By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Two words profound and yet contradictory. Once thought of as an oxymoron, impossible to be placed together in the same sentence, context, country -- unless followed by a question mark.
Black president? This century?
Black president -- words perhaps as foreign as "green president." And yet now, a black president seems a distinct possibility with Sen. Barack Obama heading into the general election as the Democratic presidential nominee.
Black president. The two words evoke excitement, dread, great expectations, intense fear, incomprehension, power, the breadth of possibility.
For some, those two words -- black president -- symbolize the smashing of a glass ceiling, whose splintered shards had fallen on others who had thrown rocks at it in vain.
Black president, words that carry with them the hope of the Invisible Man, the Manchild in the Promised Land, the balm on the anxiety of a Native Son.
Said with whispers. And gasps. Exhaled as if the accumulation of all the troubles of a people would be over, though those who know better know also that that won't happen.
"Black president. Is there still racism in this society? Of course there is. But it is not nearly the level of racism that would make the idea of the words 'black president' sound ridiculous," says Roger Wilkins, professor emeritus at George Mason University. "Black president. . . . It is not as if one morning I woke up and turned on the radio and I heard someone say 'black president,' I would drop my teeth. This has been gradual. When I hear it, I think as someone who has taught history for the last 25 years; I think our country has come a long way."
Wilkins adds: "There is a very deep joy and pride when I listen to the words 'black' and 'president' applied to a walking, breathing person who carries African genes in his body and soul."
And yet, for others, there is symbolism of a different kind. A symbolism of fear. Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate, has said Obama is a candidate for president only because he's black. And she's raised the specter, in her recent writings, of a "reverse racism" that some whites fear under a black president.
"They're upset because they don't expect to be treated fairly because they're white," Ferraro wrote Sunday in the Boston Globe, adding, "They don't believe he understands them and their problems."
* * *
A black president is old hat in the movies. Television shows also have portrayed black men in the Oval Office. Comedians joke about black presidents. There is even a rock band called Black President, which has posted online: "when we came up with the name of the band, senator obama had not yet announced his intentions to run for office. it was just our way of saying america needed a change and we could think of nothing more indicative of change in a racist, soulless system than a BLACK PRESIDENT." (But the band has not endorsed a candidate, according to its Web site.)
Because of his appeal to whites, some call him "post-racial," this man, Obama, who didn't run as a black president, whose mother is white. Yet people still call him the first black presidential nominee. "Post-racial" meets the "one-drop rule" from the days of Jim Crow?
Race gets elastic that way -- stretched well beyond the truth some years ago when Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton the country's first black president. It insulted some black men, being compared to Clinton and his misdeeds. But the words stuck. Pretty or not.
In January, during a debate, someone asked the question of Obama: "Do you think Bill Clinton was our first black president?"
"Well," said Obama, pausing as the audience chuckled, "I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African American community and still does. That's well earned."
But months later, after lots of black folk felt the former white president was race-baiting, his "black president" title was revoked.
Now, the title is poised to be passed on, to Obama.
* * *
Everybody knows there are no guarantees in politics. But this "black president" idea is electrifying fodder for thought.
There is Artis Allen, 74, a retired meat cutter, leaning against a rail at a post office in Silver Spring, pondering those words -- black president -- and reflecting on his childhood.
"Black president? No, not then. When I grew up in Georgia, it was very prejudiced. I remember a man who ran for governor. He said he did not want a black vote. Black people couldn't vote too much anyhow. I was 13 and my daddy wasn't a politician, but that was his main conversation: politics."
"Black president," Allen repeats. "What surprises me is white people are voting for a black man just as much as black people. That is what really amazes me."
Down the street, the words "black president" stop Ali Salaam, 32, a barber who, like Allen, is black.
"Black president, what does it symbolize?" Ali says. "Elite status, the best of the American dream. That's what it evokes for me. I love it. I always believed it could happen. I didn't think I would see it happen in my lifetime. But once I heard him speak, I believed it. When I heard him speak, it reminded me of King, Du Bois, Malcolm X. It was entrancing."
Steven Warren, 16, a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School, says the words are "revolutionary. I didn't think it would happen while I was in my prime. I thought it would happen when I was in my 60s."
"You can take the black out and he still would be president," says the young black man.
Up the street you go, carrying the words, black president. The words stop at the feet of Tommy Thayer, 30, a tattoo artist. "It's a damn shame there hasn't already been a black president as far as I'm concerned," Thayer says. "We are so used to all the presidents being all whites and all men. That's like telling everyone we are a racist nation. I think people are robbing themselves if they don't get to know other cultures."
Thayer describes himself as "all white, 100 percent white, Irish, Italian if you want specifics. . . . He's going to win. I'm almost positive. I can feel it. We are going to have a black president."
Well, for now, a black presidential nominee.