'High hopes and deferred dreams' for black Americans

By Robert E. Pierre and Jon Jeter
The Washington Post
Monday, January 18, 2010; 7:00 AM

Adapted from A Day Late and A Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama's 'Post-racial' America, published this month by John Wiley and Sons.

What does Barack Obama mean to black America? This is the running debate taking place somewhere in the country every day, and the answer so far is this: everything and nothing; epic transformation and elegiac stasis; a stark symbol of how far black people have come and a painful marker of the great distance left to travel.

The transcendent, jarring truth for blacks is that they celebrated their most triumphant moment at the worst of times. The housing market triggered the greatest loss of wealth for African Americans in history. Nearly a fifth of all black workers are out of work, a figure that rivals the nation's unemployment at the peak of the Great Depression. In the country's largest cities, the high school dropout rate for blacks is nearly half.

"Instead of progressing, we're regressing," said Denise Roy, as she escorted a contingent of African American students, by bus, from Selma, Alabama to Obama's inauguration.

African Americans remain consistently in his corner -- for now -- but the paradox of the first black president is that it is not nearly enough for him to be merely the first black president. Black America is pregnant with expectation. They want better schools, better jobs, cheaper health care, lower taxes, smaller prison populations, fewer casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, stronger labor unions.

Over nine months of interviews beginning with Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, from the mountains of Appalachia to the Bay Area, blacks from all walks of life -- entrepreneur, ex-offender, soldier, union leader, single parent, South African émigré, retiree, hip-hop activist and more -- pondered the meaning of President Obama, and in doing so, laid bare the political identity of the nation's most liberal voting bloc. Their stories, some of which are excerpted here, provide some insight into what Obama's election meant to black Americans, and whether, one year later, it has brought the promised change to their lives.

Born on the Bayou

Daisy Mae Francis was born in 1929 and grew up on a sugarcane plantation on the banks of Bayou Teche, waking each morning in the same clapboard shacks where her enslaved ancestors had slept. She married when she was 15, gave birth to 14 children, plucked sugarcane from dawn to dusk, cleaned white people's homes and fed their children before going home to care for her own. The first time she voted, her boss told her who to support. Whites mistreated her because she was black, her husband because someone else had to take the weight when he'd been called "boy" or "Uncle Tom" one too many times.

And then one November night, when Daisy Mae was days shy of 79 and battling ovarian cancer, the United States elected a black president, and she went to bed giddy, redeemed, as though she had been reborn and was seeing the world for the first time.

The euphoria barely made it through the night.

When she excitedly retrieved her newspaper the afternoon following Barack Obama's election, the front page headline glared at her: "McCain favored by state voters." There was no picture of Obama, and only a veiled mention that he'd soon be the nation's 44th president. She canceled her subscription in protest.

'Nothing we can't do'

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