Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Faith without works is dead...and so is "Hope".

There is really no effective way to express the myriad of emotions I have had in the last forty-eight hours. At 5:13 am, November 4, 2008, I cast my ballot in the 7th District of Thompkins County in upstate New York. I vividly remember moving my ballot in place to check, double-check and triple check that I had my ballot in the right position to pull the lever for then Senator Barack Obama and his running mate, Senator Joe Biden. There was a nervous excitement in the air and in my stomach, like the feeling I used to have before an exam or a big game (when I played organized basketball). Questions and concerns ran through my mind as to what would happen in the next twenty four hours. I planned to stay up until all the votes were counted across the nation, with one-hundred percent of the precincts reporting. I got my answer much sooner than I expected when, while on the phone with my father, Senator Barack Obama was announced as President-Elect Barack Obama around 11:04pm (ET).

I quickly got off the phone with my father after we yelled with joy and elation. The next phone call that I made was to my ninety-six year old maternal grandmother. I needed to hear what she thought. She has lived through some of harshest times in this nation's history and persevered---she thrived despite the socio-economic downturns and the ever present racialized climate of the Jim Crow American South. I still remember her vivid stories of her paternal grandfather, Teedum Love, a self-emancipated bondsman from Missouri. As I thought about him it seemed that the journey from slavery to freedom had come full circle, at least personally. At this seminal moment I needed to hear what my dear "Granny" had to say reflecting back on her own life. "I'm so glad you called," she mentioned, "I was sitting here reading my Bible and praying for Obama...yes he has is our time." With that there was a long pause on the phone. I wanted to be there to experience that moment with her. However, my connection through my wireless device would have to suffice. "I'm so happy, now I'm going to bed," she finally responded.

I'm sure that I am not alone in such a story. If one went around to black families across this nation, especially native born African-Americans, they can share similar testimonials. We each have elders in our families that have remembrances of triumph and sacrifice; joy and pain...all comprised in tiny mustard seeds of faith that helped to transform not only their lives but their communities despite their dispossessed status. They may have been poor in terms of man's notions of wealth, but they were rich in spirit, purpose, and faith. It was that faith that allowed many, like my grandmother, and her forebears, to struggle for freedom and equality. Barack Obama means something to them that I cannot fully comprehend. While I have encountered significant racism in my own life, I do not know what it is like to have to live under de facto and de jure segregation. Obama is the fruition of prophesy for older generations, a symbol of justice for four-hundred plus years of involuntary servitude of transplanted Africans. For others, he symbolizes the promise of a new day and the destruction of the barriers of race. The ascendancy of Obama to the highest office in this nation seems to conjure up thoughts that hearken back to Frederick Douglass' challenge to nineteenth century white Americans to "have courage enough to live up to their own constitution." For the moment it seems as they just may have--for once.

I watched the media coverage and saw the tears of joy around the nation and the world from young and old, rich and poor, famous and unknown persons. I tried to take the moment all in. Similar to Congressman John Lewis, who spoke today on Oprah, I found myself having an "out of body experience" that moved me. However, as I realized that the dream of Obama's presidency had indeed materialized, I thought last night and long into the early hours of the morning and all day today about the ways in which to contextualize this moment.

I believe that while in this moment aside from the deserved celebration, we should attempt to commune with the prophetic tradition of African American culture. Minister Louis Farrakhan constantly speaks of the need for "deep spiritual analysis" in looking at what must be done to fundamentally transform our own righteous minds and thereby this nation as we move forward into the twenty-first century. I thought back to Psalms 68:31, "Princes shall come from Egypt and Ethiopia will stretch her hands out to God." We are at a special place, I believe in not just the history of the United States, but of the world. We cannot afford to let Obama's presidency become a simple opiate for the masses that is shrouded in the emotionalism of denigrated religious dogma that reveals itself to be impotent in the face of oppression and thus unable to grasp how to create, and facilitate, sustainable solutions to our systemic problems.

We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that the struggle for equality and equity in opportunity is over and fulfilled. Obama is like Sidney Poitier in the classic film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but in this version the table is broken and he will have to not only cook, but fix the table before he can sit down to eat.

If we allow this day to be neatly packaged to us as some of the commentators, political pundits, and religious leaders (i.e., Bishop T.D. Jakes and Rev. Eugene Rivers on MSNBC) have attempted to--viewing Obama's election as some sort of post-racial watershed moment, we are doing a great disservice to ourselves and those not yet born. I have said previously that Obama is not a pill to cure all ills, he is simply a symbol, a powerful symbol that allows us to begin to continue to have the conversation about race in this nation, as well as the problems of class and gender. He too creates a personal tie for so many to the possibilities of what can be. Regardless, too many people, both black and white, seem to be ready to re-write the African American narrative as though we have finally arrived. Have we made progress? Of course we have, but to attempt to create a tabula rassa in a "Post-Obama" America is a crime of the highest order.

