Adventures in AmbiLand

Ambi = Ethnically Ambiguous

First! : My Thoughts on America’s First Black President December 19, 2008

Here’s an Essay I wrote in October about Barack Obama…

First!

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The author- Nov 4th, 2008.

I knew a boy named Kamali once, he wanted to be President. We met in 2000 on a spring break trip to Barbados. I went for the beach and to hang out with my roommate Nia and her friend Louis.  Louis and Kamali were studying abroad at the University of West Indies (UWI). Their dorm suite became our hotel for the week. The UWI dorms were similar to log cabins due to their modest construction and glassless windows. The moist warm breeze swept gently through the open-air lounge which separated the two tiny bedrooms on the second floor. The space felt so welcoming and relaxed after the long crowded flight from Philadelphia. Kamali smiled as he introduced himself and returned to the kitchen where he was preparing a special meal for our arrival.  The group was in the midst of a conversation about politics. Apparently Kamali had just announced his intention to be the first black President of the United States.

Artists: Corey Perez and Garret Bodette

“That’s impossible!” I said.

It was a gut reaction; I said it without even thinking. Kamali emerged from the kitchen to see where this voice of self-assured discouragement had come from. I will never forget his face.  There was such hope in his eyes, a childlike optimism seldom found in adults. His intentions felt so sincere, yet so naïve.  Poor guy, I thought. With those kinds of delusions, he does not have a chance. As much as I hated to trounce upon his whimsical musings, I had to do something.

Nia, a close friend and consistent ally, fully understood my perspective and agreed with my sentiments.  Even as students from privileged backgrounds attending a highly prestigious school, the thought of a black President was positively unimaginable.  We calmly explained to Kamali that even if he were to be elected  president (which he would not), his assassination would be inevitable. The thought of it was simply too much to bear and we wished to spare ourselves the heartbreak. It is okay, we told him, we would not  worry too hard about this scenario, considering it was one Election Day that would never come.
Sure we knew plenty of affluent black people, our fathers for example—Nia’s dad a lawyer and mine a doctor. But President? Nope. Sorry. There was no way “they” (meaning the majority of American citizens) would allow a black man to be President. The election of a black President was not going to happen in our lifetime, or any other time for that matter, and we held this veiw with conviction. The mere thought of it was preposterous. The more Kamali tried to defend his position, the more outlandish it sounded.

Maybe Kamali didn’t see himeself as a African American man the way we did—see Kamali was mixed, black and white.  To look at Kamali, with his blue eyes and bronzed skin, you might mistake him for a white man at first glance. His sunny and proper demeanor would only serve to further this assumption, depending on what stereotypes are inherent in your perception.
Being biracial myself, I understood the complexities of growing up this way in America.  My racial ambiguity attracted attention and I had become accstomed to the relentless line of questioning usually beginning with the hopelessly innocent, yet tragically phrased question: What Are You?  I spent much of my childhood in Atlanta explaining, arguing, clarifying and/or qualifying my racial identity to other children.  And we all know how insatiably curious and highly inquisitive children can be. It was all very uncomfortable.  By the time I reached college my response to the “what are you question” was condensed to a one word, one drop answer: Black.  If anyone needed a more detailed explanation, they were welcome to come find me after class.  I would be at the Black Cultural Center plotting the revolution with the rest of the few and chosen black students who CARED.   I was suspicious of any person with a black parent who did not feel the same way.

Perhaps Kamali was misguided, fulfilling some kind of “tragic mullato” myth like I studied in my Harlem Renaissance class. Maybe he did not understand the reality we were living in.  Didn’t he know that white society would never fully accept him? He must be confused I thought. I had to save him.
“You are mixed,” I said, stating the obvious in between bites of the coconut rice he had prepared. “Your eyes may be as clear blue-green as the Caribbean Sea, but you are still a black man. Your eyes and you father’s white skin do not make you any less of a minority in the United States. White America will not be electing your toasty almond self into the Oval Office any time soon—and by soon, I mean never.”

