulse. Their music provides a very useful insight.
I won't belabor the point of the following lyrics:
They took us away captivity captivity
Required from us a song
Right now man say repatriate repatriate
I and I patience have now long time gone
Father's mothers sons daughters every one
Four hundred million strong
Ethiopia stretch forth her hand
Closer to God we Africans
Closer to God we can
In our hearts is Mount Zion
Now you know seek the Lion
How can we sing in a strange land
Don't want to sing in a strange land no
Liberation true democracy
One God one aim one destiny
Except to point out that they come from an album entitled True Democracy. If you ask a certain type of black American if they are patriotic you will find that they are, contingent on America's ability or willingness to produce True Democracy. I leave it to your curiosity to determine what degree of multicultural salad dressing that is, or more pointedly if there is sympathy with Marcus Garvey, Franz Fanon or Black Liberation Theology.
That is a very critical question that must be pointedly raised when certain assumptions about 'the' black polity's satisfaction with the purported black agenda of Barack Obama. I understand him very well to be exactly the sort who like me, loves to play the dub version (without lyrics) of that Steel Pulse song, (yes it is very popular). Unlike me, I happen to think Barack Obama would enjoy tweaking our democracy towards the 'True' in service of a lumpier multiculturalism.
The Washington Post's editorial by Frederick Harris reflects the disappointment anyone in search of 'True Democracy' must have with real political power in America. Him say:
After winning office, such race-neutral politicians don’t normally embrace issues and positions that black voters might prefer. Instead, the imperatives of reelection take over. To maintain their winning coalitions, these politicians usually need to govern in a racially neutral manner as well. (Black Americans understand this: In the 2008 ABC News-USA Today-Columbia University Black Politics Survey, nearly half of all black respondents believed that African Americans must play down their racial identity to get ahead in the United States.)
Obama has followed this pattern. During the 2008 campaign, the most significant moment when race hit the national stage was when controversy broke out over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, forcing Obama to deliver a much-heralded speech on race in Philadelphia. During his presidency, racial discussions have been largely limited to his reactions to unexpected public debates, such as the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
In theory, these two episodes offered opportunities for Obama to discuss reforms to the criminal justice system — an issue he’d raised early in his campaign — but instead, he limited his response to tamping down potential racial conflicts, then quickly moving on.
I take this complaint as one typical of the racially minded who can never be satisfied that America is talking enough about race - when the fact of the matter is they themselves can never shutup about race.
But I saw all this coming back when Obama proved his charm to the American electorate years ago. All of his black politics were a fiction, and then he made all black politics into a fiction - both the traditional and the newly opportunistic. Because it was all about Barack Obama, not about any real continuation of 'The Struggle'. Nevertheless, Obama played the right background music, gave fist bumps onstage and did those things that suited the styles of the revolutionaries and radicals. A suit he wore very well. I believe my characterization of him was 'Barbara Boxer in a black man suit', which is to say a typical Lefty American with no real loyalties but to the prerogatives of Left rhetoric as usual and win, win, win, elections. His agenda was indistinguishable from that of John Edwards basically until Shepard Fairy made the famous poster. And then he went on to raised more money in his campaign than any man in American history.
I understood, as much as I found Obama to be disagreeable, that he would not paint the White House black and that he would fit, one way or another, into the President Suit - that giant robot that says Made in America and Leader of the Free World with the stars and stripes on its chest. And in several ways he has done so admirably. But some fraction of his black electorate has reason to be disappointed in themselves for following a racial line that turns out not to be the doctrine they were expecting. And thus they have to be asked about their definitions of True Democracy.
Well actually they really don't, because if Barack Obama ain't black enough for you, then perhaps you take blackness not only too seriously, and in dubious directions. But the real news is that the next US President of African descent will have much less to prove about his blackness or the color of his skin indicating something about 'race relations.'
You see, the Civil Rights Movement is over. It is as over in 2012 as the Civil War was over in when those society girls were getting their Charleston on up in Harlem. We are fast approaching the day when all Civil Rights Movement veterans will be as dead as Thurgood Marshall. Perhaps Steven Speilberg or Clint Eastwood will direct the movie that has the last word on Thurgood. I'd like to see that movie. And if the idea that it won't be Spike Lee makes you uncomfortable - well then you just peed your own pants on that one, brother. And every day we will bury with another layer of abstraction those stories that retain their racial purity, as if only Africans can tell the story of Ocean Hill - Brownsville, only gays of Stonewall, only Chicanos of the Zoot Suit Riots. Because it will be America's history, and Americans will only tell themselves the stories that they feel comfortable with. That's not because the truth doesn't matter so much, but because race doesn't matter so much.
When the truth is told, that's what America wants.