Monday, January 16, 2017

44 Is A Magic Number: Part One

Prologue: A Personal History of Before and After

There are two kinds of occurrences that can be said to change the world: There are the types which unfold over time, which we often see coming, and there are the unexpected types which happen in an instant. It’s hard to say which ones ultimately leave the more lasting societal impact. That would be a subjective conclusion anyway. What these types of occurrences have in common is that they divide our history into before and after. Ask anyone who is old enough if they remember life before and after certain things happened, and you’ll most likely get a story that defines the person as well as the day and age in which it took place.

I remember watching the earliest news reports about the Iranian hostage crisis in November of 1979. I was much too young to grasp the politics that swirled around that story, but I knew it was serious, and it was protracted. I also remember the sense of elation when it was announced, immediately after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, that they had been released. A little over two months later, upon returning home from a trip to downtown with my mother and sisters, I flicked on the television and, before it even warmed up enough for the picture to appear, you could hear the newscasters had interrupted programming to tell us the president had been shot. These two back-to-back events, one long-in-coming and the other happening out of nowhere, had the lasting effect of increasing Reagan’s larger-than-life persona to an extent that carried over long past his presidency into the present day.

I also remember, in 1984, when Jesse Jackson launched his first campaign for the presidency. I was still too young to understand the intricacies of his platform and politics (although at least some of that probably speaks to the trickle-down understanding of politics most Americans still experience), but I definitely felt the newness of that candidacy, and how it had the possibility of unlocking something we’d never seen before. Of course, that quality of the unknown didn’t inspire everyone, and many of us possessed an intimate understanding of where that resistance came from.

Eddie Murphy had a famed routine at the time where he described talking to Jackson while the latter was working out. “Why you getting in shape?” he asked. “Because I’m going to be the first Black president,” replies Jackson, “so I’m gonna have to give speeches like this…” and then Murphy proceeded to run around the stage, in character, delivering lines from a speech, then mimicking a sniper unable to keep the target in his sights. We all laughed because just barely beneath the surface of this joke was the sinister nature of our country’s racism being acknowledged. It was funny – and scary – because it was true.

When I think of Jackson running for the presidency in ’84, and again in ’88, the words that seem
most reflective of the endeavor were the slogan “Keep Hope Alive.” It’s almost as though he and his supporters knew he couldn’t actually win. Not at that time, not yet with Reagan-era enthusiasm in full swing. But they already envisioned the possibility of a Black president, some day, as inevitable and a hope to be passed along like the Olympic torch. But, there also remained the dark humor of a fictional sharpshooter keeping hope in his sites, lamenting, “He won’t stay still!”

Another quality of before-and-after moments is their lack of precedence. Usually they become affixed to our memories so fast because they represent a shock we could not have prepared for. The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 was like that. I remember my mother bursting into my bedroom, waking me from a nap, to inform me of news so disorienting I wasn’t sure if I’d dreamed it. Space travel was no longer a thing to be collectively awed by, or even to take for granted. Now, the dangers were clear to all, reinforced by a perpetual news cycle of the 73 seconds between liftoff and history. Now the audacious attempt to escape the clutch of Earth’s gravity was a thing to be approached with extreme caution. Hope could not be guaranteed to survive in the vacuum of outer space.

But moonwalks were still possible, and we would still find our spiritual sustenance when least expected. In 1983, Michael Jackson transfixed nearly 34 million viewers with his enthralling performance of “Billie Jean” on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, and cemented his role in pop culture’s firmament. Never before had a Black man been celebrated so openly, so fervently, so passionately, across racial divides, and his popularity grew exponentially. Eight years later, the debut of his video for the song “Black or White” was met with a viewership of half a billion people worldwide. Jackson’s musical progenitor James Brown had declared for the masses “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Jackson’s career presumed that everyone already knew this and, if anything, took it for granted, and he used that as the launch pad for his flights of imagination.

While Black excellence in the realm of the arts and popular entertainment may not have been as socially daunting to many in White America as it potentially was in politics (indeed, prior to the civil rights movement, well-known Black athletes and performers were often segregated and denied basic accommodations across the U.S.A.), Jackson represented another strata of acceptance…and defiance. Just like participants in the Black Power Movement had done, Jackson brazenly raised a Black fist to the sky in front of the world. The only difference was his fist was adorned with rhinestones and sparkled like the stars. His ascendance would not be denied.

There were numerous other before-and-after moments that pushed the direction of the world I inhabited in unforeseen directions. Some occasions were joyous, while others were cataclysmic.

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall was brought down and the global response was unanimous. Millions of people came armed with hammers, pick axes, cranes, bulldozers, and a sense of euphoria to thaw East/West Cold War tensions. In 1995, however, the Oklahoma City bombing served to undermine our sense of domestic safety. Until a fateful day another six years later, this would be the defining moment of when America began looking over its shoulder, unsure of who to trust.

