Obama 2008
According to many recent polls, “most Americans” are still not really sure about the Democratic nominee for President, Senator Barack Obama. “Just who is this guy?” the polls seem to echo. Articles in every major newspaper, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, have cited surveys that indicate many people think he’s “elusive,” “complicated,” “guarded” and “hard to read.” Of course, like most thinking people, I realize the inherent fallibility of polls in America — most are conducted using residential landlines and taken during the afternoon, made to mostly-white, middle-class households. But this in itself may reveal what’s really going on. The sad fact that many white Americans, both conservatives and liberals, don’t “know enough” about Obama may be due to the fact that he doesn’t look like anyone who has ever vied for the highest office in the world. He’s a Black man.

Despite two detailed memoirs, achieving near cult of personality status in American popular culture, and having been in the media spotlight during one of the most-visible marathon presidential primary seasons in history, folks still want to know more about the guy with the “funny name.” Is he a Muslim? What took him so long to clip on that American flag pin? Does his wife hate “whitey?” How is he able to keep his cool under fire? For some, the reluctance to accept Obama is straight-up racism, even if masked by bar-raising double standards; for others, it may be a case of wait-and-see jitters. But what America is really in the dark about has little to do with Obama and more to do with what they think they know about Black men in America. And guess what? They don’t know jack. Or Leroy or Tyrone either.

Despite our long history of being at ground zero of every major historical event in American memory, Black men and boys continue to be a second-guessed, oft-stereotyped enigma in our society. Now with Obama’s historic campaign, a sea change has rolled in with the generational tide. It’s a shift as clear as Obama’s campaign mantra. What’s that he says? “Change You Can Believe In.” Yeah, it is a compelling slogan for these dreary times, and the refrain works on many levels.

Sure, we’re long overdue for a candidate who truly seeks change from the position of “not politics as usual” and Obama, the “community organizer,” (not “community activist,” that has too many retro black power connotations) seems to fit the bill. But his campaign slogan also resonates on a personal level. Think about it. In many ways, Obama represents a New Negro aesthetic – by some, he could be seen as the leader of a vanguard of Black males (read: talented tenth) who are accountable, articulate, responsible, intelligent, and successful. Indeed, he is the kind of Black male that you, America, can and should “believe in.”

So what message does Obama’s candidacy have for Black men and boys? Should we fashion ourselves after our presumptive Commander-in-Chief? What about those of us at the bottom of the well, can we too dream of Obama’s America? In these lightning-quick times, questions like these fly in before one has time to rationally consider all the implications. And all the answers may not be so simple.

But on the simplest of levels, Obama’s candidacy is one of hope, pride, and possibility. Regardless of the outcome of the ballot box (lets hope for a fair and balanced electoral process) in November, Obama’s shrewd and commanding performance to-date has catapulted the Black Male Image to a higher, nobler, if more complicated, position in the American imagination. And considering the negative stereotypes that continue to persist, that’s an improvement. Even though its still too early to debate what kind of president he’ll be, I’ll take the upside of the argument that even as I write this, Black men and boys may begin to see themselves not as others see them, but with a singular, unburdened and unbowed greatness.

Cheo Tyehimba is a writer, activist, and media consultant. His firm, Forwardever Media, LLc, manages the 2025 Campaign for Black Men and Boys website. Contact him at cheo@forwardevermedia.com.