Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why I am REALLY proud of Michelle Obama and my country

I am sick and tired of all the remarks recently about Michelle Obama and her statement about being "really" proud of America.

I'm 60 years old, and "black". I was born in the North, in the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, and lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. My grandmother, (Dad's mom) who helped raise me, was a "white" woman from Kansas.

My Dad was a Tuskegee Airman in WWII - and was beaten to a pulp by racists when he got off a bus to go to the training field with an army buddy who "looked black" (my dad was fair with blue eyes).

By the time I was 5 we moved south - where my dad was teaching at a "black" university in a racially segregated town, where I couldn't enter a store to buy an ice cream cone. At age 6 we moved to the campus of a "white" school in PA - where I was asked in all seriousness if my best friend (the only Jewish girl in town) had horns and a tail. By the time I was 9 and back in the south, I watched my dad and some other young professor’s hold off cross-burning KKK'ers with shotguns.

By age 11 I was bussed to a school which had race riots because kids who looked like me were going to the school for the first time. This was in Queens, in NY.

By age 13 I was informed by my school guidance counselor that if I tried to apply for a special High School in NYC (taking off a day for auditions) I would get detention and a blue referral card. "White" kids were allowed the day off. I applied anyway - and was accepted to the High School of Music and Arts.

By age 16 I was engaged in the civil rights movement and in later years lost close friends, and two partners, who died because someone didn't like their skin color, sexual orientation politics, or religion.

I am now 60. And for the first time in my life I am REALLY proud of my country. I wish my grandmother was alive to see this. She had to flee Kansas to marry my grandfather in 1915 because "inter-racial" marriage was illegal. I wish my dad and mom were alive to see this. They had hopes that Colin Powell would/could have run for President - but his wife, wisely held him back. It was not the right time.

Most of my ancestors have been in this country since the 1600's. I am descended from Revolutionary War heroes, Civil War Heroes, and people who were enslaved.

I am an American. I defy anyone to question my "patriotism". On the backs of my ancestors - black, white and indigenous, this country was built.

I see my students at the University excited to be engaged in the political process for the first time. They make me proud. 95% support Obama, and I teach at a predominantly "white" school. I see a coalition broader than the one I was a part of in the sixties forming before my eyes. That makes me proud.

I see Michelle Obama and his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, and they make me proud.

As an anthropologist, I realize that "race" is a social construct, but if you think racism isn't alive and well you are living in a bubble.

If you think that Barak Obama hasn't felt racisms sting because of his upbringing, which is a position I've heard some people take, you are naive.

But - he's not demoralized nor has he internalized crippling self-hate. He has hope and a vision, and is being supported by a broad base of people that I thought I'd never live to see come together, here in MY country. That's good enough for me.

And to honor his wife Michelle, in response to some of the positions expressed on the web (thankfully the minority ones) I will now send another donation to help Barak Obama's campaign.

And be REALLY proud to see Michelle as First Lady.

Why I am no longer supporting Hillary Clinton

I will apologize in advance if some of the things I say here upset or distress those people who support Senator Hillary Clinton. I was once one of them – in the sense that I cast my vote for her to become a Senator from the state of NY.

I had some doubts about that vote when I cast it. I have never been much of a participant in the two party politics of the US. I don’t find the process particularly democratic, since I abhor the electoral college, think that we should have proportional party representation rather than our current system, and to be honest I think proportional parliaments where people vote for a party, and where elections stand on issues, rather than a candidate, is a healthier system. I have openly spent most of my life wishing and working toward building alternatives to only two parties, and sometimes feeling that one has to select the best of the two equally negative choices. But I digress.

I live upstate New York these days – not downstate in New York City. The town I moved to at first had a strong Republican Party, and a very vocal group of anti-feminists. Though my grandfather was a solid Republican (party of Lincoln – he used to proclaim) I did not come of age in the era when Democrat was necessarily equated to Dixiecrat, and so, when my eyes strayed from grass roots organizing to local electoral politics I did support certain Democratic candidates, particularly those with the backing of unions with a large working class and minority membership. Unions like 1199, who represents hospital workers.