Looking back I marvel at how unbelievable we found Kamali’s aspiration, how foolish we thought he was to even dream of such a thing.  I imagine my skewed perspective had a lot to do with being a minority at a majority white school.  Disenchanted to say the least, my own sense of optimism languished after four years of working to assert my cultural perspective in an academic world that marginalized my identity at every turn. Or at least, this is how it felt at the time.

Yes I Did...Think i was Angela Davis in College. (artist Shepard Fairey of course.)

Yes I Did...Think i was Angela Davis in College. (artist Shepard Fairey of course.)

“To top it off Kamali, to top it all off, your name is Kamali. I mean come oooooooon you could be white and you would still never be elected with a name like that!  The sooner you face the facts, the better off you will be.” I rested my case.  It was a hard line to take with my young multi-racial , but I took it only out of concern and love for my fellow mulatto. At the time, I felt accepting such a reality was the only choice we had.

This was of course before any of us had heard of a state senator from Illinois whose middle name starts with an H and rhymes with ‘ussein.’ Imagine the surprise that would come to all of us just eight years later.
~~~~

Here we are on the eve of perhaps the most important election in recent history.  The possibility of electing America’s first black President is very real, not only in my lifetime, but relatively early in my life. With the election several weeks away, I have only recently become comfortable enough to believe my five-year-old son could actually grow up with a President who looks like him.  Not that having a black President is the panacea for all that ails this country, but this candidate is someone who is in line with my views politically, exceedingly qualified for the position AND happens to be a black man. I find it amazing.

While I, and millions of others will be affected deeply by the prospect of Mr. Obama’s victory, not everyone cares. Take my friend Craig, for example. Craig is nice guy! I have known him for a while, and by all external accounts he could be relationship material! Well, that is until we started talking about politics. No, we do not have opposing views. It is just that he has no views.

“I don’t vote, I don’t care,” he told me.

Considering my passively democratic stance in past elections, I could understand. Could I agree? No, but I understood. That understanding has diminished in recent months.

“Even now? You don’t care?” I asked “Even now?”

“Nope, No, Naw not at all,” he said.

I chuckled to myself as I envisioned all that relationship potential flying out the window like a stack of dollar bills. Potential aside—the real tragedy is this young man discarding his right to vote like an old lottery ticket, not realizing it may have actually contained the winning combination. Not voting is a choice that seems innocuous enough, yet the effect can ultimately be devastating. Craig’s disinterest does not make him a bad person. However, doubt that I could deal with that level of apathy in a life partner.

Craig is not the first of the men in my life to present me with this malarkey about not participating in the political process. Even so, I have witnessed some of my most anti-establishment acquaintances changing their mind more and more as the election season progresses. My boyfriend from tenth grade called me from Georgia the other day and told me he had just registered to vote for the very first time at the age of 29. Furthermore, his father had done so also. “And that means a lot cause he’s old as sh#t!” Joseph said, in his familiar southern drawl.  I was touched to hear about his newfound interest in the political process, and to know his dad had finally thrown in his towel of resistance and registered to vote after nearly 40 years of eligibility. It made me feel strangely hopeful.

yup!

yup!

Then there are those who would be down-right dissappointed by the the possibility of Barack’s victory.  There is a song on the classic hip hop album- De La Soul is Dead- entitled “My Brother is a Basehead.” I hear this song echo faintly in the back of my mind as I explain to people my older brother William is voting for John McCain. Not to say my brother is an illegal drug user; however he is, in fact voting Republican in this election.

my brother is a basehead

my brother is a basehead

People who know our family often wonder how two individuals who are products of the same household could turn out so differently. While I am somewhat confused about his choice, it should not surprise me at all. He went through this stage when we were kids. Some time toward the end of Reagan’s second term, seemingly overnight, my brother became a Republican.
The year was 1988; William and I were studying the election in our combined fifth and   sixth grade classroom. Growing up in midtown Atlanta, our school environment was decidedly liberal considering the surrounding community. Atlanta is a predominantly black city and the section of  Midtown  and where we grew up was known for its prominent gay community. Everybody I knew, children and grown ups alike, considered themselves to be a Democrat. Everyone that is, except my brother William.

