Joy & Something Else for Many African Americans

The New York Times yesterday ran a piece that addressed the mix of emotions for many African Americans that the Sen. Barack Obama’s nomination for president evokes.  Of course, many African Americans, and African immigrants to the U.S., are filled with joy.  As Marcus Mabry writes in the lede to the story:

Kwabena Sam-Brew, a 38-year-old immigrant from Ghana, doubted that Nana, his 5-year-old American-born daughter, would remember the rally that effectively crowned Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee Tuesday night.  But Mr. Sam-Brew said he would describe it to her: “I will tell her, ‘Tonight is the night that all Americans became one.’ ”  Mr. Sam-Brew, a bus driver living in Cottage Grove, Minn., said Mr. Obama’s achievement would change the nation’s image around the world, and change the mind-set of Americans, too.  “We as black people now have hope that we have never, ever had,” Mr. Sam-Brew said. “I have new goals for my little girl. She can’t give me any excuses because she’s black.”

And, many people who identify as biracial (or the parents of biracial children) feel a special sense of joy and pride as Obama’s achievement as this woman describes:

Alison Kane, a white 34-year-old transportation analyst from Edina, Minn., said Mr. Obama’s success as a biracial politician would have a similar effect on her 21-month-old biracial daughter, Hawa. “When she’s out in, God knows where, some small town in rural America, they’ll think, ‘Oh, I know someone like you. Our president is like you,’ ” Ms. Kane said. “That just opens minds for people, to have someone to relate to. And that makes me feel better, as a mom.”

Yet, that joy is mixed with other emotions that acknowledge the reality of systemic racism in the U.S.   For instance, the article quotes Michella Minter, a black 21-year-old student in Huntington, W.Va.,

“People hate black people. I’m not trying to be racist or over the top but it is seriously apparent that black people aren’t valued in this country. In the last 12 months, six kids were being tried for attempted murder for a school fight, an unarmed man got 51 bullets in his body by a New York police officer, died, and no one was charged, and endless other racist unknown acts have occurred this year.”

For many African Americans, the reality of persistent racism in the U.S. means that every achievement, every soaring accomplishment, is tinged with the knowledge of how fragile that victory is, how easily reversed, how tentative the progress.   And, make no mistake, Obama’s victory is inspiring and remarkable, but it does not mark “the end of racism.”      For that, we have miles and miles to go.


  1. TJ

    This was the quote highlighted in the NYTimes daily e-mail, too. It’s disappointing at minimum. I have a problem with the quote. It has to do with that word, excuses. It’s not realistic.

    I’ve never heard any conversation that goes:

    “I can’t do this math problem.”


    “I’m black.”

    The idea that a black person would think they could never be president because they were black is minimal compared to the opinion that the US would not vote for a black president.

    Obama’s success with race is his exceptionalism, that he does not remind us of “black-ness” and that he has largely shed symbols associated with blackness –his ties to Trinity, for instance –mean that black-ness still has implicit and insidious meaning. In my family at least, it’s regularly thought that success would have to come despite the continuous obstacle of being judged by one’s ancestry.

  2. Jessie Author

    Hi TJ ~ good to see you here. You make an excellent point when you write: In my family at least, it’s regularly thought that success would have to come despite the continuous obstacle of being judged by one’s ancestry.” Yes, I thought the NYTimes piece was sort of acknowledging this reality while (as per usual with the Times), bending over backwards to highlight the “good news” of African American’s joy at the thought of Obama’s election.

  3. TJ

    Thanks Jessie!

    I thought the article had to bend over backwards to acknowledge the joy because the reaction to Obama’s accomplishments are probably characterized less by unadulterated joy than they are by something else. I haven’t put my finger on it yet. But it’s hard to tell from this article, because the author structures the piece so strangely. The title “Many Blacks Find Joy in Unexpected Breakthrough” doesn’t capture whatever it is this article is trying to do.

    For an article that ostensibly gauges black opinion concerning Obama’s success, it sure tries to accomplish a lot more—talking about affirmative action (for four whole paragaphs?), quoting the reaction of “a 61-year-old white school teacher(?) from Terra Alta, W.Va”, while saving the type of joy that only onomotopaeia can capture for the final paragraph.

    Also, they play a rhetorical trick when they collapse what might be termed ‘African immigrant’ with ‘black american’. It’s an elision that’s not wrong, but is misleading to most people. I expect Kwabena Sam-Brew to see the joy of Obama’s candidacy in some limited context but not the social and historical context we might expect most black Americans to consider. Sam-Brew is black, but to present his views first, as representative of the black American community when he might better inhabit an immigrant view, is misleading.

  4. TJ

    Sorry to double post, but this article at politico is closer to what should have been written by the NYT:

    “Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), son of the one-time presidential contender, said Obama’s victory overwhelmed him.

    “I cried all night. I’m going to be crying for the next four years,” he said. “What Barack Obama has accomplished is the single most extraordinary event that has occurred in the 232 years of the nation’s political history. … The event itself is so extraordinary that another chapter could be added to the Bible to chronicle its significance.””

  5. Jessie Author

    Good link, TJ ~ thanks for that. I often see this kind of disconnect between the headlines in the NYTimes and the substance of the article. I seem to remember from my high school journalism class that the headlines used to get written by a different department, separate from the reporters writing the stories. I wonder if that’s still the case at the Times?

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