Before I saw my son crumpled on the floor, I thought I understood what Barack Obama signified. When the words "President-elect Barack Obama" flashed across our basement TV, the whoops from my son Darrell, 23, and five friends were deafening. Flinging open the door, Darrell and his friend Phil ran into the night as if fleeing a room too small to contain the moment. Another friend, Paul, stood frozen and blank-faced before the TV. Hugging him, I felt his shoulders heave with sobs. Darrell, too, was crying— something I hadn’t seen since 1996. After several calls to buddies that ended with "I love you, man," he finally collapsed to the floor.
Few people are less likely to dissolve into teary displays than young black men. Their elders seemed equally stirred. My brother turned off his phone because he was "too emotional" to speak, pundits Roland Martin and Juan Williams opined with glistening eyes, Colin Powell barely held it together, and Jesse Jackson stood wet-faced in Grant Park, looking stunned and agenda-less. But older black men have felt racism’s jolts more directly; their behavior models never included rappers whose reps were built on how many times they’d been shot.
So I was stunned by Darrell’s crew and by the scores of damp-eyed young brothers they later joined outside the White House to share hugs and high-fives. Back at home, my son was still floating. "Everything’s different," he said.
Maybe it is.
Whenever someone suggests that race doesn’t matter, I think of the old Redd Foxx joke that only a nuclear war could make it moot: We’d all be black— and crisp. But there was nothing funny about my cocky son crumpled on the carpet or about countless black professionals, workingmen, college students and street toughs dissolving publicly into tears.
Before Obama’s election, I wrote: "When all is said and done, it isn’t about a black man rising to where Barack Obama finds himself. It’s about this black man. At this particular moment."
Skin color didn’t vault this candidate into the presidency. What got Obama elected was Obama.
His fluency with words and ideas. His imaginative campaign. His unflappability. His penchant, displayed in the debates, for agreeing with foes before pointedly telling them where they’re wrong. At this particular moment, calmness, inspiration, creativity and alliance-building were catnip to folks facing two wars, recession and a waning international reputation.
Yet the power of what Obama’s skin color symbolizes is undeniable. He’s a black man— half white, but so brown there’s no confusion as to how he’s identified. As moved as I am by revelers in Japan and Brazil, I keep thinking about the guys in my basement.
No group in America is more feared, stereotyped and misunderstood than black men. Centuries of rejection, fear and hatred have taken a toll; is it surprising that so many display self-doubt and self-loathing? Economics alone can’t explain many young brothers’ seeming contempt for their own women, their exaggerated displays of machismo in dress and attitude, or the scores who’ve blown each other away out of perceived disrespect. Truly confident people don’t need to trumpet their masculinity, their power.
But the men downstairs were lucky— college-educated, employed or in college, with dedicated mothers and father figures who’d taught them to respect women and their own worthiness. So why were they losing it?
Everything in human existence comes back to love— whom we love, how we love, whether we are loved. The lack of love shrinks and deforms us; its presence helps us grow and expand. To black folks, Obama’s hordes of volunteers and enormous rallies represented more than a populace weary of shrinking possibilities. They were an outpouring of love— not just of the effortless politician who’d captivated them but of that which they hoped their nation was capable of.
On Tuesday night, my son and his friends saw their neighbors give their trust— their love— to a man whose grace, facial features, commitment to doing the right thing and multicultural view resembled theirs; a man who could have been their father, their cousin— or them. Their response wasn’t just about the notion that they, too, could become anything. It was about the suggestion that they could be embraced in ways that others have long taken for granted.
If people could cut through the invisible thread of racism woven in the nation’s fabric for Obama, maybe they’d do it for them.
Darrell, too, is a black man— who’s been unjustly stopped by the police, followed around stores and patronizingly told, "You speak so well!" At some point, his Nikes will touch the ground. He will again perceive intolerance’s sting and realize that perhaps everything isn’t different.
But enough is different right now that tears, "I love yous" and a collapse to the floor make perfect sense.
© 2008 The Washington Post Company