People tend to forget that Barack Obama wasn't instantly embraced by black folks. Some of them even said that Obama wasn't black. Today I was reading Joan Morgan's insightful essay "Black Like Barack," which discusses among other things the meaning of being "black" in America, and was struck by a 2007 New York Times quote from a 58-year-old barber in Washington DC:
"When you think of a president, you think of an American," Mr. Lanier said. "We've been taught that a president should come from right here, born, raised, bred, fed in America. To go outside and bring somebody in from another nationality, now that doesn't feel right to some people."
There's more than a little similarity in this comment to the beliefs underpinning the "birther" movement. (I know people who still aren't convinced that Obama is a citizen.) Now, of course, black folks overwhelmingly support Obama.
Randall Kennedy offers an analysis in his book "The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency." I urge you to read it for yourself. But here's a hint, from Kennedy: "Having decided to be black, Obama had to determine what sort of black to be. He made himself black enough to arouse the communal pride and support of African Americans but not 'too black' to be accepted by whites and others."
What a difference an election makes.
The following quote, from an 1858 debate when Abraham Lincoln was running for Senate in Illinois, is not pretty. I'm no kind of Lincoln scholar, so I don't know if he held white supremacist views his whole life. People do change. And I knew that Lincoln's primary reason for abolishing slavery was not a moral one, but the preservation of the United States. All that said, I still was semi-shocked to reads this Lincoln quote in Randall Kennedy's book "The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency":
"I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races (applause) ... I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
Kennedy goes on to write, in his own words:
"Yet (Lincoln) did take steps to end slavery, and allowed his perception of African Americans to evolve, and even warmed to the idea that some blacks should be accorded civil and political rights. Frederick Douglas once described Lincoln as "emphatically the Black man's President."
Yes, 1858 was 150 years ago. That's a long time. But when you read something like that, from one of the most admired men in American history, it somehow feels much closer.
Jesse Washington is a Senior Writer for ESPN's TheUndefeated.com