Friday, January 4, 2008

Pride and Palpitations

Obama Iowa Victory photo via CBS News

(Special thanks to Hubris Sonic for his stellar blow-by-blow coverage last night)

Oh, let's see.

It was around eleven p.m. last night when we did “the TV switch” here at “Stately LM Manor”. A little ritual (that we are not alone in participating in, I'm sure) consisting of me shifting my television viewing from the the big-screen, back bedroom TV to the smaller one in the living room as my wife moves from the living room to said back bedroom to go to sleep. Having finished her little bout of compulsive document shredding for the week—a lingering post-identity theft symptom—she was good and tired, and I could have the living room back to myself to absorb the Iowa caucus results with the shredder's annoying din now done.

I snapped my laptop shut and quickly folded the little ash tray table for the switcheroo...and looked at the big TV for a moment. I'd been back there in that room for over an hour by myself and had in-a-not-inside-voice mused aloud “Holy shit.” when they called the caucus for Barack Obama.

Actually, I'd said “Holy shit.” a few times as I'd risen from the bed and paced the room, hands on hips, absorbing the on-screen reactions to Obama's surprising (for me, at least) win. I was fairly drowning in phrases like “sea change”, “end of an era”, “turning of the page”, and most notably...“historic moment”. I soon realized that I'd been repeatedly stopping to look at the TV with a “Did I really just see what I just saw?” look reminiscent of the fellow at the far right on Earth, Wind & Fire's “That's The Way Of The World” album cover shown below.

(My exact “Obama Won?” pose, to a “T” by EWF's Ralph Johnson—minus the embroidered elephant bells and “Bikini Atoll” 'Fro, of course.)

I made my way down the hall and passed the yawning wife and my stepson who was also re-locating for his final 10 minutes of TV as well. I'd heard him whooping it up a bit earlier from the front room when they'd announced Obama's win. Couple of clench-teethed “Yes!”-es too. And as it's a quiet block, I could have sworn I heard a few whoops from neighboring houses at that moment too, but for all I know, it could have been someone cheering hapless Knick coach Isiah Thomas' being felled by a brick chucked from The Garden's nosebleed blue seats. It's hard to tell.

What I could tell though is that something was up.

When I settled into the living room, the television was on MSNBC as it was when I'd left it earlier. My wife and stepson had been watching the coverage too—which considering the unremitting awfulness of their television tastes kind of struck me.

I was standing there alá Ralph Johnson again when they said that Obama would be speaking shortly, and proceeded to set myself up with a drinky so I could help myself soak all of this in, when I heard my wife call out “He's coming on now! He's coming to the stage!”


“Obama! He's coming to the stage in a minute!”

“Okay! Thanks!”, I said. “Hmmm. She's watching the coverage back there too?”

“No!” she replied. “Come watch it back here with us, so we can see it as a family! Come on! Come on!

“What the fuck?”, I thought, channeling the afro-ed EWF-er's body language again. “Since when do we pull the 'Temptations are on Sullivan!—Let's watch Black people on TV as a family!” thing?

I hustled up and slipper-shuffled quickly to the back bedroom to watch.

Now, you must understand something about Mrs. LM. She's a bit of a “Sleep Nazi”. When it's beddy-bye time for her, it's usually clock-perfect. 11 p.m. Must have the comfy jammies. Needs her little white ankle socks.! Lights in the! (She hates light sneaking under the door crack) And with that, she's a closed book for the night. (with...exceptions, that is.) All of this happens in about ninety seconds.

But last night, she'd been back there with my stepson for about fifteen minutes watching TV, and when I got there, there she lay, all bundled up, peering out of the blankets at the TV like a cat swaddled in a basket of just-dried, still-toasty towels. Her eyes twinkled there in the dark. My stepson sat cross-legged on the rug, hunched forward anxiously, as if awaiting a replay of LeBron's sick dunk of the night.

It wasn't basketball, or an umpteenth viewing of a “Golden Girls” episode they were riveted to, though. Obama's win, and what it meant had them utterly transfixed. And as Chris Matthews anxiously brayed and be-sptttled his co-host Keith Olbermann with pre-speech hype, I could feel my heart beginning to race. There was the faintest tingle of...something. I stood there again, EWF-style, taking in the pre-moment, moving from “WTF?” to an open-mouthed “Wow.” at what I was seeing.

