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Home is Where We Start

By Benj DeMott

An elder once suggested we change the name of First of the Month to Harlem First. He was thinking locally (and universally)—proclaiming faith in rootsy humanism, not promoting black supremacy. There were reasons to be wary of our elder’s proposed name-change. The main one being that it might have seemed presumptuous to some Harlemites. But there are Firsters who got a right to sing at midnight on 125th. (See “A Child’s Vision of the Great Depression” p. 17 or “Manilow or Monk” p. 22.)

America loses out wherever tight-thinking culturalists rule, but the bigger danger comes from bland suburban blenders. Everybody wins when rapper Lil’ Wayne resists deracination—“I live in the suburbs but I comes from the hood” (with a little help from a sampled Nina Simone, “Please don’t let me be misunderstood … hood … hood … hood”). A happy few win too when Roxane Beth Johnson races Whitman in this volume — “Slaves out back in the garden among the zinnias are singing — death is a simple thing, he go from door to door.” Those who itch for a “post-racial” America tend to miss what’s made our culture great. And they’re not just dim about art-life. The notion Obama’s election obviates need for race men like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton is false. As long as there’s “Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others” (to use Obama’s phrase) there will be spots for African American “spokespeople” who defend local people of color against white power structures. Still, there’s one set of racial middle-men and women who may soon be displaced. I’m thinking of African American “public intellectuals” who exploit an experiential gap that first became apparent to the gentility in the 60s. I can’t go into the rise of their “cultural studies” here. But a New York Times take on an incident at a mid-60s White House Conference on race matters provides a bit of back story. One of the invitees to that rap on race, an African American singer, burst out in condemnation of the other respondents, slamming the unreality of their discourse when seen in the light of her own experience. A shaken but proud Lady Bird Johnson responded she couldn’t “understand” the outburst because she hadn’t had the same experience. A New York Times editorial promptly credited the First Lady for her “candor.” That Times-approved notion that the feelings and sense of life of black communities were somehow beyond white people’s comprehension has lived long and fooled many since the 60s. We started First in part to resist it. And we’re still a place to be for cross-over artists as many pieces in this volume prove. But back to those public intellectuals who make a career out of translating “the black experience” into bad English.

Their hustle might be past the sell-by date due to the accessibility of our new First Family. Black people and culture seem less and less alien to many white Americans. The process of familiarization began to accelerate during the primaries. I recall thinking we were in a brave new world as David Gergen explained Frederick Douglass’s “4th Fourth of July Speech” in primetime on CNN. When a national voice of conventional wisdom like Gergen talks up the relevance of Douglass’s rhetorical questions — “ What to a slave is the 4th fourth of July?” —there’s less call for self-styled clerics with negritude (or hip hop profs with attitude). Obama’s appointment of Lawrence Summers, who once “disrespected” Cornel West causing him to leave Harvard for Princeton, may come to symbolize the Decline of West and the rest. But if not, a new book by Tricia Rose, The Hip Hop Wars, hints a nadir is near for those who interpret “signs” of blackness for the clueless. I’m going to take a page or two to examine Rose’s dead end because it clarifies where First of the Year won’t go.

Starting with the over-the-top praise on the front and back cover from (1) Cornel West: “Rose is the distinguished Dean of hip hop studies and her recent book … affirms her grand status…” (2) Michael Eric Dyson: “A bracing and brilliant salvo from the front lines of hip hop’s war…” (3) Henry Louis Gates: “While the depth of Rose’s analytical skills is breathtaking, even more impressive… (4) Jill Nelson: “The Hip Hop Wars is The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual for a new generation…” (5) Robin D.G. Kelley: “A loving, smart and searing critique from the pioneer of Hip Hop studies…”

Once it’s on, the pioneer’s intervention quickly assumes a numbing, been-there-done-that quality.

