20 January 2009

The Power of Symbolism

LB + I watched the presidential inauguration today on CNN. And though Aretha made me shed tears of joy, as I watched President Obama swear in, I started thinking about one simple and novel truth that keeps on blowing me away: the most powerful man in the entire world (or at least one of them) is black. In my modest thirty-four years, there has never been one time in my entire life that I could ever utter those simple, euphonious and powerful words before: the most powerful man in the world is a Kenyan-American. Black slaves once helped build the Capitol + the White House, and now a open-minded, intelligent, eloquent + inspirational black man is the leader of the free world, the newly-coronated Chief of Staff, and now one of the world's greatest symbols of hope + change in this rapidly changing world. Whatever Obama does or doesn't do with his administration on a political level, the power of that basic and revolutionary symbol transcends race + history, effectively altering the face and the destiny of America in the best way possible.


Devin said...

Jackson -I hope you and LB are doing great! I agree with you-whatever happens in the future aside today was a historic day-best to you and LB as always!

JACKSON BLISS @ 水と魂 said...


Thanks so much, and right back at you. Peace, Blessings.

Apfel said...

I actually saw this in another way. It's not because he's black. It's not because he's young, or whatever. It's because he actually wanted to change things, and to make them better. It's because people wanted a change, and they did everything to make it happen.

This is what I wrote the 5th of november, the day after the american election.


As I said there... it doesn't matter if Obama turns out to be the best or the worst president of the US, what it matters, is that people really moved for the change. And that's priceless. If he inspires that, I really wish in every part of the world comes an Obama from the people.

Alan Schamber.

JACKSON BLISS 水と魂 said...


I agree with you everything you say except for one really important point: it really does matter that Obama is black (or bi-racial, or non-white). Here's why:

1. It matters to black kids. Now they can say that they want to be president we no one can tell them it's impossible. It also changes how black kids see each other. A recent, multi-state study on test scores (as reported in the NYT) shows that black student test scores have increased above and beyond the standard bump attributable to improvements in education. Obama's election is empowering to many people, but certainly to blacks in America that for too long, felt like the system was made to screw them over.

2. It matters to black adults. Why do you think there were so many pictures of grown black men and women crying? Because they never thought they live to see the day a black man was elected as president of the United States. If Obama's color didn't matter to them, there would be no tears of joy

3. It changes how white kids look at black kids, and it changes how white adults look at black adults

4. It changes the way minorities in general feel about being American, because they can relate with feeling like the underdog in a society where white elites still control a big portion of the wealth, most of which they hold on to, or give away to large, impersonal charities

5. It matters because America is not--contrary to utopianists and staunch conservatives--in a post-racial moment in history. Obama's election was a really important step, but it's only a step. And it's completely impossible to understand--or celebrate, for that matter--American culture without address race, and the important role it plays. Few countries had the continuous influx of immigrants from so many countries the way the US has, and trying to perfect the democratic experiment when there are people from 100 countries is different than doing so when you're talking about 25

6. America's constitution is stained with the evils of slavery. There was a time in postbellum America when a black face meant "slave." Blacks were considered less than human for the census, their civil rights, their voting rights, have only been fully empowered in the past 60 years. On top of that, black slaves helped build the White House and the Capitol building. This is the first time a black man sleeps inside the white house. And that powerful change is amazing for an entire race that has felt shut and locked out of the executive branch for its entire history as Americans

For all these reasons, I think it's wrong to say that it's not because he's black, because on one basic, fundamental reason, it absolutely is. It HAS to be.

Now, where I think we agree is that I think Obama's skin color WOULD much less relevant if he wasn't also smart, charismatic, successful, inspiring, moving, down-to-earth, pragmatic, eloquent, multiracial and kind. He encourages Americans to make a difference and he gave them the opportunity for change they so desperately wanted. Without all those things, he would be a modern-day Jessie Jackson in that case.

But make no mistake, race matters in America. There are still many white American males who cannot stand having a black president; there have been numerous assassination attempts on Obama by white supremacist groups; his headquarters for the democratic primary were continuously ransacked, or covered in racist epithets; one of the RNC's candidates for head of the GOP circulated a disc with a song entitled "Obama the Magic Negro."

America has turned the page in its history, but the beginning chapters of that book are still full of bloodshed from a war that almost destroyed our nation, not to mention voter suppression, slavery, systemic discrimination, racial profiling, church bombings, assassination of civil rights leaders, failing inner city schools, and a host of other problems that adversely affect the professional and cultural mobility of black people (and other minorities) in America. In the end, I think we get to celebrate Obama's election victory because he was black AND because he's such a brilliant, pragmatist and potential reformer in the political system, and nothing gives people more hope than watching the underdog succeed, and historically, blacks have been the underdog. Someday, that will no longer be the case I hope.