October 29, 2007

Nooses, Obama, and Us

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Any American can rattle off a list of our nation’s enduring symbols. It might begin with the flag, the Statue of Liberty, or apple pie, and wrap around any number of entities, images, and landmarks. We trumpet some of these symbols; others we cannot escape. The noose now stands atop that latter list.
The case of the Jena Six nudged its way into the national consciousness more than a month ago – and since then, nooses have appeared eight times in the New York City metropolitan area alone. An African-American professor at Columbia University found the piece of rope dangling from her office door. A recently promoted deputy police chief in Hempstead encountered a similar affront, as did a worker for Nassau County’s Public Works Department. The meaning of the noose has changed little over the last century. In our day, as in the Jim Crow South, perpetrators use the noose to terrorize people, to warn African-Americans of the punishment awaiting those who ascend out of their “place.” In the era of segregation, that “place” was one of perpetual poverty, deference, and powerlessness. In our America, battles bubble up around this question at least once a year. They expose a society still shot through with racial inequality and tension.
Our own community has proved itself far from immune to such forces. The unnerving events at Ithaca High School – where students have recently been threatened and beaten, where hundreds have demonstrated against a school system ill-equipped to confront episodes of racial discrimination, and where some groups of white students have proudly dubbed themselves “rednecks” – seep into, even as they reflect, our university upon a hill and our town at large.
As the supposedly enlightened sections of the nation deal with these horrifying reminders of America’s racial torment, a black man runs for the presidency.

***

Over the past summer, I made a sarcastic comment about my father’s support of John Edwards – and asked whether he wished to thus ensure the persistence of white-male patriarchy. I scared him away from Edwards quickly enough, but realized later that I was wrong to do so. As I followed the Democratic campaign more closely, Edwards became much more appealing – the only candidate willing to say that poverty continues to define and divide America, and the candidate with the most serious anti-war stance.
Moreover, I agreed with my colleagues who pointed out that many liberals wanted to vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama just to salve their own consciences, to feel good about themselves by electing an African-American or a woman – without any reference to their policy stances. Obama and Clinton often fall over themselves in their attempts to straddle lines, and they talk endlessly without actually saying much at all. But after some weeks of soul-searching – and absorbing the effects of the ongoing events around me – I am more than willing to give them both the benefit of the doubt.
Even if Clinton seems to lack dynamism and charisma, and even if she is up to her ears in corporate money and the politics of centrism, she strikes me as someone who would make a very good president. For instance, I am confident that she would seek a thoughtful exit from Iraq and that she would champion bills on expanded health care coverage. I believe she possesses a generally liberal outlook, and that she has exceptional political skills and knows how to employ them. I have never read her books, and have never gleaned all that much of substance from her speeches. I can only make an educated guess that she might move America, ever so slowly, closer to the type of country I would like it to be.
When I read Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, I was startled by its candor. It did not feel to me like something a politician would write, and it approached the issue of race in America with an impressive level of sophistication. While The Audacity of Hope was not quite as audacious, it contained more than a few imaginative policy prescriptions. Obama’s writing style again engaged me, and the content of the book rose well above the level of homily – a rare feat for any 21st century politician. All this is to say that I think Obama deserves much of the excitement he has generated. His politics are quite insufficient for those Democrats who think primarily in terms of welfare-state liberalism. And as someone who often does judge politicians by such standards, I find some of Obama’s utterances to be disappointingly middle-of-the-road. Still, I am drawn in by the hype and by the man. His words speak to me.
Perhaps I am one of those white Democrats who desire mainly to salve my own conscience. I sure hope not. If it were Alan Keyes running instead of Barack Obama, I would be less enchanted by the prospect of an African-American president. And if it were Condoleeza Rice in place of Hillary Clinton, no amount of barrier-breaking logic could win my vote.

***

I am persuaded that symbols still mean an awful lot in America. Many girls might grow up with the dream of becoming president, but those dreams remain disconnected from American history and 21st century reality. I am not sure I would congratulate myself if I helped elect the first woman next year; I merely think that our nation stands to gain from it. Hillary’s inauguration would carry undeniable significance – of which its symbolism would constitute no small part.
Obama, in both of his books, spills a lot of ink on dreams, hopes, and visions. While some of this rings hollow, Obama can place his finger on profundity. The Audacity of Hope contains a specific insight about the psychological effects of our racial past – about how the degradation and debasement, the whips and the nooses, functioned in the African-American mind. “In black America,” he writes, the notion “that one isn’t confined in one’s dreams…. represents a radical break from the past, a severing of the psychological shackles of slavery and Jim Crow. It is perhaps the most important legacy of the civil rights movement.”
The noose-hangers want to re-attach the psychological shackles. They cannot undo the legal equality that the civil rights movement won for black Americans, though they certainly aim to resurrect the fear, and the idea of “place,” that once reigned throughout the land. Their endeavor will fail. African-Americans (and many whites) may shudder when they see nooses strung up to the office door, but I doubt that the Columbia professor or the Long Island police officer will scale back their career aspirations in any way. In this sense, the nooses remain divorced from the America that they now inhabit. And yet, we are never very far removed from our history – or from the symbols of that past. What can shatter the notion of a racial or sexual “place” more than the fact of a president with dark skin, or the idea of a First Man? In a country where nooses still hang, an Obama victory could prove deeply meaningful both in symbol and substance.

Jason Sokol is a professor in the History department and is one of the Sun’s faculty bloggers. He can be reached at blogs@cornellsun.com.