Down Payment on the Dream: A Cautionary Warning

“Don’t tell me / I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I’ve been there so I know / They keep saying ‘go slow’.”
— Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddamn”
Nina Simone in Concert, Phillips Records, Carnegie Hall, 1964

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream”
Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

These quotes, the first made famous by Nina Simone in her protest song “Mississippi Goddamn,” and the second excerpted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, serve as a poignant and salient reminder in these most memorable times.

Rhon Manigault

Rhon Manigault

Over two months ago, I was one of the quarter of a million people gathered in Grant Park on election night. The unmistakable energy of hundreds of thousands of people gathering for one common purpose, the shouts of yes we can, and the music — everything from Stevie Wonder to Bruce Springsteen — continue to play out in my mind. In November, we all knew that we were on the brink of something, but we did not know exactly what. My experience in Grant Park was by all accounts — both classic and contemporary — a religious experience. As an ethnographer, however, I continued to ask myself “is everyone a convert?”

I was not among the members in that crowd who cried, jumped up and down, or hugged complete strangers on that November evening. But I was glad to be there when President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama came out to us, introduced the First Family, and delivered in his uncanny ministerial tone the timely speech that so many of us will remember — sobering much like his inauguration speech today.

Even more than today’s inauguration, I will never, ever forget looking up at a huge screen that night, noticing the dramatic, drum roll sounds that preceded the announcement of breaking news, and hearing Wolf Blitzer say, “And CNN can now project that Barack Obama, 47 years old, will become the President-Elect of the United States…” I read on the screen “Barack Obama Elected President” and felt the pandemonium of celebration around me. The palpable energy that had until that moment felt like an undercurrent became a gushing waterfall, some of which seemed to be making its way through to my phone. I received a swarm of text messages and emails from different people I know across the country, arriving almost simultaneously:

This is the best moment in my lifetime, politically.
Shout out to the ancestors who r rejoicing with us 2night!
Oh yeah. President Obama! A new day is on the way!
Yes GOD can! Yes we can!

And a most provocative email from a close friend: I hope that Mr. Obama can bring the change to the nation that not only people can believe in, but that is real and actual (and doesn’t have to do with raising anyone’s taxes). I hope that he and the Congress can solve the problems in the economy, end the armed incursion into the sovereign nation of Iraq, catch Osama bin Laden, turn water into wine, fix the health care system, give negroes their 40 acres and a mule, end our dependence on foreign oil, fix the public school system, bring jobs back from overseas, resolve the housing crisis, restore America’s reputation around the world, increase the minimum wage, get crunk in the White House, ensure equality among all people, end the pipeline to prison for little negro boys, pack the Supreme Court with some liberal judges that will uphold a woman’s right to an abortion, walk on water, and all of the other amazing things that have been promised during the campaign and those things not promised, but people hoped for.

40 acres and a mule? Shout outs from ancestors? A new day is on the way? Walking on water? Getting crunk in the White House? The dream realized?

These electronic messages reveal the public pride, hope, excitement, and perceptions of divine intervention. It is no secret that Americans, and especially African Americans, have consistently described Obama’s candidacy as not only a significant historical moment, but also a long-hoped-for change. But these reactions also communicate other sentiments — anxiety, skepticism, and cynicism. These feelings are not exclusively held by disappointed McCain/Palin supporters, but also by African Americans who have heard and continue to hear people like Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. say, “Obama did not run as a black candidate, he ran as an American who happens to be black.”

I am willing to acknowledge that part of the brilliance behind President Obama’s campaign was his lack of emphasis on race. In the nearly two years of campaigning for the office of president, Obama really did not talk about race until he had to—which ironically was connected to his religious affiliation with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Although he openly talked about his mixed racial heritage and how that shaped his religious, political, and cultural perspectives, he took race out of the spotlight (though we all know that race played a tremendous part of his campaign, right?).

But wait a minute. There is something particularly dangerous to me about the way his campaign was run and I fear his Presidency will be run: I therefore must ask, what are the larger implications of this idea that somehow, in America, the color of one’s skin does not matter? On the one hand, the more optimistic hand, it means that perhaps in some way, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has been realized — at least in part. The election and inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States is nothing to take lightly. It is truly a momentous moment, to be celebrated and hailed for what it represents to allAmericans, certainly not solely to a largely African-American panel at a predominately white institution.

