South Carolina: Inside the 'Black Primary'
At the big rally in Columbia, Oprah notched up her Obama-as-savior rhetoric by referencing a scene in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. "I remember Miss Pittman, her body all worn and withered and bent over. As she would approach the children, she would say to each one, 'Are you the one? Are you the one?'" Oprah didn't mention that Miss Pittman was looking for a black messiah. She didn't have to. "I watched that movie many years ago, but I do believe today I have the answer to Miss Pittman's question. It's a question that the entire nation is asking. Is he the one?" Tentative cheers. "Is he the one?" Big cheers. "South Carolina," Oprah proclaimed, "I do believe he's the one."
When Efia Nwangaza heard that, she could only wonder: "He's the one for who, and what?" Nwangaza, a longtime activist and onetime Green Party US Senate candidate, is among the many black (and white) progressives left cold by the symbolic standoff between Clinton and Obama. But it didn't stop her from driving from Greenville to witness the Sunday spectacle. "I had mixed feelings," she told me afterward. "I was really moved by it. By the yearning of the people who were there to have someone representing them and their interests. I understand the yearning, in that I am also tired. Having been a civil rights-cum-human rights activist all my life, having had movement parents, I would be so relieved to know that there is a fruitful end to those efforts, and that some candidate embodied it. But I don't think that's what's happening with Barack Obama."
Or Hillary Clinton. "When I look at what both Obama and Clinton say, and what they do, they are not it. They are both chameleons. They are both opportunistic. They both come from the overcompensatory 'being first' frame of reference. Which means that they will be more white male than any white male, including George W. Bush, would ever be. My feeling is that people across the board are being sold a bill of goods."
Kevin Alexander Gray, who's working on a book called The Decline of American Politics, From Malcolm X to Barack Obama, seconded the point. "People say they're voting for Obama because they want a change. A change to what? This is people thinking that the cosmetic is more important than the structural. Obama is a candidate who happens to be black. That's his prerogative, and it's fine. But it's not what we need. Obama's campaign is not a movement. It is someone running for office."
Gray fears that Obama might be just the ticket for self-proclaimed colorblind white people to prove their mettle. "To the extent that the Democratic Party is using Obama to cancel its debt to the African-American community, I am concerned," he said. "I'm thinking about calling my next column 'Niggers, Nooses and Obama.' There is this mentality of, 'Well, I'd never use the word nigger, and I am outraged by nooses, and I like Obama.' So everything's OK with race now."
Even so, Gray can't ignore one ticklish fact: "The brother is black." And while he prefers Kucinich's liberalism and Edwards's populism, Gray admitted that he just might "end up being guilted into voting for the brother." He frowned, debating out loud. "But a movement has to be about something. I have my problems with Reverend Jackson, but when you look at the construction of that campaign, the way the elements came together--that was a movement. Or the start of one. Because we organized around a progressive platform that was coherent and consistent."
The Jackson campaign was the last time Marjorie Hammock, a longtime social worker who does expert defense testimony in death-penalty cases, allowed herself to get swept up in politics. Hammock's first campaign was Adlai Stevenson, she said, laughing. Originally from Brooklyn, she worked in the inner circle of Shirley Chisholm's pathbreaking 1972 run. And then she moved to South Carolina--"a whole new planet," where the Jackson campaign came just in time. "That was exciting," she said, and it "paved the way for a number of people to get active in politics. By the same token, though, another kind of apathy developed as a response to the fact that Jackson didn't win. That maybe if we had someone who was that powerful, with that much organization, and he didn't win, it was hopeless. A kind of depression set in. And what we didn't do was say, 'Where do we go from here? What do we do now?'"
Like many progressives, Hammock is leaning toward Edwards--one reason he's jumped into a competitive position in recent polls after lagging far behind the front-runners for most of 2007. But just the night before, she'd gone to an Obama focus group to see what was what. "I must say, there really are a number of African-Americans here who are terribly excited about Obama," she said. "Because it looks like the closest you're ever going to get.
"He's viable, in many kinds of ways. He's got some good positions on things that are important. He's not a black candidate. He truly is a candidate of the people, and that's good." What makes Obama not a black candidate? "I think his life," said Hammock. "I mean, I think he's interested in black people, no question about it. He demonstrated that in terms of his work in Chicago. But for me, in part, and this may sound petty, but who do you cite when you talk about things? Frederick Douglass? Du Bois? Ida B. Wells? No. We hear from Kennedy a lot. Now, I can't blame Obama for that. What were his references growing up? But I'm just identifying what I think I see. And it ain't bad. It's just not what I would call a black candidate."
But she doesn't pooh-pooh Obama's claim that, as the Democratic nominee, he'd bring out 30 percent more black voters and put deep red Dixie states like Mississippi, and possibly South Carolina, into play. "I can see that," she says. "We can sometimes get real loyal. But there are a number of people who don't want him to win, because they're scared that he'll be dead the very next day. I have heard that so much! He can't win, but even if he does, he'll never be President. Not in these United States. I hear that more than anything else. That's the fatalism we feel about this place, clearly. I mean South Carolina, of course, and America."