Is the glorification of predatory behavior — directed against other African-Americans - desirable? Are prison derived behaviors and socializations a good model for non-incarcerated community development? Of course not. Should young black men and women, boys and girls, be emulating street hustling as a way of life? No. Should black fathers leave all parenting responsibilities to black mothers? No…

Rose’s dying falls give up the ghost. She’s not asking burning questions – her only motivation is to fill enough pages to let the log-rolling begin. She manages it (barely) by hammering on the obvious and piling up pieties. Hard to fathom how that blurber could conflate the high contentious spirit of Harold Cruse’s Crisis with the pap like this:

In one class a white male student fan of hip hop exasperatedly asked, “Are you saying that white males as a group actually have more power and privilege than others in society?” I replied “Yes,” but said that this fact was not a personal indictment of him or others; it was the result of ideas and policies that support racial and gender inequality we can work together to change…

Rose’s invocation of her classroom serves as a reminder she must regularly judge writing by Brown University students though her own prose is a testimony to inconsecutive thought. Wars slogs through grammatical snafus — “Lyrics that depend on expression of injustice without critique or challenge are reflecting them, not exposing them.” — non-sequiturs — “If commercially successful rappers produced as many songs about global warming and George Bush’s war in Iraq as they do about so-called bitches and hoes...those rappers could effectively address questions about global warming and the war” — all the way to Extreme Palin:

A powerful progressive emphasis on the destruction of foundational American values such as equality and justice has the potential not only to successfully respond to conservatives who use rappers as an easy target but also to challenge rappers to live up to the progressive values that highlight and work to change the unequal environment out of which hip hop has emerged.

Rose plays feminist cards like her Alaskan sister-under-the-skin too. But how feminist can she be when she offers this reading of hip hop argot: “[tip drill] is slang for a girl who is considered ugly but who has a nice ass.”

Rose’s flips from rote p.c. to vulgarity aren’t due to her immersion in street culture. She’s not hanging with homeboys. There’s a line in her acknowledgements that points to her distance from her putative subject(s). She thanks a colleague for “sitting me down and playing me several Lupe Fiasco tunes early in the project.” Lupe Fiasco’s rap is worth more than a nod. So Rose was nearly on to something. She includes Fiasco in lists of “progressive” rappers, quotes a passage from an interview with him, and name-checks one of his tracks. Yet she never provides a close hearing of any of his songs. And that’s par for the Wars.

And part of what makes her book the antithesis of First of the Year: 2009. There’s writing in this volume of First about contemporary R&B, Afro-pop, 60s rock and soul, hip hop and Bruce Springsteen’s Magic; all of it marked by — this time it’s for real — loving attention to details of pop musical performances. Armond White’s attentiveness is exemplary on this score. See how he notices (in his review of Magic) “waitress Sheniqua pouring coffee for ‘my poor Bill’ … the first black female character in [Springsteen’s] songbook cosmology.” Or how he zeroes in on these lines of Biggie Smalls’ (to show up critics who claimed Eminem was hip hop’s genius):

Tell them hos/Take they clothes off slowly/Hit em with a force like Obi/Big black like Toby/Watch me roam like Romey/Lucky they don’t owe me/When they say show me/Homie

The awesome, pop modernist range of Biggie’s references cohere with the brevity and plausibility of the rhyme sources — Star Wars, Roots, Frank Sinatra, the street — without ever explicitly defining what comprises his fantasy world. It’s sexual, criminal, historical, musical and, in the end, what Eminem never is: affirmative.

Hip hop positivity is supposed to be Rose’s specialty, but she has nothing vital to say about what’s good, bad or ugly in specific rap tracks. That might be a sign she’s lost her vocation. Yet her mangling of the title of the classic 1990 rap by A Tribe Called Quest suggests she’s never really been all that into hip hop. Only a Dean of Hip Hop studies (with a research assistant!) could turn Tribe’s round-the-way girl “Bonita Applebum” into a nice Jewish one, “Bonita Applebaum.” (italics added).

On the real side, Rose’s mistake might be a revelation of personal (or social) history. I don’t know about Rose’s racial/ethnic ties, but I’m reminded of my first conversations about turning our newspaper First of the Month into an annual First of the Year. As our future publisher mulled over writers we’d printed and quotes from folks who’d allowed our rag wasn’t worthless, what struck him was the density of the links - fractious and fraternal - between African Americans and Jews in First’s corner.

Some things don’t never change. The title of Judy Oppenheimer’s tribute in this volume to her old school BFF, “Tight Connection,” underscores bonds between African Americans and Jews so evident throughout the book.