On the other hand, it means it is quite likely that people will begin to think that in the larger scheme of things, race doesn’t matter and racism doesn’t exist. That we no longer have to worry about checking boxes to indicate our racial identities on job, grant, or scholarship applications. That there is no longer a need for the philanthropic agencies who make support for ethnic and racial minorities one of their primary goals. In universities like ours, where this could potentially signal the end of the effort toward diversity, people might think that we don’t need area studies such as African American studies, Native American Studies, Asian American studies and the like — all because race/ism is no longer an issue.

Within the study of religion, this could mean that examination of African American and African diasporic traditions, which are heavily (though not exclusively) rooted in the legacy of slavery, might be seen as a glimpse into the archaic past — a past that has little to no contemporary relevance.

Am I exaggerating these possibilities? I think not.

On Thursday, November 6, two days after the election, I led a discussion on “Religion and Race” in my Introduction to Religion course. (It was actually quite serendipitous how that component of the course occurred when it did — I wish I could take credit for that. I’ve been teaching the same segment at the same time for the past three semesters). I informed them of the numerous ways that religion has been used in this country as a means of justifying racial oppression — most notably slavery. After sharing this information, I opened the floor to students so that they could offer their perspectives about the relationship between religion and race, but more so, to discuss how religious ideology has been used to justify racial hierarchies. Several of my students noted that after the election results, their classmates had made comments such as “they [African Americans] can never complain anymore because they got one of theirs in the White House.”

Despite the numerous problems with this perspective (which cannot fully be dealt with here), I use this statement to make the same point here that I made to my students — don’t fall for the con — don’t allow the spin factor to make you to think that race/ism is no longer an issue in our culture.

While the election of Barack Obama is a significant historical event, never forget that there have always been exceptional minorities who paved the way for this moment. Always be aware of the double-consciousness that minorities in this culture embody. Never think that in some distorted way, the election of a self-identified African American for the office of president of the United States should or can assuage white guilt about the negative treatment of blacks in this country. And never forget that this country’s history—and yes, its religious history—is painfully marked by the use of religion to marginalize, oppress, discriminate against, and racialize people of color.

That people can begin to see past color also translates into the idea that people don’t see color, and as Ralph Ellison let us all know inInvisible Man, that is not okay. As a black woman who was followed by campus police the day I attempted to move into my office, or who a few months ago had to file a complaint because a resident in my building had selected “I Hate N****rs” as the name of their wireless network, I can tell you for a fact that it all still does matter. It is the anxiety, skepticism, and cynicism that I, as an African American scholar, most readily identify with, and here’s why. Barack Obama’s campaign and the discourse surrounding it have successfully given my students (who by and large already have a poor sense of historical memory) yet another reason to think and to argue that racism is no longer an issue.

This, I fear, is the greatest “spin” that Obama’s campaign has inspired and Presidency will inspire — the myth of the end of race/ism–perceived or otherwise. Or, that “The Dream” has been realized.

Do not think that America has somehow fulfilled the promissory note of equality because of the election of one African American president. Hence, while “The Dream” may be realized for some, for others, the inauguration of Barack Obama is merely a down payment — a balance to be paid in full only when racism, poverty, inequalities, and injustices no longer exist for any reason — let alone for reasons related to the color of one’s skin.

I am not an African American who you will ever hear say — as so many on CNN and Fox News and all of the other stations have said over the course of this weekend — that the election and inauguration of Barack Obama means that “The Dream” has been realized. Certainly, the inauguration of Barack Obama means something that we can all embrace as historically significant for our country: a public willingness to elect a man who is openly African American to the position of President. Yet, the point to always consider as the question “is the dream realized?” is raised, is of whose dream do we speak?

I am not sure what will become of America’s future or Obama’s presidency, but I know that it will be difficult and will likely require that we envision things that appear to be so deeply embedded in our country’s — and yes, our University’s — history in a new way. How this translates to discussion of race and racism has yet to be determined. But if Barack Obama’s campaign, candidacy, and now Presidency have revealed nothing else, they’ve shown us some of the challenges of not seeing and not talking openly about race, and the ways that religion intersects with and influences these discourses.

So in the midst of shouts of “Yes We Can!,” the celebratory applause, and the anti-climactic lull that seemed to accompany the realism of today’s inauguration ceremony, let us not forget. Let us not silence the numerous watershed moments in our country’s history. And in the spirit of not forgetting, in the spirit of not letting the pride of achievement get in the way, let us not be overpowered by the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Let us not go slow.

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