My part in the concert was small: I was there as a “backup” for the Cantor at the temple where I sing. (That temple has long been a partner in PPF’s efforts). The rest of the time, I was able to sit, snack, and enjoy the other performers. And what a show it was!
Project People Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of impoverished and AIDs-scourged South Africans. To highlight this focus, PPF opened the concert with performances from South Africans who are part of the cast of The Lion King. They danced and sang with amazing energy, skill and passion. Then, an absolutely phenomenal gospel group sang several pieces that were so inspiring, they almost convinced me to convert. (Oy!) In the middle of all of this was a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, complete with a gorgeous cake.
Finally, the gospel choir closed with a knockout performance of “We Shall Overcome,” with the first verse sung in Hebrew to honor the Temple’s participation. The entire room stood up and held hands spontaneously. It was incredibly moving to touch strangers and colleagues in such a comfortable way, and sing along with that ultimate anthem of faith and resolve.
That was the sweet, and how sweet it was.
And now, for the bitter.
The performance took place at a large, prominent, mostly African-American church. Barack Obama’s name was mentioned twice by various speakers, both times in the context of how inspiring it was as an example to children and adults that an African-American could be nominated as a Presidential candidate. (He hasn’t clinched the nomination yet, but I knew where they were coming from.) The folks in the room seemed to agree (I saw a few nods and heard a quiet “Yes!” or two), but there was no applause or loud affirmation of these statements. (And believe me, this crowd was not shy – if you’ve ever been to a service in a black church, you know what I’m talking about.)
In fact, both of these statements were made by men, and I saw some female faces around the room freeze a little, as mine did. I wondered if the two thoughts that went through my head were running through theirs:
1) Women of color could have been inspired by Hillary as well as Obama; and
2) Why isn’t he better?
Let’s address #1 first.
Reverend Jeremiah Wright mentioned Hillary Clinton in his controversial “God Damn America” sermon, and his remarks were instructive. He asserted that Hillary hadn’t had to work twice as hard as a white man to get the same job. It was a laughable and hugely ironic statement in the context of this primary, considering that Hillary has now all but lost the nomination to a man, although she was the winner of the popular vote and has a resume that, by any objective measure, dwarfs Obama’s.
Clearly, gender equality is not a part of Reverend Wright’s awareness. As every woman in his congregation could have told him, women do have to work twice as hard as a man in order to get the same job. Of course, even if they are fortunate enough to get such a job, they are paid, on average, 77 cents to the man’s dollar.
Is there any reason to assume that Hillary Clinton would not continue her work to gain gender equality as President? No. The only way to beat Hillary was to smear her with false accusations of racism and race-baiting, and that is exactly what his campaign did. Out of an understandable sense of community, only a brave few African-Americans stood up for her or Bill Clinton in the face of Obama’s divisive tactics, and those who did were intimidated with primary challenges or, in some cases, death threats from the Obama camp.
As frustrating as #1 is to me, #2 is what really hurt. Why is he The One, as Oprah famously dubbed him? What has he ever done for the black community? What has he promised to do for the black community? Why does he talk down to the NAACP and perpetuate white stereotypes about his own people?
Why doesn’t he appreciate how much his community needs a figure of great stature, a person who aspires to be a fighter for social justice for all Americans, a person who strives for peace and an end to institutionalized racism and bigotry of all kinds – yes, even unto sexism and homophobia? Why isn’t he humbled a bit by what the unqualified support of the black community means?
It breaks my heart that Senator Obama was not asked these questions by the Party Leaders before they decided to elevate him to national status. Fair or not, an African-American candidate will bear the burdens of his long-suffering community on his shoulders, just as Hillary would be expected to bear the burdens of long-suffering women on hers. And as I looked at all the faces around me last night, holding hands with a beautiful stranger and pledging to overcome, I could only think: African-Americans deserve better. They deserve so much better than vague platitudes about hope and change. They deserve a deep understanding of their plight and a lifelong commitment of time and resources, of heart and soul, towards mitigating that plight.
For all of our sakes, I hope they get what they deserve from America and, should he prevail, Barack Obama. As we all know, it’s been a long time coming.