My next door neighbor up here was a renter, not a home owner, and she asked me one day if I would put a “Vote Hillary” sign up in my yard. Her landlord would not allow it. He was a staunch Republican and though my neighbor was paying over $1,000 a month to rent her home he threatened her with eviction should she put up a sign for the Clinton campaign. So I took the sign and plopped it onto my front lawn. That night, a person, or persons unknown, came onto my property and removed the sign. I reported it to the town and state police. Their response was laconic and disinterested. One trooper informed me that it had happened all over Ulster County and they couldn’t do anything about it. It was reported in the local papers. I felt angry and violated. I got another sign and spent several nights sitting on my front porch, guarding my right to have a sign for whomever I pleased. A week later, the second sign was removed. I admit, that I was so pissed that I wasn’t thinking clearly about my vote, but I resolved to cast my ballot for Ms. Clinton.

I was uneasy about her, specifically because I didn’t care for Bill Clinton. Contrary to the popular joke bandied around, I have never thought of him as America’s First Black President. I was uneasy about her because I am a feminist. I have long dreamed of a day when this country would be grown-up enough and liberated enough to elect a woman to our highest office. I saw other women around the world in leadership positions – Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir, Felisa Rincón de Gautier, (mayor of San Juan PR).
I remember Shirley Chisholm’s first run for office, and was moved by eloquent Barbara Jordan. My greatest she-roe was Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party who was “sick and tired of being sick and tired”. As a student of feminist history, I was strongly influenced by Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth.

But Hillary Clinton made me uneasy. I was working at the time with Puerto Rican women who were victims of spousal abuse, spousal infidelities, many of whom had been infected with HIV/AIDS by their philandering or drug injecting partners, and while I was working to support poor women in breaking their ties to their abusers, and doing the hard work to get them to open up about the sick-secrets that kept them locked in a cycle of abuse which for many of them ended in death, did I really think I could see Hillary as a role model for any of them? Actually no. I tried to ease my fears about the Clintons and their carpet bagging move into my home state – thinking that Hillary would more than likely be quite distant from her husband. Bill Clinton’s sexual behaviors were no different from the behaviors of many other men in power, so I’m not singling him out, and yes a band of male hypocrites whose practice is the same went after him with a vendetta, but the facts remain. He used his power to influence a female intern, and lied about having sex with her, and others, and demeaned the Oval office. And his wife “stood by her man”. How was I supposed to explain that away to my clients? I left a former husband for his adultery. I am different from my mom’s generations who espoused the “look the other way” theory and “men will be men”. I’d rather live alone than live with a man who strays.

So, I swallowed my uneasiness and voted for Hillary. I did do some research on her, wasn’t particularly impressed with her early teenage infatuation with the politics of Barry Goldwater, but we are all given the chance to grow up, and she was clearly a Democrat these days, and had earned the respect of many members of the minority community, so I pulled the lever, and promptly forgot about her, until the war – or impending war rolled around.

I worked at the World Trade Center, and by luck my sump pump broke that morning and my basement flooded, and I didn’t make it in. I may not be writing this piece had I gotten to work. I was then swept up in the backlash upstate here against my husband who looks like people’s stereotypical “Muslim-Arab”, though he’s a 6 foot three Puerto Rican from Spanish Harlem. Xenophobia was alive and well, and caught up in fears for my husband’s safety I kept one eye on the congress and assured myself that our elected officials wouldn’t let us get caught up yet again, in another futile war like Vietnam, built on lies.

I was wrong. And the woman who I pulled the lever for, voted to throw us into a war against not al-Qaeda – but Iraq, a country whose leader we helped into power. My last hope went down the drain when I saw Colin Powell mouthing the script of the Bush administration, and I watched in horror as millions of Americans glued to their televisions cheered the bombing of Iraq as if it was the annual Macy’s fireworks display.

I took another look at Hillary. I realized that her vote had been influenced by her future plans. As a woman she, or her advisors, felt she needed to look like a hawk – preparation for a future Presidential bid. I also began to pay attention to who was minding the store for the voters here in NY. Not our Senator Clinton, already gearing up for a run for the white house. But Barak Obama was not on my radar. He was only the nice, eloquent young man who made a speech at the Convention.

