Historical Moment

Black Thinkers Reflect on the Election of Barack Obama
compiled by Aly Wane

The election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States is clearly an event of world-historical significance. It is a potent symbol for how much, at some level, there has been progress in race relations in this country. Was the victory only symbolic, however? We have collected a small sample of responses from prominent black thinkers and activists.

The struggle for Justice continues. Ben Heine, www.deviantart.com

Manning Marable, Professor of Public Affairs, Political Science, History and African-American Studies at Columbia University: Some of us would say that we've been waiting for this victory since 1619. It's been about 400 years for African Americans to really feel a part of American democracy. It's been - forty years ago - I mean, I think about this - the majority of black people did not vote in a presidential election. The first time they did was in 1968. That black people, for 250 years, were defined as property in this country. For another hundred years, we were relegated to the margins of democracy because of Jim Crow segregation. Black people were denied access to the ballot across the South until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And for us to move in forty years' time to the point of having a black chief executive is almost unbelievable for the vast majority of black people. But now the great challenge occurs, and it occurs in two ways. There are expectations that African Americans have that I believe can't be realized by one person, by this one man, entering a political structure and an apparatus that is not designed to liberate black people. We have to be soberly cautious about what Obama can achieve, can accomplish, even as the nation's president. But a second problem that I want to reiterate is, what does the left do as we approach a liberal administration that has won an unprecedented victory in our own lifetimes?…The Democratic Party is not a vehicle that's designed to advocate the issues of poor folk and working people.

Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Kenya, where Obama's father was born: When you look at the people receiving Obama in Chicago, they are white, black, yellow - exactly as envisaged by Dr King. The US truly has overcome. And with the global reaction it seems like the whole world is joining in that overcoming. This is one of the most inspiring moments of my life. Americans have elected a person of extraordinary character and ability, who also happens to be black. It is a moment of greatness for all humanity.

Cornel West, Author, and Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University: I do support Brother Barack Obama gaining access to the White House, because he was the best that America could do at this particular moment in the midst of imperial occupation in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, financial Katrina, legacy of Katrina in New Orleans, wealth inequality, dilapidated housing in chocolate cities, disgraceful school systems, unacceptable levels of unemployment and underemployment, not enough access to healthcare for fellow citizens across race and region, not enough access to childcare. At this moment, the best America could do was Brother Barack Obama, liberal, centrist.

Vincent Harding, Historian, and Senior Advisor on the influential Eyes on the Prize Documentary series: I am much more deeply involved in the hopes for what we can do to help push him into the place that he needs to go. He is taking a good start at this point by winning this magnificent election, but he is not going to be out there as a messiah by himself. We who believe in freedom are going to have to stand around him, stand beneath him, stand in back of him, and do everything that we can to keep reminding him that what we need is to move towards the very thing that he's been talking about: creating a more perfect union, creating a more just and peaceable society, creating a more democratic society. So my hopes are very much focused on him, but not on him alone. I see the energy that's been built up over these two years of campaigns, and I see the possibility that we could gather ourselves together and begin to ask, in a very powerful way, not what should Barack Obama be doing next, but where do we go from here? What is our role as committed, progressive citizens to move to the next stages? …Maybe a democracy needs community organizers more than it needs commanders.

Angela Davis, Activist and Scholar: He is being consumed as the embodiment of color blindness. It's the notion that we have moved beyond racism by not taking race into account. That's what makes him conceivable as a presidential candidate. He's become the model of diversity in this period, and what's interesting about his campaign is that it has not sought to invoke engagements with race other than those that have already existed.

Michael Eric Dyson, University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University: If Obama's credentials for the highest office in the land have been gained in the give-and-take of community organizing and power politics, his belief in the American people--a reflection, in part, of the profound belief they have invested in him--derives from his molding in the crucible of various cultures, colors and communities. Obama's multiracial roots and multicultural experiences are not a liability; instead, they offer him an edge in the national effort to overcome the poisonous divisions that plague the American soul. His fascinating mix of race and culture shows up in lively fashion--including his love for the upper reaches of Abraham Lincoln's emancipating political vision, as well as his compassion for the black boys and girls stuck on the lowest rung of the ladder of upward mobility. That he is aware of race without being its prisoner--that he is rooted in, but not restricted by, his blackness--challenges orthodoxies and playbooks on all sides of the racial divide and debate. But it also makes him curiously effective in the necessary pledge to overcome our racial malaise by working to deny it the upper hand in restoring our national kinship.

Alice Walker reading and talking about “WhyWar is Never a Good Idea” and “There’s a Flower at the End of My Nose Smelling Me.” Photo: Virginia Debolt on flickr.com

Alice Walker, Author and Feminist (in a widely publicized letter addressing Obama directly): You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you deliver the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. And yet, this observation is not intended to burden you, for you are of a different time, and, indeed, because of all the relay runners before you, North America is a different place. It is really only to say: Well done. We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and of the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about.

Aly Wane is a long-term SPC intern who works on the PNL editorial committee and the Detainment Task Force among other projects.