“I’m Republican because I like money and actually that’s why I have more money than you.”

It was true, his money collection far exceed mine, for no apparent reason. As siblings, we earned the same meager allowance each week and received the same amount of money from relatives for birthdays and holidays. We both saved practically every penny. Yet he had so much more than me. The secret, he told me, was his political
affiliation. He would solidify his cause on rainy days when I would be drawing or painting and he would sit across from me at the kitchen table counting his money like Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s rich uncle.

dead or alive- which one is it guys???

Hip Hop- Dead or Alive- Which one is it guys???

Luckily, the childhood Republicaness faded away with the onset of puberty, but the history remains.  My brother had always voted Democrat, which made his unwavering support of the McCain ticket even more perplexing. He is a law school graduate who runs homeless missions in distressed areas of Baltimore and DC on the weekends. During the week he helps disabled Americans collect their Social Security benefits in court. My brother is all about helping his fellow man — it just so happens this November that man is McCain. He likes that he is a war hero, and admires the way he has suffered for this country and lived to tell about it.

“Suffering builds character, it’s right there in the Bible, Lauren. Nothing against Obama, if he was running against anyone besides McCain I would vote for him.”

On October 10th , my birthday, I received a text from William.

Happy Bday and as of last mon, I have decided to vote for Obama.

It was the violent and intolerant spirit the McCain campaign had begun to conjure up by “going negative” and attempting to paint Obama as a friend to domestic terrorists. After this untrue negative assault on Obama’s character, my brother was finally able to draw the line.

Yay Best Birthday Ever! I replied.

Relieved, I immediately contacted several family members to tell them the good news. Several days later when I received the following email addressed to me, my two other brothers and mother:

I am sorry to disappoint everybody, but I rebuke my support for Obama. Go McCain.

Wow, this little bit of cyber communication really did make me laugh out loud. I think it was the “Go McCain” he added at the end. I called him that evening to get the scoop on his change of heart. As it turns out, just because the racist underbelly of America had become exposed at McCain rallies, does not mean he should lose my brother’s support.
“At least the man is showing some remorse,” he said

I held my tongue in an effort not to strain our occasionally tenuous relationship.

Always the contrarian! I thought to myself.

I had actually been more surprised by his sudden endorsement of Obama than I was by his swift yet seemingly inevitable return to the far right wing. Like the elephant symbolizing the GOP, my brother’s stubbornness is legendary and he cannot be moved. And that was that; this was one vote Obama would not receive, at least not this year. Nobody could ever say my brother is not consistent with his views, however this will be the first time in his adult life that he will vote… Republican.
~~~

Hmm...I wonder if this Hope stuff will ever get old.

Hmm...Will this hope stuff will ever get old??

They say there is a first time for everything; who knew this election would elicit so many firsts out of so many people? It takes courage to step out of your comfort zone and try to do things differently like my friend Joseph and his father have done this year. It takes strength to stand up for what you believe in like my brother William, especially in the midst of dissention from loved ones. It takes a certain kind of fortitude to set your goals higher than anyone around you would dare to imagine, like Kamali.

I think back to the conversation we had in that tiny lounge at the University of West Indies in Barbados. We really hurt Kamali’s feelings that day. His aspirations to be President ran as deep and as true as our doubts that it could ever happen. It was as though we had somehow betrayed him by our own unwillingness to dream with him. For Kamali, the greater tragedy would have been not to dream and not to envision his greatest aspirations. Hope. It is more than just a political catchphrase for many, especially in the face of this undoubtedly historic election. It is something I probably could have used more of back in college and especially on that sticky day in Barbados. I wonder what Kamali would say if I had a chance to speak with him now.

“I got next!” I would have to assume, right after “I told you so.”

___

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“You know, they said this day would never come.

They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.

But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.

You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this new year, 2008.”