I planned for that reason to dedicate this First of the Year to the late James Bevel — organizer of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham (and the Million Man March) — who once seemed to incarnate the Movement’s Black/Jewish thing. Bevel wore a yarmulke in tribute to Old Testament prophets. But right before Bevel died last December, he was convicted of committing incest back in the 90s. (Bevel had 16 children by 7 women.) The case against him seems to have been incontrovertible so his glory days will always be shadowed by his low end. John Lewis thinks Bevel went mad after King was shot. But he seems to have always marched to a different music inside his head. (He had a doo-wop group in the 50s, around the time he began reading late Tolstoy.)

First will always make room for radical imaginations (though we can’t bow to someone like Bevel who moved on from the Movement’s Beloved Community to prey on his own family). A glance at this volume confirms the margin is still the center for us. And that margin extends from Harlem to the world. There are tales here of edgy sojourns in Afghanistan by an ex-hippie and an ex-drug-store cowboy. A Q&A with Ousmane Sembene who taught Africans to resist “elements of received culture — those fixed rules and values which nobody but those on the margins dare to question.” A Q&A with Adam Hochschild who celebrates the Brit who invented Abolition (and an African American original who coined the phrase “crimes against humanity”) to condemn King Leopold’s genocidal acts in the Congo. A protest against the Israeli war machine by Uri Avnery who has long been a creative outsider in his society.

I’d caution longtime First readers not to understand Avnery’s presence — or the other critique here of Israel’s incursion in Gaza—too quickly. There hasn’t been an about-face at First on the Middle East. (No -one in this neck of the woods ever thought the road to Jerusalem went through Baghdad.) Please don’t be misled by the recent review of last year’s First — “In Praise of First of the Year”—in the influential international journal Democratiya. While I’m glad author Thomas Hale gave First points for style, intellectual seriousness and a “sense of place,” he misrepresented positions on the Iraq War taken by me (and other First contributors). In First of the Year: 2008 I’d owned up to alleging before the invasion of Iraq that the choice for the American left came down to “war or torture”—a claim blown away by the Abu Ghraib scandal. But Hale misread my admission of error, falsely asserting I’d conceded I was wrong to support the overthrow of Baathism in Iraq.

Clarity counts here chiefly because Hale aligned Kanan Makiya’s position with mine. No illusions the world must know my take on my shaming back pages, but Makiya matters. While he certainly has regrets about what’s happened in Iraq (as would anybody who’s tried to walk with that nation’s democrats), he’s explicitly rejected what he describes as “Maoist” calls for recantation. Hale notes I repeatedly cited a piece of Makiya’s in my introduction to a section of First articles on the Iraq war in our last volume. I did that in the course of criticizing (what seemed to me to be) a duplicitous “good-bye to all that” by New Yorker writer George Packer who had once been a luke-warm ally of Makiya’s. Packer (and others) traduced Makiya’s pre-war movement of mind, avowing that he cultivated beamishness about prospects for democracy in Iraq. But Makiya warned his compatriots they couldn’t “ride into Iraq on American tanks … without having to wade knee-high in the shit that the Baath party has made of your country.” He detailed daunting dealings with “damaged” Iraqis in his own camp:

People who breathe nationalism, sectarianism, without knowing that they are doing so, and people who are deeply suspicious towards their fellow Iraqis. These are the facts of life for the next generation in this poor, unhappy, and ravaged land.

This passage and others I quoted in First of the Year: 2008 date from before the invasion of Iraq. Makiya was not engaging, as Hale seems to assume, in a retrospective mea culpa.

Hale slips from misinterpreting positions (and timelines) to mockery of my “self-aggrandizing” claim First deserved credit for the range of our polemics on the Iraq war. His sarcasm — “We may have been wrong, DeMott admits, but at least we were open to debate” — is a little out of order as Charles O’Brien says (see p. 235) in “To Criticize the Critic”:

Hale lectures, “The purpose of open debate [!] is not to embrace all views at all times [as if anyone has ever said that], but rather to allow the more intelligent position to win out.” Hales’ phraseology is important here…“Purpose” suggest that there was always only one admissible right answer, and that is Hale’s mind-set. And his phrase, “the most intelligent position,” is revealing. Most people would have said the best or the truest. Not the soon-to-be Dr. Hale: what counts for him is the most acceptable position. And there, time and again, we have been seriously wanting.

