Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Selling Obama

By Kelly Cogswell

794 words

So Obama's really getting it done, in fundraising anyway, picking up four dollars here, four thousand there. He's fudging a bit, by counting sales of key chains, but why not? All those little contributions add up, not so much in money, but in sheer numbers. Count enough hat buyers, he can go to big donors saying, look at my grassroots support.

It would be nice if it were real, especially in modest black neighborhoods. It's not easy to mobilize people, get them to open their wallets--or their mouths. Women won Roe v. Wade and fell asleep. The biggest queer movement now is about gay marriage, and if we ever get that, watch the big snooze begin until the next Matthew Shepard.

Mobilizing anybody in the U.S. usually takes an enormous injustice, if not outright blood. It's nice to see Obama people rallying for something positive, having the first serious black candidate, maybe even the first black president of the United States of America.

It's a knife's edge he's walking on, though, portraying himself primarily as an American, and a black person second. He can't be too black or he'll scare off whites, as for people of color, plenty are buying those key chains to collect mostly because of the face printed on them.

Obama's lucky he has a nice one. The guy's handsome, no doubt about it. And his face reflects the youthful, outsider's energy he brings to his electoral campaign, though every now and again, you catch a glimpse of pure ambition behind the sincere smile and remember he's a politician. Listen closely, you can hear him change the cadence of his voice from venue to venue, all Ivy League on Charlie Rose, in front of a black crowd, nothing but preacherman.

I minded for a while, being Southernish myself, how people like him use our drawling intonations to show how down home they are, just folks. Remember Bush with his big grey cowboy hat?

It's just image, right? The foundation of politics. Hell, what are the stained-glass windows and stone carvings of all those European cathedrals but a kind of election poster for Christ?

But images without words aren't enough. Politics requires the human body, politicians making stump speeches to cheering or braying crowds. As soon as they could, men in top hats rode trains from one town to another in "whistle-stop campaigns."

At the same time, words are nothing without the face. This morning I'm thinking of Sojourner Truth. Probably some of her audiences had seen black people only as slaves up on auction blocks, animals really, baring their teeth so buyers could examine them like cattle for signs of ill health.

I imagine her, yet another black face, as she climbs up on a box, and instead of standing there silently, opens her mouth and demands equality. That image itself must have been a shock, even for progressive whites who had read abolitionist stuff.

Her declaration was even more revolutionary. "Ain't I a woman?" Those words plus her face were cultural dynamite. Not only was she a human with powers of speech, but a woman, a member of the fair sex, too.

Patrick Lozés of CRAN [Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires] likes to joke that there weren't any black people in France until a couple of years ago -- that was the first time activists used the word noir, black.

National unity and a kind of universalism is hugely important here, and groups used to shy away from any phrase that separated themselves out into communities. They contorted themselves with names like "people of African origin and other places not white, working to promote friendship, harmony, and diversity in a glorious France." I exaggerate, a little.

It took me a while to get exactly what he meant. I understood the "invisible man" of society and politics, but to say there were no blacks, hmmm. After all, queers have to come out, but as a general rule we wear our race, our skin outside, like pink triangles or yellow stars.

His point was, we can't see a thing until we name it. And I remembered how until I owned the word dyke for myself, whole hordes of lesbians passed by unnoticed. In college, I defended the besmirched reputations of girls on the field hockey team.

Once I owned the word, I could see. Not only them, but a little network of threads in the air connecting each to each.

With any luck, by accepting a word like black, understanding words like poor, Obama can see their real potential, and win or lose, accept the responsibility so many have given him. They're much more than little donor fish he can dangle as bait for the big.

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