The Crimson White

Obama's Black America

Kyle Campbell

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I was eight years old. I had just gotten home from a friend’s house on a hot July afternoon; he was a white friend, but I didn’t think of him that way – at least, I didn’t want to. My parents were watching something in the living room – probably “Wheel Of Fortune” – I don’t remember exactly. But I remember vividly what I saw when they changed the channel.

There he was on the stage – young, slim, smooth-talking and uniquely hopeful. A blue-tinged American flag adorned the wall in his background. He had a presence I could relate to, even though I couldn’t put my finger on why. He described his younger self as “a skinny kid with a funny name;” I have never been anything that could be mistaken for skinny, and “Kyle Campbell” might be the least humorous name in existence, so that wasn’t it. I could already tell he was taller than I would ever be, and his story of growing up in Hawaii resonated little with me as a child whose time out of Alabama was almost always spent in the Florida Panhandle. My ability to relate to him was because of his blackness, but I didn’t think of it that way – at least, I didn’t want to.

It was his message, though, that I remember most. “There is no Black America, or White America. There is only the United States of America.” The entire speech was beautiful – but that line was for me. Perpetually the only black student in my class, I longed for an end to the otherism that I implicitly knew was there.

Years later, when that same man ran for president of the United States, I was the first to embrace his campaign. I owned at least five shirts bearing his image, several with the word “Hope” embroidered in the fabric. My white friends all hated him, but I didn’t care. “It doesn’t matter that he’s black; I don’t like him for his policies,” they’d say. And in those moments, I could ignore what I knew – that they couldn’t name one of his policy proposals at gunpoint – and construct my own blissful reality: that it didn’t matter that I was black either.

The day before the presidential election in 2008, my junior high held a mock election, in which I was tasked with taking up every student’s vote in my homeroom class. As I tallied the votes, I couldn’t help but notice, despite my strongest efforts, that they were divided exactly along racial lines. The next morning, the principal came on the intercom with the announcement: “John McCain has been elected president of Dauphin Junior High School.”

To my knowledge, that remains the only presidency that John McCain has held. Barack Obama was elected, and the Black America I didn’t want to admit was there was overjoyed. The dreams of our fathers had been realized. The most powerful man in the world, the leader of OUR country, was one of us. That was important to me, even though I didn’t want to admit it, but in spite of that I was most thrilled for the promise of a postracial America. I didn’t get that, and neither did anyone else.

In truth, Barack Obama was elected in an era when “All Lives Matter” would not have been a controversial statement. Postracialism was my imagined reality, but even to many who were more aware of the challenges facing black Americans at the time, including several prominent black leaders, it remained an attainable dream.

The years that followed crushed that dream. The presidency – that zenith of American achievement – was ours, but police brutality only became more apparent. The president of the United States’ American citizenship was called into question. The same Americans who lambasted him for his close association with his former pastor now accused him of being a “closet Muslim.” The phrase “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012” could be found on the Alabama highways during his reelection campaign. Black America was the dog that caught the mailman, only to find that there existed no envelope containing the equality we ached for.

What we found instead was violence: violence in the form of cell phone videos of police shootings, in the form of a sudden spike in white nationalist groups, in the form of presidential frontrunners offering to pay legal fees for supporters who assault protestors. We saw violence from the privileged go unpunished, which only begat more violence in Ferguson and Baltimore, just as the violence committed against Rodney King had in Los Angeles. And White America’s response to that violence – campaigns targeting an imagined increase in the shooting of police officers, slander of slain black teenagers as “thugs” before their bodies had a chance to cool and particularly the All Lives Matter movement – forced us to confront our reality. We have never been included in “all.”

Perhaps the explosion of Malcolm X’s infamous “racial powder keg” that occurred after the Trayvon Martin shooting was inevitable, but its political consequences were not. Suddenly and without warning, the Afrocentric politics that dominated the post-MLK years have returned to the forefront of our racial dialogue.

“Black Lives Matter” is our generation’s “We Shall Overcome,” and anyone who proclaims “I don’t see color” is called for what he is: blind. Eight-year-old me wanted to run from my skin; today, I embrace it. King’s postracial dream is now at best a dream deferred, but as long as there are problems that disproportionately affect the black community, that dream will have to wait.

I have a new favorite speech now, given by the same man who stood on that stage in 2004, now grayed by many exhausting years of power. In this speech, he stood in a black church, as a black president of the United States – a thought that would have been unimaginable in the 60s. Yet the essence of that decade remained – he spoke at a funeral for victims of a terrorist attack against that church. Just as four little girls were killed in Birmingham a generation ago, nine innocents were slain in Charleston in 2015, all to promote white nationalism and black fear.

But he spoke unafraid, so much so that he transcended speech. He rose above the solemn speaking and painful shouting that has accompanied the unimaginable grief of our current struggle to revive the spiritual medium of the Civil Rights Movement. He decided to sing. And through his song, he described the transformation of Black America during his tumultuous tenure with all the passion of God’s forgiveness. “Amazing Grace – how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.”

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Obama's Black America