By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 05, 2008
Tuesday, June 3, 2008, marked a special moment in the history of the United States of America and the contemporary world. It was the day when Barack Obama became the nominee of the Democratic Party to contest the 2008 elections in November. Some said it couldn't be done; some said that the Democratic Party would never elect an African American as their standard bearer; some even said that even if he were nominated he would not live to realize his dream. They must have been thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King.
Obama's victory raises itself to epic proportions. His achievement follows a long line of salient moments that define America's racial past: from the Declaration of Independence that excluded Black people from citizenship (1775); to a ruling by Justice Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, that said a black man "was altogether unfitted to associate with the white race in social or political relations, and so far inferior that he had no rights that a white man was bound to respect" (1857); to an assertion by the President Lincoln that he would do what he had to do to save the union even if he could do it "without freeing the slaves" or some of the slaves (1862); to the formation of the NAACP to prevent the lynching of Black people and to ensure that their rights were protected (1910); to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 where for the first time Black could vote unencumbered; to this historic moment of Obama's assumption as the proud standard bearer of the Democratic Party.
Ten years ago Barack Obama was an obscure figure in Chicago where he served as an Illinois State senator in Illinois from 1997 to 2004. Four years ago, he joined the United States Senate after a tremendous victory; today most members of his party have banded behind him so that he can secure the chief political prize: the presidency of the United States of America.
It need not be assumed that his journey was anything but difficult. Even in the end, Hilary Clinton refused to allow him his day on the international stage. She was defiant to the bitter end even as she makes a play for the vice presidency. However, I don't expect her to receive such a nomination. She and Bill would emerge as monumental detractors from the work that Obama has to do and may prove to be too overwhelming for President Obama.
But this is getting ahead of our story. Many have tried to explain away (and to explain away) the magic of this man. Some have said that his very origins, his being the product of an African father and an America mother (white) has created within him just a closed psychological zone that allows him to distinguish himself from other Americans and thereby to etch himself on America's unconscious in a new way. One report described him as being "very much an American but tends to view the incongruities of politics with the distancing eye of the outsider." His not being quite as black as Jessie but just white enough to be accepted by white Americans allowed Obama to make his historic breakthrough.
Obama, as his wife Michelle has said, is a genuinely nice brother. He is generous, smart, tactical and tough. When Bill Richardson, his Presidential rival and first Hispanic governor, endorsed Obama he said he is really a nice guy "who brings out the best in us." No one who listened to Obama's acceptance speech on Tuesday could mistake the generous accolades he directed at Mrs. Clinton's candidacy. It is a shame that she could not respond in similar fashion. In stead, she nursed the insane assumption that this, too, was her moment because no other woman had gotten this far in the election cycle. Yet, it was Obama's night. He had created history as the world's press acknowledged the following day. He was the first African American to have captured such a prize. He deserved his evening under the television lights and the eyes of an adorning world. She refused to acknowledge the historical dimension of his achievement.
There is no doubt that Obama is a brilliant man. A Harvard law graduate, he was a member of the University's law review, the most prestigious in the country. After graduation, he refused a clerkship with Judge Abner's Milkva preferring to work as a community adviser in Chicago. That certainly had to be career suicide for this young lawyer. Only he could envisage and believe in the promise that such a career offered.
After arriving in Chicago, he became immersed in the city's politics. He even selected a mixed neighborhood to live and work in: not too poor not too rich, with the right mix of conservatism and liberal politics and lifestyle. Living in Chicago, however, he had to get into the rough and tumble of ward politics there. With a coolness and calculation that would come to characterize his style, he challenged Alice Palmer, his former mentor. Through a series of maneuvers he knocked her out of contention and ran unopposed to the seat. He had learned the art of bare-knuckles politics in Chicago's South Side. While in Chicago, he even taught constitution law at the University of Chicago Law School.
In Chicago Obama was not too shy to push a few persons around and change positions to achieve what he wanted. But he is disciplined and organized. He won a seat to the Illinois State Senate because he attended to the nuts and bolts of campaigning. While Hilary and the other presidential candidates had their eyes on the big prize he was doing the nitty gritty work of organizing the various caucuses none of them felt were that important to the outcome of the race. So that although Hilary was projected as the odds on favorite, evinced an air of invincibility, and came on strong in the latter half of the campaign, Obama had already secured a majority of the early delegates that made his victory possible.
In life there are paradoxes. Toni Morrison had called Bill Clinton the first black President and he really believed it. After he left the presidency, he moved his office to Harlem to be among the folk. Yet, somehow when the real black folk hero arrived to take his rightful place in the political arena Clinton was not ready to receive him. He called his quest for the presidency a "fairy tale" and, in a derogatory manner, compared Obama's efforts to those of Rev. Jesse Jackson. Bill genuinely wanted to see a black president in his time but not at the expense of the woman who is his wife. One would never know whether in the throes of Monica Lewinsky affair Bill made certain promises that he had to keep. He served her faithfully in the campaign but having lost much of his previous political magic he was not as successful as he would have liked to be. Obama had come onto the political stage too early.
On election night my younger daughter called me from Texas to share this historic moment with me. She knew that her father was engrossed in the politics. I had urged her to follow the primaries and to take pride in Obama's achievements. During our glee she informed that my first grandson, aged seven, was also elated by Obama's victory. Seeing Obama on the TV monitor, he observed, "I can do that too. I want to become a president."
That, in the end, is Obama's major achievement: the tremendous amount of hope that he gives to the million of minority people, especially black children, around the globe. No wonder African-American, Caribbean people and Africans rejoice in his achievements. He has simply become one of the most inspirational figures in the world. Together with Nelson Mandela he has shown the heights that Africans can reach if only they would try. He also forces us to remember the first verse of Edgar Guest's poem, "It Couldn't Be Done."
Somebody said that it couldn't be done
It is a lesson that we all can learn from Barack Obama's stupendous achievement.
But he with a chuckle replied
That "maybe it couldn't," but he would be one
Who wouldn't say so till he tried.
So he buckled right in with a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to do sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn't be done, and he did it.
Professor Cudjoe's email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
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