An Open Letter to Barack Obama,
Thanks for writing your recent tome, The Audacity of Hope. I must confess, I haven’t read it yet — or even purchased it, for that matter. But I came perilously close to doing both during my layover at Chicago’s Midway airport during the return leg of my Thanksgiving trip visiting in-laws. I say ‘perilously’ because I’ve been shopping recently and I’m pretty sure my budget would vehemently protest at the idea of a $25 hardcover impulse purchase. (For that matter, so would my wife.)
Nevertheless, I found myself inextricably drawn to your book as I wandered the airport.
My skeptical side wants to chalk that up to having just spent an afternoon perusing the wealth of monuments and memorials at the National Mall in Washington D.C., which are so grand and majestic that even the most apathetic, politically uninterested among us can, if only fleetingly, muster up an ounce or two of civic pride and responsibility.
But I don’t think that’s it. Monuments alone do not an epiphany make. And as much as I love to revisit my beloved DVD collections of “The West Wing,” they usually don’t inspire me to do much other than tune in to watch Aaron Sorkin’s newest melodrama, “Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip.” (D.L. Hughley? I’m down.)
No, something deeper stirred inside me. As best I can tell, it was a form of longing. For what, I’m not exactly sure… but I know I’ve felt it before.
I felt it six years ago, during a Sankofa journey with an intrepid group of classmates at North Park University, where we were exposed to the plight of poor Black folks under the thumb of racist Southern county legal systems. Talk about scary… I saw stuff that I thought stopped happening around the time “Gunsmoke” went off the air.
I felt the longing again when a professor challenged me to tack on several more years to my academic sentence by enrolling at Harvard law school to become a civil rights attorney. It was a ludicrous idea on several levels, but even though I had no desire to enter grad school — and deliberately avoided the pursuit of a pre-law degree on the grounds of it being too much work — a small part of me leapt at the idea of trying to do something to right all the wrongs around me. The rest of me avoided it like the plague, but still… I’m sayin’ I felt it.
I felt it again after hearing and reading about Jim Wallis, his bestselling book God’s Politics, his organization Sojourners/Call to Renewal, and the resurgence (if one can call it that) of the religious left.
And I felt it again today, thumbing through the prologue of The Audacity of Hope. It’s a nagging feeling, really. The inevitable sense of unrest that accompanies the habitual repression of deep desire. In this case, it’s the desire for our broader American culture to be healed of it’s racial and political divide.
Señor Senator, you convinced me with those first few pages that you have what it takes to help facilitate that healing process on a national scale. And despite grumblings aplenty that stick-in-the-mud pundits (read: realists) have been offering about your lack of Senate experience, I think you have the potential to wage an effective presidential campaign. Not only that, but I think an Obama presidency would galvanize our country, bringing a balm of civility and discourse that is critically absent from today’s political landscape.
For these reasons (and because I’m not afraid to jump on a good bandwagon when I see one), I urge you — please, run for president. I know it’ll be a gut-wrenching, soul-searching ordeal, but you’re the right man at the right time.
And it’s not like we can’t see it coming. America is clamoring for you to run. Oprah has endorsed you, and “Meet the Press” pinned you down to a firm ‘maybe,’ so all that’s left is to make sure your wife and kids are on board and then end the charade. You were the star of the DNC in ’04, and ever since you’ve been the Teflon Don of the Senate circuit. Shoot, even Michael Richards would probably vote for you — and as we all know by now, good ol’ Kramer’s got some issues with Black people.
So do it already.
* * *
Now having said that, I realize that there are probably a myriad of political realities that are preventing you from declaring your candidacy at this time. Not being a politician myself, I don’t have a clue as to what those would be but I’m sure they’re there.
With that in mind, it might be prudent for you to pull an O.J. move.
(I can’t believe I just said that.)
No, not that kind of move. Good Lord, no.
What I mean is you could release another book or exclusive interview and call it If I Do Run, Here’s What I Might Say or Do.
So continuing on in the spirit of unsolicited advice, I’ve got some topics you might want to address once you ascend to your theoretical presidency. Bigger than a pet peeve, but smaller than a platform, each one represents a way you can put your stamp on our republic:
1. Help eradicate the n-word for good.
Okay, so you’re the rock star president — er senator, I mean — so here’s how you go about doing it. You grab some A-list Black celebrities with a modicum of street cred. Snoop Dogg and Jamie Foxx would work fine. (They may even be looking for another pro-Black cause now that Tookie is gone.) You get them to front the united, worldwide cause to stop Black folks from propagating what has now become a ridiculous double standard — that we can use the term ‘nigger’ and any of its variants with impunity while no one else can.
Before the Michael Richards incident I was very conflicted on this issue, primarily because I enjoy good comedy and there is a lot of humor to be mined from the true-to-life interactions between Blacks. (See Chris Rock’s “Nigga Please Cereal” sketch.)
