Obama, Iowa, and the Audacity of Hope

I am in a really good mood. Last night, Barack Obama won in Iowa. I am shocked but delighted.

I am a cynic and I don’t have a lot of faith in humankind. I never thought that people would hear Obama’s message because I figured that they would be too busy focusing on the color of his skin and not the content of his character. I’ve always respected and admired Dr. king, but I also thought that he was a dreamer, and dreams don’t come true. I am thinking that I was wrong. I am praying that I was wrong.

My blogami, Marc, wrote a thoughtful post today in which he spoke about racial identity. He made perfect sense in his assertions about Barack Obama as being as much white as black, and that his appeal transcended traditional notions of racial identity. However, I do think that there is another piece to the whole racial identity bit. I know that it is difficult for white people to understand why black people talk about race so much. I can only tell you by way of explanation that we didn’t start the conversation.

Historically, a person with any non-white ancestry was not white in this country. Ironically, prior to the 20th century, people of mixed parentage were classified with terms intended to indicate the mixture–mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon. However as Jim Crow took wings, state after state enacted race laws that included the “one drop rule.” After the Emancipation Proclamation and during the period of Reconstruction, blacks began enjoying political, economic, and social freedoms that had been previously denied to us. Throughout the country, but particularly in the southern states, where there was a significant black population, the white majority became more and more concerned about growing black political and economic power. By the early 1900s, Jim Crow laws were introduced, designed to keep blacks in their place and prevent blacks from displacing the white power hierarchy. The key word is “law.” These were not social customs of exclusion but laws passed with the specific intent of subjugating an entire group of people. Maybe the reason so many black people play the race card is because it was the only deck that we were dealt.

By 1925, nearly every state had laws that included some definition of race or the one-drop rule. It is important to note, that the one-drop rule was rarely applied to other ethnic groups, but primarily to people who had “black blood.” In the social and cultural fabric of this country, Barack Obama is a black man, first and foremost. Don’t get me wrong, I think that my friend Marc’s analysis is absolutely on target and correct; I’m talking about feelings more than logic or reality.

The first of the racial identity laws was struck down legally in 1967 in Virginia in the Loving case, heard before the US Supreme Court; however, many states persisted in racial classification and culturally, people continued to identify people based on the one-drop rule. As recently as 1986, the US Supreme Court allowed a de facto standing of the one-drop rule in Louisiana by refusing to hear a case regarding a woman who appeared to be white and had lived as white her entire life, but had recently discovered that she was identified on her birth certificate as black, based on some great or great-great grandmother. The Court declined to hear the case and the highest court in Louisiana, based on the one-drop rule, declared that the woman was black. Under the one-drop rule, so were her children. I don’t know whatever became of this woman, but at one point, her husband was reported to be considering divorcing her and friends were shunning her. The woman brought the lawsuit because she wanted to be declared to be white.

It sounds pretty nuts, but black people didn’t invent this schizophrenic nonsense. The upshot of this fixation on racial identification was that it was possible to identify someone as black whose external characteristics weren’t clearly identifiable as having sub-Saharan ancestry—think Lena Horne, G. K. Butterfield, and Mariah Cary, for example. The other side of this coin was that eventually black people began to see it as a badge of honor to be able to claim someone as black, based on the one-drop rule. We became distrustful of anyone who had so-called “black blood” who tried to acknowledge his or her multi-racial identity. Witness all the flack Tiger Woods drew when he focused on his Asian heritage as well as his black ancestry.

I’ve always liked the Obama campaign slogan, Audacity of Hope. I think that having hope is audacious, especially for a black man (regardless of his parentage, under every social and cultural norm applied in this country, Obama is black) to even think that he has a serious shot at the presidency of the U.S. is audacious. It isn’t as if it’s ever been done before. Hope isn’t easy, not when you have been a citizen of a country in which you have been continually marginalized, legally, socially, educationally, and economically for generations. What’s easy is to give up hope, to believe that the status quo will always be and that there is nothing that you can do to change it. Without hope, there can be no action. If you don’t believe in the possibility of success, why make the attempt. Having hope in the face of everything that you have ever experienced telling you that hope is meaningless, that is audacious.

Maybe Barack Obama’s Iowa win is the beginning of closing the door on this chapter of race relations. Perhaps, this country is ready to become the country of which Dr. King spoke in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

I usually hate to be wrong, but I am delighted at the very real possibility that I’ve been wrong in my pessimism about the reality of Dr. King’s dream.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”—August 28, 1963


4 responses to “Obama, Iowa, and the Audacity of Hope

  1. I couldn’t dispute a word of what you say and yet I still think it’s worth asking, why Barack? Cause I don’t think it’s the year any smart black handsome politician could have mede it. Its THIS man. (Just like I don’t think Gayle could have done what’s Oprah’s done–and what Martha couldn’t do either.)

  2. To Marc
    I fully agree and I think that your point is very important. I don’t want to take anything away from Obama, the man; he’s not just the popular flavor of the month. It’s the substance of the man that has garnered such support. I think that your focus on the man is essential and I think that your post really answered the question, why Barack? You know, you are so advanced when it comes to all of this stuff about race and ethnicity. I’m still trapped in the “race in America” quagmire in spite of my best efforts to climb out of it. Thanks for reminding me that Obama’s success is a tribute to his unique personal strength and vision.

  3. Pingback: hope « au C H E L

  4. Questions of race are fundamental to questions of identity (well, obviously Paul!). If Obama identifies as African American and the polity considers him so, who is to question that as fact? The idea that the state has authority on defining race (as per the “one drop” rule) is abhorrent and, hopefully, outdated.

    Having said that, I love Marc’s point about the value of the atypicality of Obama’s heritage. It questions not only the dichotomous division of “black/not black” and who holds the authority to determine someone’s identity but also brings to the forefront ideas about whether such categorisations matter and highlights the diversity of people’s background. Pluralism rocks!

    I’m encouraged that the people of Iowa seem to be seeing ideas and, yes, hope, rather than colour.

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