To this day, the 2001 terrorist attacks are one of the two most shocking events I’ve ever witnessed. Of the two, it’s the event I’d never even previously contemplated as possible. It’s a defining moment not just for me, but for the culture of the world. If you’re old enough to remember what the world was like prior to that happening, it’s probably safe to say you too recognize the tangible fear that still lingers in our collective conscious because of it. Our laws were not just changed in response to it, but co-opted. Our language was mangled. To be a patriot was now defined not by maintaining a sense of individual integrity devoted to the public trust, but instead by a topical allegiance to…flags. Colors. Slogans. Manufactured and unwinnable wars. The measures of the Patriot Act didn’t ask citizens to actually be patriots, but to merely act like them. There was American life both before and after September 11th, 2001, and the demarcation between the two was one constructed from the brick-and-mortar of fear. Hope, that haughty, mercurial thing, had been jettisoned into the stratosphere, as we spiraled farther into political and economical freefall.

At the helm was one George W. Bush, American president and cautionary tale. I never voted for him, but I knew people who did, which I couldn’t understand. To my eyes, Bush was not an especially intelligent person. His grammar was off, his manner awkward, and nothing about him bespoke confidence in the role of a potential world leader. I hadn’t voted for his father either, but I at least understood why other people had. Bush, Sr. possessed the gravitas of an elder statesman. He was older, he was White, he was conservative, he was rich, he was intelligent (at least enough to play the political game well for decades), he had connections, he had a pedigree…he was a shoe-in. Bush, Jr. had his father’s name and not much else that was visible to me.

Comedians often distill the primacy of our culture down to a punchline. Dave Chapelle had a routine at the time about politics where he offered his own criteria for selecting candidates to vote for. “I don’t even look at their political policies; I just look at their character.”

(Video below NSFW -- jump to 1:40 for comments on policy and character.)

Like Chappelle, I felt Bush’s character was obvious, although, I’d like to point out, I didn’t think that the man was evil, just lacking in the wherewithal that a president should possess. Have you ever watched the video of Bush being delivered the news about the terrorist attacks while he was in the middle of visiting with a group of second graders? It’s unsettling. At once, you feel for him, teetering directly on the precipice of a before-and-after moment none of us saw coming. But at the same time, there was a vacant quality behind his eyes. You can see the totality of the presidency falling into place on him in those seconds. I don’t believe he’d taken its measure until then, and in the years that followed we all paid for his lack of foresight.

I.: Hope Anew

Then, in 2008, we had another election. It was time to take the measure of another potential leader’s character into account and, like many others, I was already familiar with the candidate whose character beamed through like no other’s before or since.

I vividly recall watching the Democratic National Convention in 2004 when Barack Obama gave the keynote address bestowing the party’s nomination on John Kerry. On the whole, I was watching the convention more out of a sense of duty than anything else. My vote for Kerry was a foregone conclusion, so the rest of the ceremonies were mostly reaffirming what I already believed. Seeing former vice-President Al Gore take the stage at one point reminded me of the pangs of disappointment many of us had felt when he’d lost his own bid four years earlier. One pundit said that Democrats couldn’t win elections even when they did win. That was painful to hear, but it also was a stark reminder that nothing was assured. Obvious winners didn’t always come out on top even when they did, and some moonshots don’t make it to lunar soil.

But the moment Obama took to the stage, there was something inexpressible about him that refused to allow you to look away from the screen. There was his youth, and his bearing, and his direct, articulate voice, all of which the crowd adored. And he was Black, and via his Blackness he related an experience that I understood intrinsically. This was something new to my adult life, a politician the likes of whom I didn’t realize existed, or who could exist out there somewhere. Someone who openly talked about the inherent contradictions of being a Black American, caught between the duties of loyalty to country and the stinging of national betrayal. Somehow he managed to finesse a message of audacious hope out of the worry that we were mired in, and it had resonance. We needed to hear this, and it was working. I spoke about this with friends the next day, and those who had also seen Obama speak were likewise impressed. We all said the same thing: we wanted that guy to run for president!

But instead Obama did the thing he was asked to do, which was throw his already considerable political charms behind another candidate. In doing so, we still remembered him well after Kerry’s loss, less painful than Gore’s but maybe even more disappointing. We remembered that Chicago Senate nominee with the persuasive voice and, for the first time in a long time, we realized that there was a contender for a winning Democratic presidential hopeful. You couldn’t forget him. His speech was the political equivalent to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk across the Motown 25 stage, or Muhammad Ali winning the gold medal in Rome. We remembered him for the next four years and we wanted him to make his own run for the presidency.

When it was time to cast my ballot for a Democratic primary candidate in April, 2008, I knew who I wanted to win.  2008 marked twenty years that we’d kept hope alive; it was time for that hope to spring anew.

II.: Win the Future

Election Night, November 4th, 2008 I was working alone on the 11th floor of PPG Place in Downtown Pittsburgh. The televisions were still on in the lobbies of the office, but I was tucked away in my production room, running copying machines and binding documents, and trying to get caught up for the next workday. All the while though, I had the election results streaming on my work laptop. Every now and again, on trips to the restroom or kitchenette, I’d steal a glance at the televisions lining the hallway to see if they corroborated what I was seeing on my laptop. What I was seeing looked good, but I knew enough to not be overconfident. This would be a nail-biter of an election. It had to be. The previous two were, and those had been between traditional candidates. I was preparing for a long night.