If we really look at Obama's two-year sojourn to the White House he was "vetted" in a number of ways that mirror the black experience. He had to have twice the education of his white counterparts, three times the capital for his campaign (no matter if he went back on his word on campaign financing or not), and frankly was held to a standard that no other candidate before or likely after will have to measure up to. For instance, the fact that he had to give a speech on "race" in this country was absurd. Rev. Dr. Wright was just as volatile a character as Pastor Hagee was to McCain, but McCain never had to explain himself and his culture as Obama had to. Moreover, we must remember too that African Americans did not support Obama en masse either, as it was not until after he won the Iowa caucuses that we started to seriously think about him as a candidate. Many of us were of the mind of poor Andrew Young who held that Bill Clinton was more black than Obama was. This is specific example of the "crabs in a barrel" mentality that is very real in the African American community, though not espoused by all, it nonetheless is clearly evident. To his credit, Obama weathered the storm with a cool reserve and a decisiveness that speaks to his character and sincerity of purpose in serving those that elected him, and by his own estimation, those who did not.

As I reflect on the "Princes" that shall (and have) come from Egypt, I am also equally cognizant of the scripture from James 2:17 that soberly admonishes us that "faith without works is dead." President-Elect Obama reminded the nation last night "the enormity of the task is great" and that is putting it lightly. It will take the same "unyielding hope" he spoke of to lift this nation out of the cavernous ravines of ignorance, bigotry, and oppression. The initial work is done. We should give thanks for the election going well and the placement of what will be one of the greatest president's in American history.

However, we must not submit to the sublime urges of messianism, nor "prophetism" or "prophetic salvationism." Historian Wilson Jeremiah Moses maintains that the concept of messianism is both sacred and secular. Adhering to a black messianic social script is to diminish the election of President-Elect Obama and thus create unrealistic expectations for his administration and him in particular. Additionally, such an exalting of a figure allows for the true work of nation building and coalition building to be left to others. The thought here is "you go ahead to do the work, open the door of opportunity and just come get me once you get in." Such thought is mirrored by those who "marched with Dr. King." If all who claimed to have stood next to King actually did he likely would still be alive and the first black president may have happened years ago. Likewise, religiously speaking, I remember a comedian once talking about how some blackfolk will be seeking to enter into heaven on a "hook up", like they are outside club waiting in line looking to see or call someone they know to get them in for "the free." Those seeking salvation and equality in its worldly and otherworldly forms must remember that it takes work--hard work and accountability to accomplish such goals.

If, as President-Elect Obama believes, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was indeed our Moses we each must be Jeremiahs in our own right as we continue to move forward in truth, mercy, and justice. For the beloved community that King spoke of as a ideal can only begin to have tangible manifestations if the work is done by us all. Frederick Douglass also spoke of those who seek freedom, and yet refuse to engage in the real work of transformation. "Those who profess to favor freedom," he proclaimed, " and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground...They want rain without thunder and lighting. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters."

Let us celebrate now. Let us cry tears of joy for those here and those that have transcended this existence. Let us evoke the names and spirits of our enslaved ancestors, like my Great-Great Grandfather Teedum Love, and those who lived before him. Let us bask in the glow of the euphoria of this most special of moments. Let us capture the energy of this moment and transform it into continued and sustained action and renewed pride and purpose. Let us not, however, become too emotionally and physically intoxicated for, if there is no work whatever goodwill, faith, and lofty idealism that fueled, arguably the most effective political campaign in modern American history, is dead, right along with the "hope" that was the foundation for the "CHANGE" that has come to America.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Shared Experience: Loss Before Triumph

Reports have informed the American public, and the rest of the world, that Senator Barack Obama lost his grandmother to a long battle with cancer. I know what it like to loose a grandmother the way that Obama has. My paternal grandmother died during my first year at Cornell. When I decided to come East to finish my education she asked me if I was going to leave which I was somewhat apprehensive in expressing to her because I know she wanted me to be close to home. However, she understood what I was trying to do and the trajectory I was seeking with my training as a historian and a holistic scholar in the best sense.

As I watch the emotion on Obama's face, I think back to how I felt when my grandmother died and how it occurred as I started a new chapter in my life. While there was sorrow and pain, there was also joy in the possibilities that lay ahead. Obama is on the cusp of something great. My grandmother will never see me as a professor, as "Dr. Mitchell" just as Mrs. Madelyn Payne Dunham will never know her grandson as "President Obama", but deep inside I know that both women knew what the future held for their grandsons.

As I prepare to head to the polls to vote in a few hours, my prayers are with the Obama Family during this time of loss which ultimately I hope will be a time of triumph for us all when Obama is elected as the 44th President of the United States of America.
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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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