Barack Obama, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rebirth of the dream.
At this writing, Barack Obama seems set to win the most important position in the nation and the world. In June, when he won the nomination, I wrote “The Long View,” about how, in anthropological perspective, history had been made.
An African-American had become a major party’s presidential nominee, and a woman almost had. Regardless of the outcome, I had lived to see what I could only barely imagine happening in my lifetime. And now, if I live another day, I will see a black man win the presidency.
Tragically, we members of Homo sapiens are wired for fear and contempt of those different from us. We came up from our ape ancestors in small face-to-face groups that, if chimpanzees are any guide, committed acts of violence against those in neighboring groups, including killing them.
Social psychologists have shown that it is trivially easy to get people, even children, to identify so strongly with even an artificial “in” group that we soon hate and mistreat those in other groups. Our natural groups throughout history were based on family, then clan, then tribe, and finally, nation, religion, and race.
The circle widened, but the dangerous emotions lingered on. “He is not like me” is a perception, but what we do next with that information is what counts, and what we did through the ages is nothing to be proud of. The perception was predictably invoked in this election cycle but it didn’t work as it was supposed to.
Obama was just too hard to pigeonhole: A coffee-with-cream-colored black man with a beloved white mom and grandma. A man with a strange name who sounded like every American, only smarter. A Harvard lawyer whose dad was a Kenyan goatherd. An androgynous-looking, latte-sipping elitist who played hoops on the streets of Chicago and helped save desperate children lost in those same streets. Obama is such a strange amalgam that the phrase “He is not like me” could have been said by anyone. Perhaps that is why it morphed in the end into “Maybe he is like me.”
To say that the world’s eyes are on him and us is putting it very mildly. Contrary to some claims, America is one of the least racist of societies, but now we are getting a chance to prove that beyond doubt. Try to imagine an election in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, or Japan that gives a black or brown person the supreme reins of power. The thought is laughable, except in America, where it is happening.
Saturday I picked up an old friend at the airport—Dale Rosengarten, a Harvard-trained historian of African-American arts and of Southern Jewry. As I always do when a visitor to Atlanta hasn’t been there, I took her to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, the most moving place to visit in our city.
Driving through the neighborhood it is in, you are quickly disabused of the thought that racial equality has been achieved. But as we walked along the reflecting pool in the sunlight on a lovely, crisp fall day and saw the mixture of white and black visitors, we also could not deny that there have been changes.
We stood before the dual crypt—Coretta Scott King is now beside him—and read the words Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last. How much this election would have meant to him! I was at the “I have a dream” speech, when many blacks could not even vote, and just over forty-five years later I cast a vote that would help lift a black man-still a baby in 1963—to the presidency.
There, between the crypt and the Eternal Flame, two white men came up to us. Would we mind being interviewed for Belgian radio? About Obama? In this particular spot?
We had walked past Dr. King’s birth home and read the date in bronze. “He would have been almost 80,” Dale said. We picked up that thread in the interview, and I said I thought even he would have been amazed to have lived to see a black president. I also said with a smile that Obama might be King reborn. In his charming French accent, the interviewer said, “The dream reborn.”
Dale—who, with her husband Ted had integrated a South Carolina middle school with their own two sons—talked about Obama as a transformative force in American history. Asked what I thought the impact on race relations would be, I expressed doubt that Obama could make huge changes in economic racial inequality, especially in this economy, but believed the psychological impact would be tremendous—especially for kids, white or black. And I gestured toward the teenagers gazing at the crypt.
This great fallen hero will never be supplanted or forgotten, but as he himself would have wished and as he did indeed dream, the focus will now shift to a man whose race is ambiguous, and yet is easily black enough to live the dream. He will face some of the toughest challenges of any recent president. But his presence in the White House will let the world know not that racial inequality has ended, but that the dream is becoming real. President Obama will be the point man for a new kind of world, in which the human species learns to say, “He is not like me . . . and yet he is.”
As we walked away we heard raucous noises; our Belgian friends were in the street recording the joyful voices of young people on a big campaign truck advancing slowly: “O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!” No doubt they knew they were passing Dr. King’s resting place, but their eyes were on the future.