First isn’t about to start toeing correct lines now. Given the recent election in Iraq, which hints the idea of establishing a federal, democratic state there might not be a pipe-dream, it still seems wise to tune out certain trumpets on the left — “SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] means total defeat for the U.S. in Iraq!” — as well as blowhards on the right — “2008 was the year we won in Iraq!”

American ideologues (on both extremes) keep getting Iraq and everything else wrong because they won’t grasp the complexities of any country, including their own. Minority angles on America have helped teach Firsters to see Iraq through Kurdish eyes and envision — with a push from Avnery (the “grandfather” of the Israeli peace movement) — the busy-being-born potency of Mizrahim in Israel.

Avnery is one ballsy Israeli. It takes much less audacity to be an anti-militarist in the American universities as Fredric Smoler notes in his review here of soldier’s heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. Smoler uses the phrase “two nations” to evoke the gulf between academics and America’s officer class the author of soldier’s heart managed to bridge when she taught cadets at West Point. Smoler reads this book as an account of a rare “mutually respectful meeting of opposites” in the Academy. Mike Rose’s piece in this volume — a sympathetic explanation of how everyday people are tested (and tricked) by higher education — engenders more faith in the possibility of such respectful meetings. Rose notes, in his other contribution here, that candidate Obama was faulted for his professorial manner (though it doesn’t seem to have hurt him). Perhaps Americans aren’t as anti-intellectual as some pundits assume. Especially when the intellectual in question is a good listener who seems to believe (as per Wesley Hogan in this First) “everyone — from Pat Buchanan to Sista Souljah, from Milton Friedman to Jim Hightower — has something to contribute to the civic conversation.”

Lawrence Goodwyn noted Obama’s knack for stimulating candid democratic exchanges in a First piece written before the future president gave the 2004 convention speech that made him a national figure. Goodwyn paired Obama then with another “relentless democrat” — the late Polish intellectual and Solidarnosc ally Jacek Kuron, whose “enduring legacy” was his “commitment to candor as an instrument of politics and his belief that one worked with anybody who was willing to help one deal with a persisting social malfunction inherited from the past.” Goodwyn saw Obama acting in that tradition on the campaign trail in 2004 where the candidate never assumed political recruitment required “the fabrication of constant agreement.” Goodwyn’s piece in this volume, which reveals how Obama won North Carolina in the primary and general election, focuses again on recruitment. But it’s not chiefly about the candidate. In Carolina, according to Goodwyn, the game-changer was the Obama organization’s capacity to enable their volunteers who were more than ready to make history. Goodwyn was there when one key volunteer told two co-conspirators, “We’re in a rare moment in history. Organizers know how hard it is to get people to do anything. Obama has done it—he’s got these people here. We know there are things we can do now, not only things that are possible, but things we know how to do. We simply cannot not do it. Let’s go.”

Not all Firsters felt that sense of urgency. Charles O’Brien’s “Where Hope Ends” speaks for the non-believers near the end of this volume. Earlier on, though, a classic piece of music writing by him provides an essential historical perspective on Obama’s rise when it he gets to the guts of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

The rules of the game are changed because there is a new player at the table. Cooke refuses the role of stranger in an unkind land. Thoroughly modern, urban, unafraid, he will insist on what is his.

O’Brien may resist the projective truth in these lines, but I doubt many readers will be able avoid linking Cooke’s persona with Obama’s.

O’Brien wasn’t the first rad to reject Obama. Adolph Reed — First friend and author of the definitive, astringent critique of Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs, The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon — believes he nailed the Obama phenomenon in this bit from a 1995 Village Voice piece:

In Chicago … we've gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neo-liberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program—the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics…

Reed will update this analysis in his (soon-to-be-published) The Perils of Obamamania. But I expect he’ll confess he wasn’t all right about the election. After Super Tuesday, he went public with an election projection he’d given his students (at the University of Pennsylvania): “In the cold light … it’s difficult to believe [Obama] could become president.” Rereading his forecast puts me in mind of Jacek Kuron’s famous line about the rise of Solidarnosc, which Lawrence Goodwyn quoted in that First piece on Kuron and Obama: “I thought it was impossible; it was impossible; I still think it was impossible.”