And then, suddenly Matthews honked out a “Here he is!” and it was on. There was raucous cheering, the family mounting the dais, the girls—Hey! Whaddya know? Obama's daughters had just had their hair “did”. Michelle Obama corralled the girls and for the first time—and you can call me a lout—I noticed Ms. Obama's body. I'd only seen head shots and waist-ups before this moment. Um...was it wrong for me to think “Okay...first potential First Lady I've ever seen myself wanting to step to.”? Yes, it probably was, but hey—a historic night is a historic night. Barack was now on the stage, helping Michelle gather the daughters and then glad-handing a few people on the stage with him as the crowd exploded with cheers.

Goose-pimples. Yep. Had 'em. I'm watching him make his way to the podium, and my mind flashes back to 1988 when Jesse Jackson ran for President. I remember a Time or Newsweek cover with a presidential-looking painting of Jesse standing there with his arms folded with a wry smile on his face, under the 120 point headline “Jesse?”, as if the magazine was itself saying “Holy Shit! Is it possible...?”

But what I'm looking at here is different than the '88 election. Jesse had done surprisingly well, considering. But pulling off the Iowa shit that Obama did last night? A state with a 2.3% Black population and a 94% white majority? Oh, no. This was some “next-level” stuff I was watching. It took an eternity for Obama to get to the mic to speak, and in that eternity, I felt the muscles in my neck tense up. The stepson wrapped his hand about his legs and bored in to the screen. And once Obama started talking, after about fifteen seconds, my wife suddenly flipped over towards the wall, covering her head and saying through the muffled blankets...

“I can't watch!”

And in that moment, she verbalized exactly what was on my mind, and I dare say what was on the minds of a considerable majority of the African Americans watching him call down verbal thunder in those minutes.

We...were afraid.

I found myself not unconsciously scanning the roaring crowd, praying to not see a weapon pop above the throng and point at him. I couldn't stop myself. When the camera lingered on him too long during stretches of the speech, I averted my eyes for a few seconds, fearful that I might catch a tragic moment playing out in horrific real-time. I'd look back again a second or two later.

I found I couldn't really absorb or analyze the speech as I'd have liked. I was too busy checking out cameras in the crowd held aloft, and wondering about security. “Jesus, he gets so many people at his events! How the fuck is he gonna secure the venues? Ohhhhh man...”

“Honey,” I implored. “C'mon, you asked me to watch it with you. You gotta watch it.” I said this just as much to convince myself as her.

“It's-it's okay. I'll just listen.”

The phone rang, jarringly.

“Hello?”, I ask.

“You watching this?”, my friend “D” asked quietly.


“You think he's wearin' a vest?

A long beat from me. “Well...I'm sure he's got Secret Service protection.”

“Is he wearin' a vest to protect himself against those motherfuckers?“

“Well, if he didn't before tonight, he will be by tomorrow”, I replied.

“This is fucking insane.” he added. “He won Iowa. Iowa? Do you know how that's gonna shake certain people up?”

“D” was speaking the gut-wrenching unspoken truth—almost in a whisper. I don't know why.

“Can we just enjoy this for tonight? Just soak it in for a min-”

“I can't enjoy this shit!”, he said cutting me off. “I'm scanning the crowd for grenade-tossers and shit. You saw the Bhutto video. I can't get that shit outta my mind. There's a lotta nuts in this country, and a lotta guns, and—”

“I know, I know! Just...lemme delude myself for a few minutes and watch this thing and think positive thoughts, okay?”

“Okay.”, he said. “But you know he's gonna wake up tomorrow and say 'Ho-leeeee shit...”

“I'm sayin' it now”, I said. The call ended. Obama was still speaking, rolling now in seminary-style up-and-down waves. Pause. Set the jaw. Yeah, Malcolm X, Billy Graham, Adam Clayton Powell...MLK speechifying one-oh-fucking-one..

Phone rings again. Don't know who—the cordless with the display is up front.

“Where is his security! Why are so many people surrounding him? Are they crazy?”

It was Mama.

“Sigh!” “I just don't know, Mama. I'm'm praying they have it all under control. He looks pretty confident up there, like he knows everything's well in hand. I don't think his wife would let him be up there if there was a serious risk.”

“Well,” she said, “remember, the man who cradled Malcolm's head in his arms at the Audubon was a FBI undercover working right next to Malcolm...and he didn't even know it.”

