By NICK CHILES
How do I even begin to understand the unfathomable? It is as if I have been told that gravity is a hoax, that the solar system is an optical illusion. James Baldwin pondered the evidence of things not seen; I ask if we have witnessed the impossible.
Seventy-two days have passed since the earth moved. My television at this very moment is flashing the image of two earnest white co-hosts with bright Colgate smiles telling me to stay tuned to find out the favorite foods of the new president. No detail about him is too minuscule. I have heard the name often enough in the 72 days that I should have had enough time to start getting used to the sound of President Obama. But on the other hand, those 72 days are swamped by the last 43 years—the 15,859 days that I have lived as a black male in America. Across the breadth of those 15,859 days, my world had been constructed to contend with insignificance. That was the atom that propelled me, even when I wasn’t aware. My life, my strivings, my victories, had been a subconscious scream: I matter. I count. I am relevant. From the shadows, my posture had been defiant, determined, angry—always angry. A hundred years ago, in The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois asked: Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? But am I to believe that in the space of two months, 72 days, I have gone from irrelevance to center stage? From the shadows to the spotlight?
That is the indecipherable hugeness of Obama. We have no way of knowing what it means when the earth tilts on its axis. We can’t know what will result when the sun never sets. A black man, an unrepentant member of one of the world’s most infamously powerless minorities, today is to become the most powerful man on this planet. I can not imagine what that will mean for me, for my son, for my girls. I look at the beautiful Obamas, at the tall, elegant, sexy wife, at those precocious giggly little girls, and I see my own family. I watch my daughters, ages 6 and 9, dash hither and yon through the halls and off the walls of my home, and I have no difficulty conjuring images of Malia and Sasha flying down the corridors of that big white house, twists flying, smiles wide, worry free.
On this day, not just America but the entire world steps off a cliff into the unknown. Children—black, white, yellow and brown—gaze into the face of this man and perhaps a cell deep inside them transforms, mutates, begins to blossom into greatness, forever changing their path. Older folks—black, white, yellow and brown—stare at his visage, take in his unsinkable confidence, and for the first time believe that perhaps that promotion is within their reach, maybe they can start that new business after all.
I have heard reports from other black men that already they have seen a change in their place. In the boardroom, their opinions matter just a little bit more now. In staff meetings, their competence is a tad more credible. Their presence is welcomed rather than tolerated. They are significant.
Since the presidential runs of Jesse Jackson, black people amongst themselves have pondered the possibility of an unspoken unity among the brown people of the world, the probability that world leaders in Arab and Asian and Latin lands would receive an African-American president in a very different way than all those white presidents. We got a small confirmation of that when Jesse went to Syria in 1983 and convinced the Syrian president to release Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman, Jr., who had been shot down over Lebanon while on a mission to bomb Syrian positions in that country. When Jesse announced that he was going over there, the American media was savagely critical and even mocking. President Reagan was upset and tried to stop him. But Jesse went anyway. And when he came back with Goodman at his side, white America appeared not to understand what had happened. How did Jesse do that? But we knew—for black folks, it was just a little taste, a tantalizing appetizer, of what the world might be like if there was, indeed, a black president. A global, non-white diaspora, buttressing and embracing its own.
Already, the rest of the world is acting differently towards Obama. Turning him into an adored global icon—even in white countries. Promising to take some of those Guantanamo prisoners—after repeatedly telling the Bush administration that there was no chance. Lt. Goodman all over again.
So yes, there is hope. There is pride. There is glee. And there is a big scary unknown, the proverbial uncharted waters. This is the most troubling moment for America in almost a century. Our needs are so great that there is no room for error. But these needs have also produced an unusual, unexpected result: unity. Obama has an approval rating of 80 percent. That includes Republicans and Independents alike. For the nation’s first black president.
About Our MBB Contributor:
Nick Chiles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of six books, and the editor-in-chief of the travel magazine, Odyssey Couleur.