Kindred Spirit

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

Here he comes. Chasing history and chased by it. A black man trying to capture the ultimate American job: the presidency. In Indiana this day they are screaming: O-bah-muh, O-bah-muh, O-bah-muh.

Listen closely and you can hear echoes of other black men -- now ghosts -- who successfully crossed over and found success and even a kind of love in white America: Joe Louis, Nat King Cole, Jesse Owens, Sammy Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson.

Mostly entertainers and athletes, they each had a ferocious and blinding optimism that allowed them to ignore or surmount the cruelty of racism. They all had a certain musical quality, sometimes through an instrument, sometimes via movement or diction, that spoke to men and women in a language apart from color. And they all, just like Obama now, left large footprints in the black mecca of Chicago.

With such a brew, it became possible to sidestep the dragon of stereotype. It became possible to be welcomed at the American dinner table in the house of strangers with different skin color.

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Optimism can be wondrous and infectious. And also foolhardy and hard to decipher. It can bewilder -- even while exciting -- those who believe in its practitioner. "I don't recall ever seeing a black person become a rock star like he has become," Bob Cunningham, 73, says of Obama, who is backstage here in New Albany, Ind. "Now, I don't know if that's good or bad. But being embraced as he is does makes me feel he can win." Cunningham looks around. There are far more white faces than black faces. "You are in southern Indiana," says Cunningham, who lives across the Kentucky border in Louisville. "People my age, we're glad to see this. I can see the potential in this country. But one of the worst issues we have in society is our inability in dealing with race."

The sepia-toned candidate stands at the lectern. He is talking about the beginnings of this campaign, about his optimism, about how folks told him he was too young -- "that it wasn't my turn."

He stands later in the Kokomo Memorial Gymnasium. Launching into that blinding optimism theme again: He was deaf to the naysayers, he says; he has a plan to turn the economy around; he will bring the soldiers home. "This is why I am running for president of the United States of America and with your . . . " They've already drowned him out; they are up on their feet.

It still seems improbable. Leapfrogging over Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson. Already so much higher up the mountain.

Outside, in the sunshine, there are many wearing shirts festooned with the words "Yes We Can." It has become a mantra for the campaign and is uncannily reminiscent of "Yes I Can," the title of the autobiography of Sammy Davis Jr., the onetime child vaudevillian.

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In the nightclubs of Los Angeles, in the mid-1940s, Sammy was known for hustling like hell to find the stars, introducing himself to the likes of Jerry Lewis and Jack Benny. He was a young man in a hurry to succeed. Some thought he was unctuous. He implored his father and Will Mastin, his dance partners, to do live TV, to push their way into the big-time clubs. His optimism both delighted and bewildered them.

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