Obama thought he knew better once he saw the hungry crowds that showed up during his book -tours in 2005 and 2006. (I was in one of those crowds and waited an hour in line before meeting the author who wrote an Obamaesque message to my son and his African mom on a family photo I’d brought to the reading, “Dream Big Dreams, Ben Khadim.”) Obama is no fantast; he’s a canny pol. Still, Americans have not yet grasped the otherworldly nature of Obama’s self-confidence, according to Reverend James Lawson (who knows a lot about will and grace having taught tactics of nonviolence to James Bevel, John Lewis, and the core group of what would become Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the late 50s). Other commentators have also wondered at Obama’s sense of self. Obama himself has suggested he’s supremely easy in his own skin now because he was forced to confront so many challenges as a child. We know something about his time living abroad in Indonesia, but I recently read an online post by a former neighbor of Obama’s that brought home how he incarnated difference in the Hawaiian housing project where he lived as an adolescent.

When Barry would visit on the holidays he was a sight. So tall, handsome and COLORED, in an area of town that was yellow and white. He towered over his grandmother. What a study of contrasts...… I’d step in the elevator, and they’d already be at it: she’d be balling him out over something. Barry would stand in silence… Naturally, seeing his grandmother acting in a PARENTAL manner had my head swimming: where the hell was mommy or daddy… BHO is the kind of person you never forget. The whole vibe of grandmom and grandson is so ODD –

That faraway eye on Obama’s home-comings adds flavor to accounts of his sweet soul connection with his political base (such as this one from the New York Review of Books):

When Obama launched into his story with “Because I love pie,” a woman out in that sea of cheering, laughing people shouted back, “I'll make you pie, baby!”… The laughter rose and you could hear not only the women but the deep laughter of the men taking delight in the double entendre that was not only about the women and their laughing, teasing offers and about their pie that that lanky confident smiling young man knew how to eat and enjoy and judge, but even more now, amazingly, as people came one by one to recognize, about something else. To those people gathered in Vernon Park that bright sun-drenched morning, it was an even more titillating and more pleasurable double entendre, for it was most clearly about something they'd never had but hoped and dreamed of having and now had begun to believe they were within the shortest of short distances of finally tasting.

This riff on what it felt like when Obama and his people knew they were on the verge of getting a piece of the American pie sent me back to a line in a speech of Jesse Jackson’s that Amiri Baraka recalled for all time in a deep essay on the Atlanta Democratic Convention in 1988. Baraka caught Jackson signifying on Michael Dukakis’s name, which became “de carcass” in Jesse’s mouth (before being changed to “leftovers” in the speech transcript).

Amiri Baraka sees how far we’ve come since 1988. I hope radicals who trash Obamamania hear him when he cuts to the race in this volume: “First of all the very election of Obama has done more to bring some aspect of equality to the society than reams of pseudo leftist posturing.” Paul Berman, who’s not usually in tune with Baraka, also talks straight about race in his contribution here:

I find myself thinking this election has been the most inspiring event in American history… Big successes in the American past has been accompanied by a small, unobtrusive asterisk, which leads your eye to the bottom of the page, where you find the extra clause, which says: “Democracy is fine and good for most people, and yet, for various unfortunate reasons, one part of the American population is hereby excluded.” The asterisk has meant that America is living a lie. Even at America's grandest moments. But no longer! Not on this one point, anyway. The election just now is the first large event in American history that can be recorded without an asterisk.

Yet race matters weren’t the only issues that came up from the depths of democracy in American during the campaign. I’m reminded this second of a lively moment of tv talkback that occurred on The Rachel Maddow Show. The conservative pundit (and former Bush speechwriter) David Frum was asked to appear there because he’d broken with GOP hacks who’d insisted Sarah Palin was “ready.” But Frum, perhaps fearful of sliding too far from his ideological base, didn’t come to bury Palin but to diss Maddow’s show. While that may have been a duplicitous turn on Frum’s part, he scored when he busted Maddow for resorting to (Michael) Moore-ish moves. She’d sealed a dishonest polemical deal earlier in her show by using clips (first seen in Fahrenheit 9/11) of Paul Wolfowitz grooming himself. Maddow defended her right to go for God-don’t-love-ugly laughs. But as Frum laid into her, I thought I could see wheels turning in her head. After all, she’s worthier — and wonkier — than most in the mediacracy. Maybe she’ll take Frum’s points beautifully and reach beyond her comp (and her patron Olbermann) to establish a no-snark zone. Or, to say it another way, maybe she’ll try to catch up with Obama.

