DENVER, Colorado — When Delores Napper first read Irving Wallace’s novel The Man as a young black woman in 1965, the story envisioning the trials and tribulations of the America’s first black president fascinated her in the way “What if?” books in which the Axis wins World War II or Napoleon emerges triumphant from Waterloo fascinate some history buffs — an intriguing imaginative exercise, but far removed from reality. In fact, even Wallace had not been so bold in fiction as to depict a black man winning election to the office. His character, Douglass Dilman, is installed in the Oval Office by an “unexpected accident and the law of succession.”
The idea stuck with Napper, nibbled at the edges of her mind, always. When she came across a painting by Georgia artist Joel Gresham of a black man sitting on a bench reading a newspaper headlined America Elects Its First Black President a quarter-century later in 1990, she snapped it up and hung it in her foyer. The piece was a conversation starter, but by the beginning of 2008, not coincidentally coinciding with the rise of Barack Obama, the conversation was freighted with a whole lot more meaning.
This week Napper and her husband were on the mall in downtown Denver selling prints, postcards, magnets, and T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Gresham’s painting to the DNC attendees steadily transmogrifying into ravenous consumers of anything Obama-mania related. Business was brisk, egged on, perhaps, by Napper loudly trumpeting the fact that 25 percent of the proceeds would be donated to the campaign of the freshman senator from Illinois, whom, she’ll proudly tell you, she traveled to Mississippi, North Carolina, and Alabama to campaign for.
“I thought this would always be a dream,” Napper said. “I thought this painting would be passed down for generations before it could be something real. But those people who stood up in front of their neighbors in Iowa and spoke up for a black man, well…” she trails off for a few moments. “Maybe I didn’t know how much things had changed. But those folks healed me. After Iowa, it felt like a healing bomb had gone off over all those old racial wounds.” Napper shakes her head as if she still cannot believe what has come to pass. (With Hillary and Bill, that makes at least three.) Unsurprisingly, Iowa delegates received free posters.
IT CAN BE DIFFICULT TO remember during an election in which there is an overt political effort to cast any effective criticism of Barack Obama as racially motivated and, thus, out of bounds, that there is likewise a powerful, authentically emotional reaction to Obama’s nomination in the black community existing both outside of and beyond politics. It is important to acknowledge the monumental nature of what has occurred and how it has touched millions of Americans.
Juan Williams didn’t choke up after Michelle Obama’s speech on behalf of the Democratic Party, just as Delores Napper wasn’t on the streets of Denver selling prints out of an outsized devotion to a politics. In Denver the atmosphere among black delegates was eons removed from that of the DNC convention in 2004, the difference between being a (albeit powerful) special interest group and having achieved some true ownership over the proceedings. Recall, it was only four years ago lava lamp Al Sharpton charged during a primary debate that while blacks “helped take [the Democratic Party] to the dance” that same party would “leave with right-wingers, you leave with people that you say are swing voters, you leave with people that are antithetical to our history and antithetical to our interests.”
In 2008 black voters still went home with somebody else, but this time it was another black man with less baggage, more substance and fewer tracksuits. This has been a time of rapid change.
YES, THIS IS A MOMENT worth celebrating, even if it cannot be in the way those who seek to exploit it for political gain/cover would prefer — i.e. Republicans not contesting the election, no matter how unsavory Barack Obama’s policies are to them, in order to absolve themselves of the taint of racism. “To the rest of the world, a rejection of the promise [Obama] represents wouldn’t just be an odd choice by the United States,” Jacob Weisberg, for example, writes in Slate, conveniently raising his own electoral preference to morally inviolable status. “It would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation’s historical decline.”
To not vote for Obama, then, is to vote for the destruction of the republic. And these are the people who think the Swift Boaters were too harsh? “If he loses by two or three percent then I would certainly say that the racial issue was a major factor,” Jimmy Carter recently told USA Today, effectively turning any Obama loss into an indictment of the United States as racist.
One presumes Carter would not be saying the same thing if Condi Rice were the Republican nominee right now. Nor if Joe Lieberman were the Republicans’ vice-presidential nominee would he likely appreciate all criticism being deflected with cries of “anti-Semitism!”
The beat goes on: Leonard Greene, in the New York Post, fumes — before the debates, before the conventions, before most Americans truly weigh their choices — that Obama “should be picking out a desk for the Oval Office,” but can’t because, “Many white Americans — Democrats included — are no happier about a black president than they are about a black supervisor on their jobs, or a black family moving in next door.” (You could say such rhetoric is presumptuous, but that is one of an apparently endless number of racial code words.) David Gergen, adding fuel to the fire, rails improbably, “As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, ‘The One,’ that’s code for, ‘He’s uppity, he ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who is from a southern background.”
EVERYBODY? MAYBE EVERYBODY who wants to get that — especially if, say, it lets you feel like a grandstanding crusader for justice during yet another of your interminable television appearances — gets that, but the truth is for all the talk of Republicans trying to turn Obama into ‘the other,’ it is this type of bluster from the left that truly threatens Obama with that status. Why shouldn’t he be required to walk through the same flames as every other presidential candidate? deliberating citizens will ask themselves. Why am I a racist if I have some questions about this freshman senator?
To be unable to criticize or question Obama’s candidacy or policies out of fear of rhetorical retribution is something that will almost certainly brand him as The Other. And it is not racism to note there are wide swaths of this nation comfortable enough in their own skin to not simply be bullied into voting for a candidate because a gaggle of reporters and liberal bloggers are saying “…or else.” I know this, in no small part, because I am from New Hampshire, a state obscenely smeared as racist for not going along with the commentariat last January.
Letting Barack Obama make his case and rise or fall on the merits is more in line with the spirit of equality than demeaning the entire nation as hateful, backwards and cruel for not choosing as you’ve chosen. Obama supporters expect Hillary Clinton to be satisfied with her accomplishments without branding Democrats as sexists, so Democrats can do the rest of us the favor of not branding us racists if their candidate loses. To behave so would be unfair. Outside rabidly partisan left-wing circles this is understood.
“I won’t lose my happiness, though I want so very badly for him to win,” Delores Napper answered when I asked her how she would feel if Obama were to lose the general election after coming this far. “It’s been done, done, done. The healing is so deep, so wonderful, it can’t be taken back.”