The utterly transformative and historic moment in Chicago’s Grant Park last Tuesday night held millions around the world spellbound. The image of the newly-elected 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, his wife Michelle and two young daughters waving to the crowds was something many people genuinely thought they’d never see. An African-American first family. A Black man who finally and most decisively achieved whatever this mythical “American dream” represented. A 20-month-old campaign was finally over, and Barack Hussein Obama triumphed, winning not only the popular vote on Tuesday but also the electoral vote by a margin of more than 2 to 1. Obama won in states that had not voted for a Democrat since 1964. The Commonwealth of Virginia, where the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War stood, went for Obama, as did North Carolina. As did Iowa. As did many states. They voted –Americans voted in large numbers for a Black man. Even in a country where racial attitudes still exist, one of the remarkable facts about Tuesday’s election was that Americans put aside those differences and took a proud and measured chance on a new leader and a new hope.
This was a vote for change and a fresh start after eight years of misery under an extremely unpopular Administration. But it was hard to overlook this extraordinarily historical moment, 40 years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, that change truly had arrived. Barack Obama had reached the “promised land” of the highest elected office in this country. You know, the kind of office that parents are supposed to tell their kids they could one day achieve. Yes, he could. Yes, he did.
I’d like to focus on two African-American women, both of them well-known, and discuss their own reactions to the election of Barack Obama. But these aren’t necessarily like-minded women. One is a actress/comedienne who is on a popular daytime talk show. The other is the nation’s chief diplomat who is known around the world, and who has been a fixture of this Administration for the last 8 years. And yet, their take on the election of the nation’s first Black President resonates in a common, unifying, even moving way, despite their different backgrounds and political predilections.They are Black women first, raised during a generation of racial strife and a civil rights movement in the 1960s. They understand the struggles that the leaders and events then –Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, the march on Selma in which the Voting Rights Act was written—have somehow come to a glorious full circle. And each woman took her time on Wednesday morning, in the wake of the Obama victory, to express what his election meant to them as Black Americans.
Sherri Shepherd,41, is a hostess on ABC’s “The View”, seen by millions every morning. She isn’t necessarily a political figure, with no real ax to grind. The women –Whoopi Goldberg, Barbara Walters, Joy Behar and Elizabeth Hasselbeck—discuss “hot topics” everyday and the campaign has been a lightning rod for all, especially Hasselbeck, who became a screeching and manic defender of John McCain, even stepping out of her role last week and introducing Sarah Palin at a rally in Florida. Sheperd, a comedienne known for stand-up routines and roles in B-list sitcoms, does not normally get too worked up about political issues. Since Hasselbeck seems alienating in her single-note defense of Republican values, Shepherd has tended to side with the other, more liberal-minded women. (Walters is repeated at pains to say she has no opinion whatsoever.) It’s not that Shepherd doesn’t have a point of view, but she also isn’t all that deep in her knowledge about many political issues. She has a tendency to be naïve. She gets picked on a bit, especially by Whoopi for not being more, well, knowledgeable. She has stated on the air that the world is flat. She has been favorable to views about Creationism. She has said that no one, not even the Greeks or Romans, predated Jesus Christ or any Christians, and that the Greeks threw the Christians to the lions.
But I don’t want to pick on Sherri. While she is not the sharpest tool in the “View” shed, she is the most emotional. And in this moving segment, she also confesses that she too, as a born-again Christian and a mother with a special-needs son, she was unsure of whom to vote for on Election Day. She had shown admiration for Sarah Palin and her own special-needs infant, and was touched –as Sherri tends to be all too often. She was undecided as late as last Friday. But something about Obama changed her mind because the hope that a Black man could finally be elected President proved all too overwhelming. This touched an emotional nerve in her, as this clip shows.
Shepherd makes reference to something that all minorities in this country understand: the curse of low expectations. She can now tell her son that it’s possible to really achieve something. She doesn’t have to believe, as she herself was told, that you couldn’t do this or do that. Given the history of racism in the US and the pockets of white supremacy in the workforce have always dictated who would be “let in” –i.e., the gatekeepers have always had this access and there could never be a level playing field. Shepherd now saw the possibility because Obama was able to sail through –not just squeak by—and affirm what was seen as previously impossible. Or at least the sense that one didn’t belong.
The second Black woman, Condoleezza Rice, is a lot more complex. At 53 and the nation’s first African-American female Secretary of State, she is also an academic and professor of political science at Stanford. She herself has talked openly about her roots in Alabama, and knowing the four little girls who were murdered in Birmingham in 1963. She grew up the only child of an upper-middle class couple in Alabama, who then also moved to Denver. While her parents sheltered her a lot from the racial strife of that time, they never discouraged her about whatever career she wanted to pursue –a concert pianist, an ice skater, both of which she was accomplished in. She then became an academic, and expert on the then-Soviet Union, and was probably the only Black person to have this kind of expertise among “Sovietologists” of the time. (Disclosure: I know Rice personally.) During one research trip to Moscow to meet with the Army General Staff, her visit garnered attention in the Soviet press for the expansive knowledge she displayed about minute military matters, and that really, this attractive Black woman, should probably better spend her time in the kitchen.
Rice is no stranger to issues of race. “I’ve been black all my life”, she famously shot back at student activists at Stanford who protested her firing of an affirmative action official, a Latina. The implication was that she, the university’s #2 official, didn’t understand issues of race, class or gender. She has been characterized, mostly accurately, as ambivalent about affirmative action: for it when it comes to recruiting students into higher education, but not so much for it when it comes to recruiting into the professoriate. Sounds a bit odd, for sure. Yet I also believe that Obama’s victory was some kind of cause for celebration for Rice. I think she understood the history of this moment, the full circle again, the sense that someone was able to go to the very best schools, become a true professional and live out dreams that parents instilled in her.
Yet Rice is also not unaware of the struggles that the civil rights movement gave millions of Blacks tremendous voting power, representation and access to venues like universities and corporate board rooms that had been historically denied. Rice talks about slavery being a “birth defect” in our history. It’s there, and always will be there and it’s our collective challenge to always strive for the realities of true equality because when this country was founded, Blacks were not going to be a part of this national fabric called America. They were, at the start, disenfranchised.
What I think she also saw in Obama’s victory is that here was someone who was also aided by this new enfranchisement called affirmative action, rightly and proudly and without the stigma that opponents feel the need to place on it. Here was someone, like her, who was able to achieve heights in education and government service, that, 40 years ago, would have been unthinkable. Their political views are probably different, of course. They do know each other, and I’m sure they share a perspective that all Blacks learn to understand in this society: you have to work hard and you always know that, as one of her recent biographies put it, you have to be “twice as good”. And to have reached this level, this singular feat, to have managed a powerful, seamless campaign and be elected President so decisively –well, I think this had to affect Secretary Rice, and it did.
In this clip, we can see something we do not normally see in the famously steely and collected Secretary of State: real emotion. Not of the Sherri Shepherd variety with all the waterworks. But it’s there all the same, and we can hear the hope in her voice and a profound sense that something transcendent –an African American achieving—has taken place. I will let her words and facial expressions speak for themselves. Finally, this was a daily press briefing that would normally be done by her spokesperson, Sean McCormack. She decided, on the day after Obama’s victory, that she really needed to say something.