Nevertheless, our hypocrisy has never been more apparent. As self-respecting Blacks, we have no ethical leg to stand on when we heap condemnation upon Michael Richards without casting even a sideways glance at other Black entertainers whose use of the n-word is equally demeaning. What’s worse, we give license to the Michael Richardses of the future to continue taking shots at our collective character, since our silent assent to the minstrel shows (or should I say, minstrel hoes) on “Flavor of Love” prove that we really don’t care about how we’re depicted in the media.
So lead the charge and help us Black folk change our language for good by banishing the n-word. Aaron McGruder of “The Boondocks” may be a tough sell, but even Paul Mooney changed his tune on the issue, so if nothing else… there’s hope. (Is that audacious enough?)
2. Help Americans to stop being so self-important and learn to laugh at ourselves.
This one might sound strange coming right after the last one, but it’s not unrelated. See, part of the reason why I’ve been loathe to come out publicly against the casual use of the word “nigga,” especially in a FUBU context (“For Us, By Us”), is because a lot of times, it’s funny. Really funny. We Black folks love to laugh at ourselves. And I’m convinced that if Michael Richards would have actually invested his pent-up race rage into something witty, interesting or — here’s an idea — funny, then he probably wouldn’t be as universally reviled right now. He might have offended a few people, but he’d probably still have, you know, a career.
And this is where you come in. You’re obviously a smart man, and since your satirical ode to Senator John McCain, your flair for comedic is evident. So lead by example. Make it a priority to, at least once in a while, mock the hell out of yourself and people like you.
And believe me, you don’t have to be timid about it. If you’re good and accurate about, people will laugh. They might squirm a little, but if you do it right, you’ll come out ahead. You’ll sort-of become the reverse Will Ferrell. Have you seen Talladega Nights? Over-the-top hilarious. I haven’t found any southern right-wing groups organizing protests around it, and I think it’s because Ferrell’s exaggerated Ricky Bobby character celebrates the NASCAR culture even as he rips it to shreds. And by the time it’s over, no group has been spared, and your sides hurt from laughing so hard.
This, by the way, has been one of the missing elements for “Studio 60.” Audiences would have an easier time digesting the high-brow soliloquys of the fictional sketch-show staff if the sketches were really funny. Quite a bit of the time, they’re not. If you’re gonna pull off a good satire, you can’t be too busy showing off how smart you are. It’ll come through on its own. Which brings me to the third thing…
3. Give Americans permission to be smart again.
In a media age where politics are another form of mass-media entertainment, smart is in short supply. And it’s not so much that our politicians aren’t smart, but that they’re afraid to come off as boring or elitist. As a result, the mob mentality kicks in, and in the name good publicity, our public servants run the risk of becoming outtakes from “Jackass 2.” (See Howard Dean and his primal roar.)
Self-deprecation can nice and refreshing when it shows that a leader isn’t full of him or herself — but that presupposes that the leader has some legitimate moral and intellectual substance to back up any air of superiority that needs deflating in the first place. Dubya’s jokey side is a nice complement to his steely sense of resolve and determination, but when he continues to make poor decisions it just makes him look like an idiot.
This is why you need to give brainiacs everywhere permission to be themselves. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, smart is good. When smart people are freed from having to dumb themselves down in order to be accepted, the results can be phenomenal.
Take, for example, the hit series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” You’ve probably never seen it. The title alone evokes either cheesy action/adventure schlock (see: “Xena: Warrior Princess“) or a sarcastic, overly ironic snarkfest (all the “Scream” movies). But “Buffy” ended up becoming a massive cult favorite that kept its fledgling network (the WB) on the air during its run. Why? Because its creator, Joss Whedon, took a format rife with mediocrity (the high school drama) and found innovative ways to push boundaries — including an episode almost completely devoid of spoken words. Whedon’s brilliant writing helped to catalyze a renaissance in screenwriting, as some of the industry’s best and brightest formed an exodus from film back to TV — a medium formerly associated with hacks and wannabes. And none of it would’ve happened without talented cats like Whedon conquering ‘our greatest fear‘ and gettin’ their Marianne Williamson on.
Is it risky? Absolutely. Whedoon’s next series, the critically-acclaimed space western “Firefly,” was a flop. Being smart is obviously no guarantee of success. But it helps more than it hinders. Sooner or later, the smart guys really do come out on top. And if that’s not what America is all about, then I don’t know what is.
* * *
So there it is, man. Consider this my endorsement of Barack Obama for… uh… any other office he may choose to pursue. As for me, I’m gonna try to do my part to heal our nation’s wounds with my writing, my music, and whatever other ministry opportunities come my way. And also my vote.
So from now on, any resemblances that any of your future speeches may have with this article, we’ll agree to be totally coincidental.
(But if it’s all the same to you, my rap group The Iccsters is available for inaugural parties.)
I’m Jelani Greenidge.
Thanks for mixin’ it up with me.