January 30, 2008
Monologues are sometimes boring, so I write this in response to Adrienne Marie Brown’s “I Love Obama Like I Love NY” post on Wiretap about political cynicism and scripted candidates, and in response to the cynic in me who has yet to sport a candidate shirt, post an “I Support” badge on Facebook or join a campus campaign group.
As young people across the nation spend late nights and early morning campaigning for their chosen candidates and eagerly attending rallies, I anxiously wish I could be as excited about a candidate as my peers. I know that at times I carry my cynical and critical baggage to a fault, but during this election year it has been difficult for me to muster up some enthusiasm and genuine passion especially when it seems so easy for so many other 20-something folks. Maybe I have outgrown the assumption that elections can bring about structural transformation that makes homelessness a national priority, that condemns the collective punishment of Palestinians, that calls for a living wage not a minimum wage, or that recognizes the socio-economic crises on Native American reservations.
It is possible that I realize that an electoral process more controlled by capital than by my students who will vote for the first times, cannot effectively transform our society. Undoubtedly, I am upset with the careless manner with which the term radical and transformative has been thrown around, especially when none of the candidates have explicitly denounced the destructive elements of capitalism and materialism.
Whatever, the case, I spend a lot of time, maybe too much, hoping that I had a candidate to believe in this year. Where is my prince or princess charming of presidents? Does he or she exist?
As an instructor at East Palo Alto Academy I had my students create their own candidates. The results were imaginative syntheses in the likeness of Malcolm X with a slight Catholic disposition, gender change with underground training from the Zapatistas.
Of course, my students were curious whom I supported. After a presumptuous prediction about my stance on abortion, my students were ready to predict my chosen candidate. And because my brown skin is a proxy for my political alignment, my students assumed I was a closeted Obama supporter. I guess race trumped gender in this case, a displeasing assertion for Gloria Steinem’s (“[White] America’s Feminist Idol”) who argued that race is no longer a salient issue and being in possession of a vagina and bleeding once a month meant that I am obligated to support Hillary Clinton.
I am astutely aware that as a “good” Black person I am expected to support Obama. I am supposed to wave posters, sport his shirts, parrot his rhetoric, shriek in near orgasmic pleasure upon hearing his name, and assert that his election into office signals the global downfall of racism. I know that I commit all kinds of racial apostasy when I express ambivalence about Obama. This is not about Obama “being Black enough” because that discussion is tautological, reeks of narcissism, shamelessly encourages essentialism and engages in a racial authenticity Olympics I am not interested it. Simply put, like my feelings for the other Democratic candidates, I need more.
Obama just presents more of a paradox because I know I am asking for more from him because deep down I want the first Black person to run this country to be different from past presidents, not only in color but in politics, values and vision. I need more than what I am given at this point.
As Grace Lee Boggs writes, “But neither Obama’s ethnicity nor Hillary’s gender is enough to earn my support. Neither is calling on the American people to confront our materialism and militarism or challenging and proposing alternatives to corporate globalization. At this critical period in human history that is what we should be requiring of ourselves and of any presidential candidate, whatever their race, gender or religion. ”
When I say that I need more, this is the more I need. I need an alternative. I need more then the recycled script of hope. I cannot be hopeful when a candidate proclaims that the same free-market that binds me can also free me. I am not hopeful when candidates dance around and do everything but explicitly talk about racial politics. Hope requires not only the articulation of a one-syllable word, but the transformation of our values and structures so that this hope is grounded in some realistic possibility for change. I cannot hope for an end to poverty when that hope is confronted by the abruptness of continuing labor exploitation.
If you ask me to be hopeful, give me something to latch on to-something tangible like a real commitment to addressing poverty alleviation and the mushrooming prison population-something beyond “I support better wages” and “I will advocate for rehabilitation programs. “At this point in my life, I would support a candidate black or white, man or woman as long as they embodied the values and perseverance that would bridge the gap between a bleak reality and a sustainable future.
I cannot expect to see this candidate today. Possibly, I cannot expect to see this person embodied as a candidate at all. Maybe it is the job of localized leaders or community organizers, since a presidential post often translates into fruitless compromises. As Grace Lee Boggs notes, Martin Luther King Jr. warned us of such compromises:
“Between 1965 (the year Malcolm was killed) and 1968 (the year Martin was gunned down) Black leadership was taken to a new level by King. Agonizing over the twin crises of the Vietnam War and the urban rebellions, he called for a radical revolution in values, not only against racism but against materialism and militarism. Warning against integration into the “burning house” of U.S. capitalism, he emphasized the need for two-sided transformation by and of Americans, both of ourselves and our institutions, a transformation that would take us and the world beyond both traditional capitalism and communism.”
After his death civil rights leaders, ignoring King’s warning, seized upon the opportunities that had been opened up by “the movement” to enter the “burning house” of U.S. capitalism. Instead of calling upon the American people to confront our consumerism and militarism, instead of challenging corporate globalism, these opportunists became a part of the system, evaluating Black progress by how much they and other Blacks were catching up with whites.
If anything, this summarizes my disillusionment with contemporary politics and this year’s elections. Where Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X advocated for a revolution not only our socio-economic structure but the values and spiritual dispositions that fuel them, we have regressed into an easy bake political culture that prioritizes token advocacy over transformative change. Instead of charting a new direction, we mated an unworkable past with commodified revolution-a bastardization resulting in some intangible but infectious championing of the “just good enough.” We chart our nation’s future using iPhones, settle on empty rhetoric and barter in broken dreams.
Am I am ignorantly waiting for my Prince or Princess Charming of presidents? Too eager for the revolution, with a deep desire to skip the protracted adjustment period, have I not given the presidential candidates a chance? I cast my vote on February 5 and I know for sure that I do not want to pass from this world a cheeky 4′ 11″ old woman clamoring on about capitalism’s foot on the necks of poor people, shuffling to community action meetings and holding my breath in wait for the “perfect” candidate.
I used to believe that my only job was to point out what’s wrong without providing viable solutions. However, cynicism and critique carry special responsibilities; I need to move beyond a crafted indictment to some form of action. In Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Robin D.G. Kelley writes, “We must tap the well of our collective imaginations, do what earlier generations have done: dream. Trying to envision “somewhere in advance of nowhere,” as poet Jayne Cortez puts it, is an extremely difficult task, yet “it is a matter of greater urgency. Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”
Similarly, quoting the 1976 Chicago Surrealist Group, he says we must “resolve the contradiction between everyday life and our wildest dreams.”
While not especially excited by the candidates, I am excited about the process of building this year. I do not have a blueprint. If anything, I have many disjointed dreams that if pooled together with a touch of clever alchemy add up to something beautiful.
In the context of my work as a teacher, artist, writer, and nomad, I am trying hard to get my students to demand more and to think more. While I am ambivalent about the candidates, my students’ questioning and thinking makes me hopeful that the “two-sided transformation by and of Americans, both of ourselves and our institutions” that Grace Lee Boggs discusses is in fact possible.