In a recent workshop held on the campus of Macalester College in St. Paul on the state and condition of America in the age of Obama, it was agreed that our president and the symbol that the presidency represents is its highest compliment, the ultimate achievement. He is credible. He qualifies to be president.
Do the rest of us? Do we have his attributes? His education? Can we all be Huxtables?
And why, it was asked, would President Obama take the risk with racism still at large? I can think of one good reason. For one Black man that I know, it was his first vote in 60-plus years. When that man can be passionate about President Obama, it was argued, he can be passionate about himself.
“President Obama,” it was said, “is the first true president for people of color, since they see themselves in him,” ergo when America “cares about him, it cares about us.” He is of mixed heritage; his wife is “our first Black [first lady].”
It was agreed by workshop panelists that the age of Obama has been “transformative, yes,” but that people of color in America are “still tied and bound,” that America needs to move “beyond binary,” and that in American parlance, the reference “they” is still to people of color.
There was a community of first Americans — the indigenous Native Americans — and their sovereignty was the American Indian Tribal Nation, initially Indian country; occupied land. Forced citizenship by the colonial Pilgrim settlers was “neither wanted nor helpful,” guest speaker Professor Cheryl Harris said. “Whiteness is property,” she said, and Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe activist, environmentalist, economist and writer might add the property of the American Indian Tribal Nation.
“Words are empty vessels,” Harris said and for those who say, “Now it’s perfect!” that Obama is president, we need to confront those words, to challenge those who deny racism. Even language — as offense — can be a knife, a weapon that hurts and harms.
When folks continue to batter you, it proves their indifference. They are “callous,” Harris went on. Racism is a “murderous quality” of “marginalized violence, and brutality. “
We aid and abet and let folks get away with racist violence, it was argued, by not fighting. Ella Baker, Septima Clark, and Fannie Lou Hamer were fighters in the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, moving toward the roots of America’s race problem. “They called us ‘militant’ and ‘radicals,’” Gil Scott-Heron wrote, “and were made to look bad for trying to secure rights all Americans had.”
Democracy, one of the panelists claimed, “creates space and agitates.” Democracy is the label for our current, albeit somewhat imperfect, practice here in America. While democracy is defined as the rule of the majority, each of us has vested interests of our own, and democracy does not necessarily unify, is not necessarily consensus, when each of us has issues and agendas.
“Opportunity is burden,” panelist and former State Senator Mee Moua reminded us. America hasn’t assimilated Asians when being Hmong is her primary definer and qualifier, when Hmong naming modifies her and not as an attribute.
Moua said she looks forward to the day she is not introduced and identified first and foremost as Hmong. America is “a nation whose history has never included [Hmong],” Kao Kalia Yang, author of The Latehomecomer, wrote. “People,” Nicole Ly (The Compassionate Rebel) said, “don’t want us to be here.”
Ethnicity should not be a factor to enforce belonging. Refuse to be categorized.
Categories and identifiers, it was argued, compete with our internal struggles.
We categorize people. We look. We decide; however, diversity inclusion tells us that people may not look like us, talk like us or act like us. Regardless, they have something to contribute.
There is a community of American Black culture. Panelists agreed that culture intersects complex community, and community power is democracy, innate power, a capacity that needs to be wielded.
We need coalition building.
We need to be invested in political participation.
We need to mobilize the young who felt a newfound exhilaration and entitlement from voting for President Obama, who were gratified by their right to vote, and who said, “We want change” and “We need to work.”
We need hope. We need to be “ruthless” in our persistence.
We want and need to have multiple identities. Race is not political identity.
“The universe,” American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser was quoted as having said, “is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Every precaution and protection has been taken to quote exact word utterance at this “Obama: Beyond Black and White” forum. Quotation marks are used to avoid plagiarism. In the absence of exact quotes, source ideas are paraphrased.
Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to [email protected].