As voters prepare to make their voices heard in the 2018 mid-term elections, The New Orleans Tribune is reprinting a reflective commentary written by founding editor James Borders in 2008 after the historic election of Barack Obama. As we examine the first two years of the Trump administration–with its disappointments and dilemmas–it seems appropriate to look back at a moment in history that filled us with as much hope, vigor and the will to fight as it did uncertainty.
by J.B. Borders
“It was the best of times. it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote famously of the French Revolution, “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Dickens’s observations seem appropriate once more in describing the swirl of forces and emotions at play today in the United States of America – in the Age of Obama and the Great Depression, Part II.
Every era, of course, has an overarching narrative, a grand struggle that threads both large and small acts into a theme. In the Black world, these grand narratives generally have played out over the course of one-hundred-year periods. And it’s generally helpful to figure out where we are by understanding where we’ve been.
The 18th century, for example, was characterized by the domination and degradation of Black people on an almost global scale. Then a big pushback began and the major story of the nineteenth century became the battle for abolition of the slave trade. Though the state of Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777 and in 1792 Denmark became the first sovereign nation to abolish the enslavement of human beings, it wasn’t until 1888 that slavery was abolished finally in Brazil.
Liberation was the next logical step in this journey and it became the overarching theme of the twentieth century. In early 1885, several of the European nations reached an agreement about how to divide up Africa. Africans themselves objected strenuously to this plan and fought successful wars of liberation in every corner of the continent. But it wasn’t until 1994 that South Africa became the last Black nation to win its political freedom.
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States was part of the broader liberation struggle of Black people in the twentieth century. Its roots can be traced to the summer of 1905 when 29 leading African Americans crossed the border into Canada and drafted a manifesto calling for full civil rights for Blacks in the United States. That organization, the Niagara Movement, later morphed into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which organized and mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in the fight against legalized racial segregation in the U.S.
The battles and victories of the American Civil Rights Movement were critical milestones and inspiration to our skinfolk in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, the Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other pockets of the African Diaspora.
With the election of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United Slates, we have crossed a major hurdle and entered a new phase of the Black Freedom Struggle – the battle to reclaim and repair Black life and to transform us from being the wretched of the earth to being the treasures of the planet.
That must be the focus now of all our endeavors great and small – reclaiming, repairing and transforming ourselves. For as long as it takes, in as many ways as we can, we have got to become better people. Healthier, wealthier, smarter, more engaged in the functioning of our homes, neighborhoods, nation, world. Our objective should be to make Blackness synonymous with success. We also need to define success in new ways and eliminate much of the stupidity in our value system. For too many of our young and not so young Black men. Success can no longer be measured by how early you dropped out of school, how many babies you made, how many times you’ve been arrested, how many other Black men you have killed, how much drugs you can consume or sell, how much metal you have on your car and in your mouth, and how much money you can throw away in a night or a lifetime.
This process of transforming Blackness from stigma to blessing will be gradual, I realize, and it will fly directly into the face of a long-standing, massive public opinion campaign that seeks to justify the exploitation of Black people by making us appear to be less intelligent, more violent and more morally depraved than other peoples -which, in some folks’ minds, makes us more deserving of being messed over.
The Obama election now debunks some of that argument and rationale. But we must be vigilant about holding up our end of the bargain. Not just personal responsibility but collective accountability as well.
No, this will be no easy task. In truth,this is now the biggest fight of our lives.
I got an inkling of the magnitude of this challenge on Election Day 2008 – in the midst of millions of acts of pride, glory and transcendence taking place all across the country.
We had just finished voting, my sweetie and I, and decided to pick up some take-out po’ boys from an Uptown eatery. Behind us in the line to place our orders were three twenty-something, cocoa-colored Black men wearing lime-green day-glo vests, hard hats and work boots – construction workers of some sort. They were chattering among themselves but I didn’t pay them any attention. 1 was trying to decide what kind of sandwich to order.
Then I distinctly heard a voice say, “See, bruh, that’s why I don’t bother to vote.” I cocked my head in the direction of the comment and then spun around casual seeming, I thought, to look for the person who had made that remark. My beloved was standing directly behind me and directly in front of the construction crew. Before I could butt in on their conversation and attempt a little information sharing and consciousness-ralsing, she stopped me.
“No,” she said quietly. “It’s worse than you think. I’ll tell you about it when we get outside. No, no. Trust me on this one. Save your breath. Dont’ say anything.”
By the time I reached my office, I had dismissed the young men as victims of the mind-warping effects of right-wing radio. We can’t win them all, I reasoned, as I chowed down on the shrimp po-boy purchased from a Vietnamese-owned business with a Cajun name in a Black neighborhood.
Later that night, I watched election returns on television and saw the throngs at Grant Park who came out to celebrate Obama’s victory. I listened to analysts who reported that 94 percent of all African American voters had cast their ballots for Barack. I didn’t have to wonder about the profiles of the other six percent. I thought immediately of those three construction workers. I regretted not confronting them and challenging their views. I vowed not to make that mistake again. Now that we have crossed the threshold of a new era, we must take advantage of every available opportunity to reclaim, repair and transform ourselves. Nearly one billion strong, we Black people are fractured and powerless, even where we command large nations and have custody of huge swaths of the earth. We are still merely pawns on someone else’s chessboard. We have to acknowledge, confront and overcome our backwardness.
We have everything before us, Dickens might say. first major blow has been struck for our cause. “It is the spring of hope” – the century of Reclamation, Reparation and Transformation.”