When one realizes just how profound a moment in history Barack Obama’s ascension to the 44th presidency is, consider this thought from Dr. Finnie Coleman, interim dean at UNM’s University College and former director of African American Studies there.
“I have a 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. My daughter will possibly reach her 10th birthday and my son his 12th birthday before they’d ever see an example of an American president and world leader who wasn’t an African-American.”
Think about that through the eyes of a black child in Albuquerque, playing this very day in pre- or early elementary school, and consider how the “natural order” of American life has now changed forever. Or, if you will, through the eyes of their parents; being a whole family unit with both father and mother, or as is often the case, a single black mother.
Consider how it was previously for those parents to say to that black child, “You can be anything in life. Even president.” Yes, we believed it, certainly; but without evidence, it was theory. Now we have reality.
What becomes clear in talking to black community leaders, activists and educators is we indeed have entered a new world. But the meaning behind Obama's ascension to the White House is as much a Rorschach test as the man himself.
“I have a 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. My daughter will possibly reach her 10th birthday and my son his 12th birthday before they’d ever see an example of an American president and world leader who wasn’t an African-
Dr. Finnie Coleman
As we wade into yet another Black History Month, a number of questions after Jan. 20 hang: What does it mean to be 3 percent black (the percentage of African-Americans in Albuquerque) in a post-Obama world? How much does history factor into going forward? Is this really a post-racial beginning? The president has asked us to “put away childish things.” OK. How? And what’s childish, anyway?
Coleman, who teaches a graduate and honors class titled “Talking B(l)ack: The Language of Resistance in Contemporary African American Culture,” had the experience of teaching a class a mere 40 minutes after the inauguration. Of all the reactions to The Moment, a number of his students focused on the issue of whether Barack Obama is black.
“The responses couldn’t be any fresher,” Coleman says. “It led to a discussion about who exactly is ‘black’? And who gets to make those determinations? A number concluded Barack Obama was not, in fact, African-American. It was a strange shift in the debate, now that he’s in.”
Contrast that to Coleman’s freshman class, which is beyond enthusiastic at the results. “These are young people who have never participated in an election, so for them, this is the world," says Coleman. "There is no alternative. They are looking forward not with a sense of the future. This is the future. We talked a lot about how every generation has failed to exorcise the demons of racism. They understood that their generation was either going to elect this man or not.”
Come through they did. So now we have an empowered younger black generation, shining a light for the older generation of African-Americans. Good on them. But the question remains: Where is the older guard to put its efforts and energies now? Problems need to be solved. Big ones. And they won’t be fixed with a Facebook and MySpace call to arms.
But, says Coleman, “We [older African-Americans] come to the table looking for exorcism of the past; young people come saying, ‘Wow, what can we do here?’ ”
And there’s that inkblot again. There’s a whole other conversation happening between the generations in the African-American community.
Ramona King, storyteller, performer and mother of two, is having her own with her kids.
“One of my sons was like, ‘What is the big deal? He did what everyone else did. He got the funds for his campaign and won the election. The only difference is people got out of the way,’ ” King says. “I was ready to wring his neck, but when I did the wisdom thing and just listened, it made sense. And I’m glad I did.
“From his perspective, there’s no big deal in this. We are well able and capable; it’s a matter of what is it going to take to do it in a way that needs to get done. Which I find very interesting. But ... I find some joy that this child found it so ordinary and expected.”
“Every generation has failed to exorcise the demons of racism.”
Dr. Finnie Coleman
So where does this post-Obama world leave older African-Americans who not only have a strong sense of history but have lived it? Is it time, in fact, to “put away childish things,” as President Obama implored from scripture? Where does that leave an older generation that has seen its share of promises and disappointments?
“We don’t want a younger generation just mad at everything,” says Harold Bailey, executive director of the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs. “You get caught up in a time warp if you’re just mad all the time. Even if conditions are deplorable, it’s going to be hard to communicate [in anger] now,” Bailey says.
Is that what people mean by this so-called “post-racial?” era? If white folks weren’t hearing anger from Albuquerque’s African-American community before, will they hear it now?
