“I am an American…”
I don’t think I was really prepared for those four words, but as the clock struck midnight and November 5th rolled in I started hearing and reading the words “I am an American,” from many of my friends and family. Well, much like my man Ice Cube said, “I’m here to deprogram you, don’t forget what they made your great grandmama do, your great granddaddy do without a dollar or a penny or a thank you…”. I am very thankful for an electoral victory, but an election can’t erase the reality that we came from or live in.
The question of Americaness is one that I’ve been in several debates about recently and I was surprised by people’s conceptions of their identity. As someone who considers himself Black, radical, and critical, when asked if I’m American, I seldom hesitate in my answer. While I acknowledge my citizenship is American, my state defined membership does not necessarily mean that I consider myself American. On days when I’m filling more accommodating I’ll identify as African-American or Black, but never American. In moments when I want to demonstrate my diasporic identity I will identity as of African descent or channel Brother Malcolm.
But I realize my orientation towards America and Americaness are probably more radical than many of the folks I know, work with, and care for. So when I hear them say, “I’m now American” and “We are finally free.” I wonder how we have come to define freedom. Is freedom defined by what someone else gives you or by what you demand? In many ways, for most of the folks that I cavort with consistently, it seems the election of Obama was the provision of Americaness. I shutter at that thought, because I feel if someone “gave it to you” they may just as easily “take it away from you.” While some will read this as pessimistic, I read it as historic. Whether it was the 13th, 14th, or 15th Amendment, Brown V. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, or the Civil Rights Act, if you are given a right by man, then that thing can be removed from you.
I went on a criticism diet immediately following the election of Barack Obama because I wanted to feel what “victory” felt like. It was amazing, it was refreshing, it was euphoric, but to me it was too much like a drug. I recently had a conversation with a friend who is an Anesthesiologist and she explained to me the difference between anesthesia and analgesia. Anesthesia, in my best recollection, takes you under, removes sensation and awareness and essentially blocks all sensations. Analgesia, on the other hand, blocks pain, but not all sensations. In fact when under analgesia you can often experience euphoria. We as a people on November 7th were filled with analgesia and the euphoria overtook the historical pain. While I was cool being in that state temporarily, I’m afraid too many of us remain now under anesthesia.
The elevation of the Obama family is amazing, but I want to see the elevation of the nation of 39 million. I celebrated Obama’s victory until the wee hours of the morning and stopped at the ATM as I was coming home. I popped in my card, withdrew money and looked at my receipt and laughed. I laughed because my account balance was the same, but from the looks of elation on the faces of my folks, you couldn’t tell. At that moment, I was glad to know that my people were not concerned that our incomes and wealth barely overlap with our White counterparts. That we’re expected to die sooner. That we’re born with lower birth weights. In the euphoria of that night it didn’t matter. As I have watched Obama select his cabinet I still saw my people beaming with pride, but I wonder how long that pride can hide reality. In a matter of moments, the realities of race in America will once again surface to challenge and cripple many of our folks. Already, reality has been creeping in and resulted in racial incidents and elevated tensions. I point this out not to say we should be governed by fear, but that we should be aware of the situation that we are in.
When the dust clears and we have inaugurated our first Black president, what will it mean to the average Black person? Can inspiration, the main thing that Obama’s victory brings, stand for a people who lack material resources? When Obama stands against a Civil Rights issue, don’t worry it will happen so enough, will you still feel American? And if you don’t, will it be because they took it back or because you never were in the first place?