The world felt topsy-turvy as I watched the presidential debate held at Howard University last week. Up seemed down and everything was out of sync as the front-runners for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, spoke. In this debate, as in others, we watched Obama remake the traditional persona of the black candidate and someone else take what might have been his place.
From the outset, it was clear that Barack Obama wasn't going to be Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. For every rhythmic alliteration Jackson would have offered, Obama gave us pauses and sentences in paragraphs. For Sharpton's quick wit and scathing candor, Obama offered even tones and grave calm. There was no push toward applause-filled endings. He begged for contemplation and understanding. Simple became complex, demands became propositions and "they" became "we."
The average black American onlooker can't help feeling proud but also just a little hurt watching Obama. Proud of his ability to traverse minefields on a national political landscape and hurt by what America demands of black candidates seeking public acceptance and trust. During the debate, black Americans in the audience sat, hands poised, yearning to applaud a black candidate able to articulate our passions and sense of injustice. We wanted to hear that he understood and loved us -- not in the general, "we the people" sense but in the specific. Yet we know that with each utterance about injustice, each puff of anger or frustration about racism, we lose the very thing we seek: a viable black candidate. The closer Obama comes to us, the further he would be from winning the nomination and the presidency.
That is a reality of race and national politics in America. Part of Obama's appeal to white America lies in his hopefulness. It's in the way he looks toward a brighter future, and it's in his promise to bring us all along.
Yet the subtext of his appeal is in what he does not say. It's in his ability to declare that things must get better without saying who or what has made them bad. It's how he rarely chastises and how he divides blame and responsibility evenly; white receiving equal parts with black, poor equal parts with rich. The "we" Obama has created leaves blank the space traditional African American candidates would have filled with passion or a clear articulation of the state of black Americans. It's left some black voters unfulfilled and some white voters with a sense of acceptance and absolution from past wrongs and present-day injustices.
We are all watching Obama's tightrope walk, his attempts to appeal to the white majority while maintaining some semblance of integrity regarding the plight of black Americans. It's a heavy burden. In contrast, Hillary Clinton is on relatively sure footing. Obama must tilt away from clarity and passion about issues disproportionately affecting blacks while Clinton is free to perform the black candidate's role. In last week's debate, it was she who took on the traditional black candidate's persona, she who was both passionate and rhythmic in her cadence. Her endings built to crescendos. Be it real or pandering, Clinton can openly connect and show solidarity with black Americans in ways that Obama cannot.
There is no better example than Clinton's comment about the disproportionate effect HIV has on black communities. She said that if "HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country." For Obama to have said the same words in the same fiery manner could have been political suicide. By forfeit, Clinton essentially becomes the black candidate; it's not a space America would allow Obama to fill.
Not long after Obama announced his candidacy, the buzz in the media was, "Is Obama black enough?" Many black Americans privately laughed at this question. We know that it takes only a slip of the tongue about slavery's legacy or reparations, a hiccup about institutional racism or paying special attention to the needs of black Americans, and suddenly the love would be gone. We know that the question has less to do with black America than with whether white America trusts that Obama is not too black for its political taste.
We laugh at the question of Obama's blackness because we live with a version of Obama's tightrope dance every day. We do the same dance in our workplaces, with our supervisors, our neighbors and our college classmates. In that way we know Obama couldn't be more like us, he couldn't be more black. We along with Obama know that even the most skilled tightrope performance may not be enough to ensure that you land on your feet.