Barack Obama and the Company We Keep
It seems as though we are waiting for another shoe to fall in Barack Obama’s quest for the White House, something that will expose him as being potentially unsuitable for the presidency. It might never happen, but then again, he’s a man of the world with varied experiences — which, under normal circumstances, might be considered a good thing, but a black man running for president of the United States is not a normal circumstance. Contrary to Geraldine Ferraro’s thinking, Obama would have been better off if he’d been a white, half-assed Yale student with a drinking problem, a well-connected dad and absolutely no accomplishments that neither God nor Billie Holiday could bless.
Those shortcomings we can accept in a president, but we are challenged by dark skin. What Obama is, and where he comes from, can be somewhat difficult to explain to middle-class Americans, as are some of the things he’s encountered in his life. Obama is just a few years younger than I am, and back in the day I saw things, whether I wanted to or not, that might have prevented me from receiving a security clearance at the Pentagon.
You see, in those years, the idea of a black man making it to the final round of the Democratic nomination for president seemed incomprehensible. Even if Obama did utter the kindergarten wish to be president, he might not have had the foresight in his Occidental College years to avoid attending a meeting of some Black Student Union splinter group whose members suddenly might have considered armed struggle the preferred social activity for the upcoming academic year. Or maybe, and more plausibly, he admired or was friends with someone who had extremely homophobic, anti-Semitic or racist views that he didn’t share. Perfectly nice people may have views that shock and repel, but in other regards they seem to be good, moral people. You must, on occasion, accommodate those with whom youstrongly disagree, unless you want to fight the good fight all the damn time.
In the case of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I think the problem is the failure of most pundits to remember that black people have in the past felt great anger at a society that has treated them badly. That society has pretty much been run by whites, hence the fervent talk of black empowerment and liberation theology. This talk might seem harsh to whites who have never suspected that black people have some anger still, but these critics might be even more surprised to learn that many African Americans, including ministers, have even greater criticism for black people themselves. More often, congregants are exhorted to be better Christians, more self-reliant, thrifty and loving to their neighbors who are overwhelmingly — segregation forever — black. I think the solution to the fear of black intolerance would be for concerned whites to attend black churches. I suspect that it would be as enlightening an experience for conservatives as it was for Bill O’Reilly when he visited an African American–owned restaurant.
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We live in a complicated world with all kinds of complicated people and sometimes, it seems that you’re just along for the ride. I remember one particular day in my youth when I was taken to what today might be the equivalent of a madrasah, back when the frightening devil of the moment was not Islamofascists but homegrownblack militants.
It was the ‘70s, and the neighborhood program on Washington Boulevard was called AntiSelfDestruction, or as we called it ASD, which was started by this charismatic fellow, Fred Horn, and another brother I can’t remember. Fred could talk with such power that it was hard not to think that you were in the eye of a hurricane of words. I had a summer job there as a counselor, but mostly I read. The guys who ran the program had been through that period during and after the Vietnam War, when the streets were reverberating with anger. These dudes seemed to care about us, though I think they were shocked and amused that we were so apolitical. Living in a neighborhood where people gangbangcan do that to you — one is more concerned about not getting shot than revolutionary theory.
This was when the government-funded antipoverty programs and money got tossed around pell-mell, and I imagine some of that money ended up in places like ASD, where we learned interesting things, mostly about responsibility, which somehow had more to do with not knocking up girls than anything else. It was pretty bucolic; we spent a lot of time reading donated coverless paperbacks and eating federal poverty lunches: cold cuts and white bread and fruit and maybe a cookie. I liked those lunches, and the summer job there beat the hell out of real jobs at Burger King or a department store. Some of the field trips still impress me, like a beach trip we took — a van of kids escorted on each side by two bikers from a black motorcycle club. One of the bikers asked for a drink and someone handed him a soda through the window at 70 miles an hour.
I suspected that the folks who ran ASD had led exciting lives. Ollie, one of the staff, was handsome and dressed in lime-green jumpsuitsand sported an earring. Most impressively, he had been a Black Panther. I imagined that other staff members had back stories of intrigue, staying one step ahead of the Man, until the Man decided to pay them to help keep the young and poor from becoming radicalized and rioting by keeping them busy with make-work and free lunches. And here we were getting radicalized; we would riot later in a decade or two.
Then there was a field trip to the Apocalyptic Black Man Library, the kind of place that had to be under surveillance and was located deep in black Los Angeles. We walked through beaded curtains into a dimly lit room, where we were greeted with the smell of incense and, on the walls, revolutionary paraphernalia, including posters of Huey seated in the rattan chair with a spear in hand, and maps — plenty of maps.
A brother in a dashiki approached us and said in a grave voice that we needed to be ready for the revolution, that it was coming. He told us that those brand-new, supersized interstate freeways were designed to get tanks and half-tracks to the inner city as fast as possible to suppress the revolution. We needed to be ready to drive our cars onto the freeways to slow the tanks so that the revolutionarieswould have time to mobilize; the sellouts who lived far from the core of inner city were putting themselves in danger because when the revolution came they’d be the first taken out by the Man.
I can’t say that I was philosophically comfortable with this guy’s idea of how I should be spending my adolescence — getting military training instead of trying to hook up with my girlfriend. I was maybe 17, probably 16, and felt as though I should have been supporting the cause, but I was much more inclined to fly model rockets and read novels in the shower. The presentation did leave me thinking I needed to do something. I asked Ollie what my odd-ass friends and I could do to support the revolution.
Ollie gave me an amused look.
“Jervey, all you need to do is live your life,” he said. “That’ll do more to change things than anything else you could do.”
I was grateful to Ollie for those words, for in truth, all I really was good at was being an ineffectual pootbutt. Ollie liberated me to live my life as I saw fit.
Today I don’t worry about what happened to those black militants who longed for a final confrontation with the Man. I imagine they went on to college, or maybe they were jailed, or killed. The government plots worked: Gangbanging and drug dealing are currently apolitical capitalist activities, and I never became radicalized, whatever that meant.
Maybe someone will discover that Obama had a similar experience with his own Ollie. If he did, I’m sure he’s the better man for it. I certainly am.
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