Mom was all of 21 when Malcolm was killed uptown. She and my dad knew him well. This was resonating deeply in her, and I could hear the upset in her voice. We lived around the corner on 115th Street from the Mosque they fire-bombed in “retaliation” the next day. Ascendant Black men at rostrums was going to hit my mom funny no matter what. And she was not wrong for the trepidation she felt.

“Are any Black people watching this tonight just enjoying the history of all this? Or are they all as nervous as we are?”, I asked her.

“I'm sure some of a certain age are just eating it up fine”, she said. “But I imagine even they'll start to think on it when the day hits 'em cold. It's not paranoia, son. You know that. It's reality. I swear I wish it wasn't, but it is.”.

We finished our call and I watched the end of Obama's speech—still sniper-checking a bit, and silently imploring him to “move around a little...make it difficult for 'em”. But then, it was done. The crowd roared, he hugged Michelle, confetti fell, and I imagine upstairs in their suite McFadden and Whitehead's “Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now” was heard at least once.

I relaxed for the first time in many minutes, finishing my drink and looking at the post-speech coverage of Olbermann trying not to laugh at the shit-scared White man writ large, Chris Matthews sitting next to him, all darting eyes and afraid of what is on the horizon. My wife rolled over and said simply “Whew! He made it. Thank God. Mmmmmkay, g'night.”

Which was the signal for me to leave for the front room.

And as I walked there, I reviewed my emotions of the night. Shock. Disbelief. Pride...and then muscle-tensing fear when I realized where this was all I sat down to watch the continuing coverage and saw the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson review Obama's speech glowingly, and then...he cited the feeling he had when watching the hopeful, ”new day” swelling of popularity when Bobby Kennedy was running, and he was almost aglow when he mentioned that campaign. But then, he brought it down a bit in the next breath—quickly, and probably because he'd just thought of exactly what I'd thought right after he mentioned it.

Namely, how RFK's campaign tragically ended.

Now, let me close by saying that I don't mean to be a killjoy about what last night may have meant. In spite of my having not formally chosen a candidate I really feel strongly positive about, I'll be damned if I didn't feel something soul-deep special when they announced that Obama had won Iowa handily, and at that moment he geared up to speak, things did seem for a time like the climax to a crazy, pre-waking lottery-hit dream. I felt deliriously good about progressives in general when they gave the voting numbers for the caucus—Dems doubling the turnout damn near from '04, and tripling the GOP's mouth breathers in-state.

But I want you to understand what that nervousness and yes, I'll say it—fear was about as Barack Obama thanked his supporters and urged them onward. I don't know if you'll ever really understand it and why it comes so quickly to the fore for Black folks. I guess, you need only to look at not distant, but recent American history and how deadly cruel it has been to Black people on the cusp of busting a door wide open. In my lifetime, Malcolm X was cut down. Medgar Evers was blown away. Martin Luther King's flame was sniper's bullet snuffed. Never mind all the back-room, black-bag shit the U.S. government ran on folks who stood tough locally like Chicago's Fred Hampton and others.

We have developed an unfortunate Pavlovian response to the repeated sight of our best and brightest being blown away like so many dandelion bits in the wind.

We have our moments of pride, and then...then, those uncontrollable palpitations. Worrying about when the ax will fall. Or the grenade. Or the bullet's sharp crack, the diving security and guests, and the inevitable cut to a shocked newsroom.

Dave Chappelle used to have segment on his show featuring Paul Mooney called “Ask a Black Dude”. Well, I won't wait for you to ask, I'm just telling you what goes on. What went my house, and I would assume hundreds of thousands of households like mine, where recent history's bloody spectre hovers in a tattered 60's sack-cut suit and skinny tie. He hovers and points at today's goings on.

“There”, he moans. “There,” as his dusty hand notes the television and all the happiness on the screen. He doesn't smile. he doesn't blink. He just says “There,” as he crooks a bony finger. And up Black America's collective spine, goes his chill.

He was there in Iowa too. I know Barack and Michelle saw him. But maybe the kids didn't. And I'm guessing that Barack and Michelle fought like hell to push him out of sight eventually.

Dropped balloons and confetti on him. Drowned his “There.” out with McFadden and Whitehead, or Curtis' “Move On Up” or some such blaring counter to that hollow moan.

I hope to God they did. 'Cause that'll make them the lucky ones. Unlike the rest of us.