Though he doesn’t always live up to his best self as Judy Oppenheimer and Ben Kessler point out in pieces here. Oppenheimer links Obama’s unempathic remarks on the “bitter clingers” in Pennsylvania’s white working class with his high dudgeon in Dreams from My Father at his mom’s attraction to the film Black Orpheus. Kessler doubts the president will bring Change to the insane world of entertainment, citing Obama’s vacation trip to see The Dark Knight as one doomy indicator of the same-old, same-old.

A reference that (consciously) echoes Armond White’s ongoing salvoes against cultural-powers-that-be. White’s pieces here address empowered apologists for hateful hip hop and mainline critics who reduced Springsteen’s Magic to “an attack on Bush.” (“Did that Rolling Stone reviewer really listen to ‘Your Own Worst Enemy?’”)

It ain’t easy being an African American contrarian, as a recent New York Magazine profile of White shows. New York patronizes him as “the brother from another planet.” (Though it hurriedly acknowledges his “compelling complaint” about “the sold-out, politically and historically indifferent movie-critic sheep who have abdicated the passion-filled mantle of Kael and Sarris for Roger Ebert’s thumbs up/thumbs down Roman Coliseum-style methodology, excessive blurb-mongering, fixation on weekend box-office reports, sheer laziness, etc. etc.”) White will always be an Other to some though he’s been a pro in New York for 30 years. He now writes a weekly film column for New York Press and has just been elected president of the New York Film Critics Circle. But he’s still paying for his own health insurance. The thought he’s not on track to be tenured by a university while Ms. Rose grows among the Ivies, stinks in the nostrils.

To borrow a phrase from Oliver Wendell Holmes that Michael Lydon quotes here in his study of how books live and die in a New England home library. Lydon writes that when he came on that “stinks in the nostrils” in the midst of one of Holmes’ Supreme Court decisions it made “me wrench my head backward as if I’d been surprised by a disgusting smell myself”:

“The law is neither words on a page nor a cool abstraction,”“ I hear Holmes saying. “No, the law is made by humans like you and me, people who know what it’s like to catch a heady whiff of fresh, warm shit.”

Lydon has a nose for good writing. He steered us to our new First contributor, Bob Levin. I knew we were in luck when I read Levin (in the opening graph of his piece here, “How I Became a Writer”) evoke his own alienation as a frosh jock from Philly at Brandeis University. He had a fellow student, “a disgruntled power forward from Rockville Center,” speak for him; Brandeis was “a place run by the first ones out in dodge-ball.”

Levin’s college tale reminds me of the poet Philip Levine’s funny stories about his own moves from City to Academy. (And Levin and Levine both like boxing too as you’ll see from their contributions here.)

Levine is famously from Detroit. He went to Wayne State there, as did Armond White who also grew up in Detroit. Both of them realize how much they owe their city. But they also figured out early their imaginations were free to roam. When White first saw the Eiffel Tower, it lifted him out of time, back to a moment when he was running away from home as a child. Where did he think he was headed? When his family asked, the little boy answered: “I’m going to Paris.”

He might might have been heading in the same direction as First’s South African correspondent, Bongani Madondo, who writes about his own hometown of Hammanskrall (and Miriam Makeba) in this volume.

There are folks who are fated to go international. Even if they do most of their traveling in their heads. African Americans who are citizens of the world probably don’t need to own America as much as more local people. In the run-up to Obama’s election, though, Rev. Lawson picked up on what was in the air and pushed the feeling on all fronts. He ended a ceremony honoring his own contributions to the Movement by reading “Letter to My Son” by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, whose words speak to locals and cosmopolitans:

You can never have enough of the world
Never enough
Don’t live in the world as if you’re a renter
Or act as if you are only here for the summer
Live and act as though this were your father’s house.

