Kindred Spirit
A Willful Optimism Links Obama With 'Crossover' Giants Before Him

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

Then, in 1954, in San Bernardino, Calif., Sammy crashed his Cadillac. At the hospital, an eye had to be removed. Acquaintances feared the end of his act. Would he be able to judge the distance to the edge of the stage with just one eye? Would his peripheral vision be ruined?

His comeback show was at Ciro's, the famed nightclub. Hundreds of celebrities came out. And he wowed everyone. The trade publication Variety would gush: "It was Sammy Davis Jr.'s night. The lad who lost an eye came back in whirlwind style."

He wasn't Harry Belafonte handsome, so some thought he wouldn't get the opportunity to do movies. But there he was, first in "Anna Lucasta" in 1959, doing solid work, then later that year in "Porgy and Bess," playing Sportin' Life and stealing the movie from Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.

He dreamed of the Great White Way, but many wondered if his nightclub act could sustain a Broadway show. "Mr. Wonderful" opened in 1956 and the critics laughed, but his fans couldn't stay away. The show ran for more than a year. "Golden Boy" opened on Broadway in 1964. (His technical adviser was Sugar Ray Robinson.) His critics said the role required dramatic skills he didn't possess. It ran for more than a year and a half.

He had an overbite, a pronounced nose, and the glass eye. In the 1960s his wife was May Britt, the beautiful Swedish actress.

Nothing seemed to delight him as much as being summoned to Washington. At the White House, Sammy slept in the bedroom of the Great Emancipator. President Nixon wanted to send him to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission.

But his boundless optimism didn't overcome everything. Some black radicals bedeviled him. Klan members weighed in with threatening missives. "You'd just like to look like everybody else so that people wouldn't automatically start hating you a block away," Sammy once told writer Alex Haley. "White cat sees you walking down the street, maybe from across the street, and he never saw you before in his life, and he's not even close enough to distinguish anything about you except that you're not his color -- and just for that, right there, snap, bop, bap, he hates you! That's the injustice of it, that's what makes you cry out inside, sometimes, 'Damn, I wish I wasn't black!' "

As much as possible, Sammy steered clear of the Deep South. Not so the crooner Nat King Cole.

Cole -- born in Alabama but raised in Chicago -- was a child prodigy who formed a 14-piece band while still a teenager. His Nat King Cole Trio toured the country, drawing new admirers from nightclub to nightclub.

In time Cole had a string of velvety songs that became popular across America, humming on jukeboxes and in living rooms and basements. Husbands and wives and young couples swayed to "Ramblin' Rose," "The Christmas Song," "Sweet Lorraine" and "Mona Lisa."

In April 1956 Cole was booked into the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium in Alabama. He was giddy about returning to the state where he was born. This would be proof of his crossing over. But many in Alabama still bitterly opposed the 1954 Brown school desegregation ruling. Told there might be some kind of demonstration by segregationists against his concert appearance, Cole flicked away the warning. Optimism was his armor. But just into Cole's third number, a white man bolted from the back of the auditorium toward the stage. Within seconds a half dozen members of the White Citizens Council were attacking Cole, with fans screaming. Police rushed in to make arrests. Cole was left bloodied and wincing from an injured back.

"We were warned that there was going to be trouble," Lee Young, Cole's drummer, once confided to an interviewer, "but most musicians are very positive people."

So sometimes that lovely and indomitable optimism got stained with blood.

* * *

Here he comes. Gliding up onstage, touching his tie the way Nat King Cole used to do. He's standing in front of hundreds in a gymnasium on the campus of Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. "How y'all doing?" he asks. "It's a little warm in here. Hope you don't mind." And he's taking off his suit jacket. "I love you," some unseen voice shouts. "Love you back," he says, with a musician's perfect timing.

Here he comes into the Dean Dome on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. "I'm running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now," he says, as if leading a church revival, his finger pointing in the air, "because I believe in such a thing as being too late, and that hour, North Carolina, is upon us." The politician has the gift of morphing from preacher to musician and back to politician. The crowd is swaying and screaming.

* * *

If one had to chronicle when the stylish black man in America landed upon mainstream consciousness, one would do well to peruse the 1944 Esquire Jazz Book. Inside its pages are photos of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins and Cootie Williams, Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway. All have a signature look: the lovely cotton suit, the natty white shirt, the hepcat tie. Of course there had been elegant figures during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, but they didn't infiltrate the recesses of mainstream America. The men in Esquire's 1944 jazz book, though, were as near as the phonograph sitting in parlors in Iowa, in Colorado. The music got them into white America. "Sweet Georgia Brown." "Begin the Beguine." Lovely music, lovely suits. It was as if Cool were being born.