And so with that, a dilemma for the African-American community emerges. Will anger still have its place? Meaning, in a post-Obama world, is there a correct way to be Black and Pissed Off?
Dr. Jamal Martin, adjunct professor in UNM’s Family and Community Medicine and Africana Studies, has been active in the fields of minority health and prison incarceration issues. Having grown up in Virginia in the early '60s, he has seen his share of anger-inducing moments. He also lived in Hawaii for 20 years in a house across the street from where Obama went to high school.
Has the specter of a cool black man in the White House, who took great lengths to convey a complete lack of anger, suddenly made it déclassé to be pissed off, even when there’s good reason?
“For me, a more preferable term would be righteous indignation," Martin says. "Anger causes harm to both parties. Language is such an important part of this. There’s still room at the table [for] dialogue and opportunities to move forward and make democracy real and vibrant.”
And there’s plenty to be pissed off about for African-Americans here: an infant mortality rate more than double the rate for whites in New Mexico; an incarceration rate that's nearly 10 percent of the prison population; access to capital for black-owned business that translates to just more than 1 percent of small businesses ownership; the highest rate of obesity and the respective health problems (diabetes, etc.) that come with it; a continuing problem of educating black kids (and the lack of black faces as teachers and administrators at APS); a dodgy relationship with City Hall, the DA’s office and law enforcement; affordable housing; drugs; crime.
The list goes on. So if anger isn’t the way, what is?
“We have to use another way to house anger,” says Joe Powdrell, who with his wife Rita is the keeper of the Powdrell restaurant legacy. “But I don’t want to lose that, because there’s a certain amount of seriousness and loyalty to our lineage we’re being asked to sacrifice when we step away from anger completely.”
Powdrell makes an interesting point. If, in fact, African-Americans have plenty to be angry about, what do we do? It’s a trap. Get angry, and you’re now out of step with the popular post-Obama culture. Choke down your anger, and you’re not being true to your heritage.
“I think in many ways for people who operate on grassroots levels, there’s a tremendous amount of hope. They’ve been vindicated in some ways. But there’s also some skepticism in how much one person can actually accomplish.”
Dr. Jamal Martin
“How do we convey things that are of grave importance today without appearing angry?” Powdrell asks.
It’s a troubling question. Has the specter of a cool black man in the White House, who took great lengths to convey a complete lack of anger, suddenly made it déclassé to be pissed off, even when there’s good reason?
This idea of the “angry black man” has a lot of history, most of it skewed. Says Powdrell, “We didn’t characterize ourselves as angry people. It was defined for us. It is to their advantage to us to keep us defined as angry.”
So Obama has it right. Or does he? Time will tell. While we wait, there’s work to be done; not that it hasn’t been going on here for some time.
“In Albuquerque, we were working on a collective sense of responsibility and presence,” says Powdrell. “We were working on those things before. We did not finish because these things never finish in New Mexico. What there was before continues. We still need to work on how this city defines us as 3 percent of the population. We still need to get a grip on our state of affairs here.
“I’m afraid the thought is we no longer need to work on those things. We can’t drop this. We would be foolish to blank on this for a few months or a year. If we don’t watch ourselves, we’re going to participate in the disappearing act of our lineage.”
For Bailey, the answer is simple: It’s a numbers game. Three percent of anything is not going to have success going it alone, and so his office has created a model of bringing groups together. “We’ve developed a collective strategy to attack those adverse conditions that affect all our communities," Bailey says. "We want to develop effective coalitions, because if we speak as one collective voice, we have more power as a group. That’s how Obama got elected. If you want to tackle something, work together.”
Martin sees better times ahead for those slogging in the trenches. “I think in many ways for people who operate on grassroots levels, there’s a tremendous amount of hope. They’ve been vindicated in some ways. But there’s also some skepticism in how much one person can actually accomplish. Do we continue to talk about systems reforms or systems change? Reform just hasn’t worked. There’s a need for change, not reform."
Powdrell adds, “We need to be a part of that, the improvement of our health. If we need white surrogates, we have no place. I need to be able to exercise my rights as a citizen. It’s important a person has self-determination.
“We’re now on the other side on this great landscape of history. How much of it do we want to be responsible for?"