Art: Alex Ross
My voting record has been straightforward over the years. I’ve voted for Democratic Presidents every time. The first person I voted for was Michael Dukakis in 1988, so I entered into this process understanding that sometimes you lose. That’s how it works. But as I’ve grown older, and become more savvy about politics (not a genius or anything mind you – I still hew to Chappelle’s wisdom of looking at character before policy), it’s felt progressively more personal to me with each election. The more vested you are in the system and how it’s supposed to work, the more you view the politicians as extensions of yourself. You want certain people in office because it’s like seeing that part of yourself there. When your favored candidate loses, it can feel like a rejection of your own values and core beliefs. And because politics stresses a this-or-that sense of belonging, it’s easy to forget that certain values cross all lines, political, spiritual, gender, race, age, planet of origin, etc. (I threw that last part in there because Superman would make for the best president of all time!) When your candidate is elected but, in some way, falls short, it can feel like you failed too. We’re always striving for that win to validate ourselves.

You know something specific that appealed to me about Obama? His intelligence. There was no denying that the man was smart. This was a candidate who could do more than just memorize talking points; he was nimble of mind and navigated the debates with assurance. This is something that I could never forgive the Bush presidency for doing: they'd delivered to the people a sitting president who I never once believed was truly smarter than me. I don’t say that because I’m so brilliant (although I obviously am); I say it because watching him fumble for answers during press conferences, or construct incoherent homilies, or ramble during addresses was an exercise in futility. Did George W. Bush have access to resources I didn’t? Yes. Was there a political cunning there? Absolutely. You don’t grow up in a well-connected family like the Bushes without some innate awareness of how our governing infrastructure is assembled. Bush, Jr. knew enough to not be a monkey wrench in that machine. But do I believe he drove the changes that took place during his administration? Not at all. Frankly, I don’t believe he was that smart…but I’ll leave that for the historians to determine.

I was ready for a president who was smarter than me but who still felt like an extension of me. And I wanted a president smart enough to understand what the world looks like from the vantage point of the ground. I believed Obama could, because he’d been there. As a Black man in America, he understood the unforgiving nature of the ground. But could this really happen? How strong was the pull of racial gravity that night?

I watched the election results roll in and slowly felt something I hadn’t anticipated. It was promised throughout the campaign, and it was now rising to the surface: Hope. Obama’s election steadily seemed like an honest-to-goodness possibility, and every time I looked at the computer, there were more and more electoral votes in his favor. When the news anchors finally called the election and announced that the 44th President of the United States was going to be Barack Obama, I stood there, mouth agape and alone, trying to once again assimilate a colossal shift in before-and-after. This is the second of two moments I consider the most shocking in my lifetime to date. It’s the one that I had recognized the potential of beforehand – we’d seen it realized in movies and on television, and the intellectual possibility of it always was there – but the vision of it had never truly been in focus.

I don’t know if I called or texted anyone. I think I just sat there stunned into silence, wondering if there’d been a mistake. It felt like the kind of thing this country would take away instantly. A Black President? Now? In 2008? That happened? I sat and stared and pondered and shook my head for who knows how long. It wasn’t until the new First Family took to the stage together to address the crowd that my disbelief was displaced by a Black Euphoria I hadn’t dared to feel until right then. The Obamas strode across the stage amidst streamers and applause and cheers, and there in the crowd was a tearful Jesse Jackson, witnessing his Rainbow Coalition made manifest. I too found myself crying, like others I watched onscreen. In that moment I realized I’d never allowed myself to believe this would happen during my lifetime, not during the campaign, not after the primary elections, not even after his nomination. Not until right then was it a reality. From my perch above Market Square, I could feel that the world had changed, and soon I would see I wasn’t alone in this sense of elation.

I managed to finish up working, and caught a bus that took the typical lazy route from Downtown through Uptown, then Oakland, and eventually to my destination of Shadyside. But when we got to Oakland, traffic slowed to a predictable crawl. Students from all of the colleges had flocked to the streets to celebrate the election victory. I wanted to get out and join them. It reminded me of the night, back in October of 1979, when my family was out returning from a grocery shopping trip and we got caught in cacophonous traffic on the North Side. I asked what was going on and was told that the Pittsburgh Pirates had won a World Series game. Just like that night nearly thirty years ago, this was a moment we danced in the streets celebrating how we are family.

For one glorious night, we could revel in achieving a milestone that could not be diminished. Here was the magic of having elected the 44th President of the United States, the person best suited for the job, someone smart and hopeful and inspiring and determined…and in defiance of centuries of opposition, he was Black. Furthermore, his entire family was Black and they were beautiful, and we said it loud how we were proud of them.

Before that night, I felt hopeful. Afterwards, I realized we’d just entered into a new world, one where the dreams of a King were actualized in the waking world, and that meant we were now dealing with the unknown.

Next: Yes We Can

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