Barack Obama has sought to act on that principle of justice and wonder for years. (His Dreams from My Father tells how this fatherless boy found a way in the world on his way to Chicago’s South Side.) But he fully achieved his definition of America only after 9/11. About the time First’s crew started re-conceiving the house we live in. We didn’t become over-night jingoes the day after that day. But the cover of our post-9/11 issue featured people of color — Jay-Z., La Lupe, Eddie Palmieri — framed in red, white, and blue. Obama went further than First though. He not only picked up on a need for unity in the face of the Islamist threat, but also realized it might just be the path to a more perfect union. Consider his More Perfect Union speech. Cynics like Mickey Kaus urged Obama to respond to the Reverend Wright episode by concocting a Sista Souljah moment. Obama refused, but he did find a bête noire most Americans could agree to disdain: “the view that conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”

David Golding (in his fine piece in this volume) criticizes Obama for “invoking the phantom of ‘radical Islam’ and playing Bush’s game of Manichean polarization.” But, even at the risk of giving comfort to those working the Dark Side of the War on Terror, First remains responsive to minds that seek to heighten contradictions between America and “Islamo-fascism.” After all, as Bob Dylan sang in a song released around 9/11, “you can’t open your mind to every conceivable point of view.”

Dylan seems to be an Obama man:

We've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up...Barack Obama. He’s redefining what a politician is… Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to… You should always take the best from the past, leave the worst back there and go forward into the future.

Dylan’s semi-endorsement of Obama in the Times of London during the campaign was surprising since he tends to steer clear of news and election cycles. Prior to Obama’s rise, he’d been under-whelmed by pols (though he once confessed a weakness for Barry Goldwater). In his 1997 song “Highlands,” Dylan mused, “I think what I need is a full-length leather coat” — then turned from this less than lofty object of desire to a subject that sounded beneath contempt — “Somebody just asked me if I'm registered to vote.”

I quoted that line a decade ago in First of the Month, proposing that music critic Greil Marcus had made too much in his Invisible Republic of the fact Dylan sang at Bill Clinton’s inaugural. I jumped from Marcus’s invocation of Clinton grinning and looking on as Dylan performed a bland inaugural set to the role played by an American politician in a more spirited musical performance. Forgive me for making that leap again, but hang with this and I think you’ll see its relevance.

The politician was Jesse Jackson who served as a witness when singer Tramaine Hawkins got “Changed” at the summit of an amazing gospel event in San Francisco. The show is preserved on Tramaine Hawkins Live (1990)—Jackson contributed liner notes—and there's a concert video that adds a dimension to Tramaine's transfiguration.

Tramaine appears exhausted right before her Change. Slim to begin with, she's like a wild reed who's been whipped around in the storm created by her 60-member gospel chorus. Recovering for a moment from a twenty-minute medley, she wipes her forehead, then just lets the sweat flow. She gazes directly at Jesse Jackson (who's standing with a man-friend in the audience) and starts to testify. Her eyes politicize her words — “You changed me complete-ly” — and her singing proves their truth. She just went up yonder in her medley, now she uses her voice to pull God out of the sky. She takes Him all up in her and then sounds about to give birth. She doesn't forsake her highest notes, but strains to find her Motherlode down below. Her hollers (Holloways?) serve to confirm the black and beautiful power of her born-again voice. She's no longer at His mercy, but Jesse is at Hers. He's paradized — proud and embarrassed to be the focal point of her performance. As the grand chorus shouts — “CHANGE!” - linking revelation with black nationism, Tramaine connects with the whole audience — “Everybody here tonight say CHANGE! — Do you believe in CHANGE!” Then she leads them on to her final you-can-make-it-if-you-tri-Umph — “What a WON a WON a WONDERFUL change has come over me.”

I doubt Tramaine looks to Jesse for her Change now. It's been years since he seemed the embodiment of African American aspiration. But, if you want the answer to invisible republicanism (and Dylan's cynicism), keep listening for voices of the black nation.

I’ll allow I’m hearing echoes lately. Though, of course, I can’t crow. Obama is at once a voice of the black nation and a figure who’s skated around “thick” Black Nationalism. You could even make a case the book I beat up on beat me (and First) to the punch. Invisible Republic (which has been reprinted as The Old Weird America) was in synch with mid-90s critiques of identity politics by authors like Michael Lind, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Todd Gitlin et al. Their politics of culture was marked by what now seems — depending on your p.o.v. — a prescient or premature Americanism. While I wouldn’t conflate Obama’s stance with that of wannabe vital centrists from the Clinton era, they may have anticipated his wised-up patriotic outreach.

Time to stop … and start this volume of First of the Year for real with a witty patriot’s colorful report on Inaugural weekend in D.C.

From October, 2009

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