To some extent, their success could be seen as furthering stereotypes: the black man and music, the black man and sports. The doors opened to the entertainer and athlete were not open to the Negro insurance man in Atlanta or the Negro doctor in Los Angeles. The athlete and entertainer moved with a freedom unimaginable to the black businessman.

And yet, Jesse Owens, famous for winning gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, was forced to take peculiar jobs back on American soil, including racing against horses for pocket money. "I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler," Owens once recalled, "but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either."

In the late 1940s, champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson began helping newspaperman Walter Winchell raise money for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. It was also a way for Robinson to identify with mainstream (white) audiences: Many families had had a member touched by the illness. In 1952 -- confident that he had successfully crossed over -- Robinson walked away from the fight game and went into show business.

He was talented on drums and piano. But there lay a deeper element in his post-boxing decision-making: There was no other line of work save entertainment that could come remotely close to earning him the kind of money he had made fighting. With his dance act, he played Chicago and Manhattan, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. Celebrities caught his show. He traveled with the Count Basie Band. He wore beautiful suits. He sang "The Very Thought of You" off-key, but enjoyed himself anyway.

Still, there were limits. Robinson's act drew big nightclub revenues in the beginning, but the novelty soon wore off. He scurried back to the boxing ring. When Robinson died in 1989, Jesse Jackson gave the main eulogy, standing before those at Robinson's funeral as an emblem of someone who also had made pioneering crossover leaps. All during his activist life, Jackson has spoken with a beautiful music, an operatic soaring and crashing. Those Iowa farmers fell in love with him during his presidential campaigns. In his presidential run of 1984, he brought hundreds of delegates with him to the Democratic convention. In 1988 he brought more than 1,200 delegates to the gathering.

But Jackson, for all his rhetorical gifts, seemed weighed down at times by a sad history: He might as well have been pulling Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo and Martin Luther King Jr. and all the others in a red wagon behind him. Halfway across the room is not the same as crossing over.

Sometimes the wall of history seemed an inch high, and sometimes it seemed tall as the clouds.

* * *

Here he comes. His plane is swooping into Chicago. The candidate is going home for the night.

Years back, black folks used to arrive in Chicago by train. From Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and Louisiana. From turpentine camps and sharecropping farms. The scholars called it the Great Migration. A great many called it a dream.

It was a factory job dream back then.

Now it's a White House dream.

* * *

Chicago was special, and it had its big arms open. It wasn't exactly by design, but World War II came and suddenly there were jobs in the urban centers of the North. Pullman porters were known to slip fliers about Chicago jobs to the downtrodden when they were traveling through the South. Huge apartment complexes rose up in the city to house the newcomers. Progressive thinkers, many of them anchored at the University of Chicago, gave the city a unique social vibe.

William Dawson was a rare black member of Congress who was elected in 1942 from Chicago. John Johnson started his media empire there, giving Ebony and Jet magazines to the public. And no other newspaper in the country rivaled the Chicago Defender for its day-to-day chronicling of the black experience in America. The Defender wrote about lynchings, music, art, black death rates, black strivers.

Jesse Owens arrived there in 1949, got himself a job in public relations, did some jazz DJing for pocket money. Joe Louis strutted down Michigan Avenue in a long tweed coat. Billy Eckstine bought drinks over at the Drake Hotel. As a child, Nat King Cole -- they called him "Chicago's Young Maestro" -- would walk around in a porkpie hat, carrying a Thanksgiving turkey, the prize for winning the musical competitions over at the Regal Theatre.

Chicago: Langston Hughes hanging out at the Defender offices, yakking about his latest column for that newspaper; Sugar Ray Robinson defeating Jake LaMotta on Valentine's Day 1951 at Chicago Stadium.

"My town," Sugar Ray once said of Chicago.

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks -- born in Kansas but raised in Chicago -- understood the cultural sleight-of-hand needed by the black man trying to cross over, trying to get a seat at the table. Part of her poem "Gay Chaps at the Bar" envisions a group of black men and their crossover struggles:

We knew how to order. Just the dash

Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste . . .

When to persist, or hold a hunger off.

Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who had attended Chicago's Englewood High School, set "A Raisin in the Sun" in her home town. Before the 1959 Broadway opening, Hansberry wrote a letter to her mother: "Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are -- and just as mixed up -- but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity. That is what, after all the laughter and tears, the play is supposed to say."

The drama, which starred Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil, arguably was the first one on Broadway to cross over, to lasso whites and blacks into the theater all at once.

* * *

There he goes, another Chicago man seeking the hearts of America, trailing complicated ghosts.

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