I began to work with others opposed to the War, a position (shades of Vietnam) viewed as unpatriotic. I grew more and more uneasy at the level of jingoistic rhetoric. When finally the lies and manipulations began to surface I sat and watched and waited for those who claimed to have been duped on the first vote, to get us out of Iraq and to impeach Bush and his cadre.

It didn’t happen. And so, I began to look around some more. And then Katrina happened, and I was caught up in the horror of watching a part of this nation I love, its residents drowned like rats, ignored by its President, and as visions of bloated bodies drifting through the flooded streets of NOLA my emotions were torn apart and I wept. I waited to see what the future would bring. Who would stand up and offer Katrina victims hope?

BTW lest we forget – Katrina victims are still in trailers, those who’ve been able to get back. I hosted an evacuee for 3 months in my home, and my husband accompanied him and his son down to NOLA to look at what was left of his family home – nothing could be salvaged. He’s still waiting for a settlement from FEMA, and he had flood insurance.

John Edwards popped up – announcing his support for Katrina victims, and I began to look at him with interest. But my students pointed out another candidate, the young man I remembered, Barak Obama, and I began to examine him closely. Just who was he?
Did he seriously think that my dearly beloved country, with all its flaws would let a black freshman Senator runs a serious bid for the white house? Apparently he did. And so did many of my students who, while us old folks have been sleeping, have built a network of Myspace and Facebooks and blogs – all foreign to me.

And so I looked harder. The establishment black politicians were solidly in the Clinton camp. Nothing new. But I was never a part of that group anyway, I believed in a rainbow coalition. My Rainbow Coalition was the one espoused by Fred Hampton of the Panthers which included Brown Berets (Chicano), Young Lords (Puerto Rican) AIM (American Indians) I Wor Kuen (Asians) Young Patriots (Appalachian and poor whites). I have never supported Jesse Jackson and his tepid rip-off of Fred’s vision.

As much as I found Edwards interesting, I found Obama more so. Why? Not because he was black. That was actually a disadvantage since cynical me couldn’t imagine a black man making it to the White House – alive. It had to do with his ability to communicate.
I’ve lived my life having the opportunity to hear great communicators. Hampton was one, MLK was another, – but the list is a long one, too long to go into here. Contrary to the popular wisdom, I’m not looking for the Head of State, or shall we say “Figurehead of State” to be a wonk, that’s what Presidents have cabinets for and advisors. I lived in DC long enough to figure out how the work gets done there and who does it – and learned a lot about the process of bringing ideas to legislation and actually getting anything passed given the DC quicksand of bureaucracy and special interests. I was looking for someone who could actually mobilize Americans – you know, “we” the people, and not just “them” the officials. Edwards – though interesting just doesn’t have that spark. Al Gore (who I still believe was robbed), whose ideas on the environment, and global warming I like – was leaden.

Hmmmm. So I started reading up on Senator Obama. Interested I read on. More “hmm's” His mom was an anthropologist. So am I. He has experience living in many world communities. So do I. His grandparents were from Kansas and white. So was my grandmother. She had the courage to marry the man she loved, who happened to be black and run off in 1915 to get married to him, since interracial marriage was illegal back then. His mom’s parents didn’t reject him, like my grandmothers family did to her, and my dad. “Curiouser and curiouser!” cried I (like Alice) and I read on. He had a half Asian sister. He speaks more than one language. He has a wife who is as intelligent as he is who hails from the part of Chicago where my dad was born, and she grew up in a working class household just like my dad’s.

I continued to look at his resume; law school and teaching constitutional law; even better. I’m a beneficiary of a Supreme Court that is NOT the one currently constituted by Bush. Obama’s political experience was working in State government. Great. Positions on women’s issues - top scores; he passed my feminist test. Positions on the war – impeccable. He spoke out against it.

But where in the heck was this guy going to get the kind of money it takes to even approach getting a nomination? Well, that question got answered; from the people, not just from fat cat contributors. I was awed by the use of modern internet technology employed by his campaign; the democratization of funding. I pushed a button and sent money.

While all this was going on in my head, friends of mine, women my age or near to it, long time vets of both Civil Rights and the Women’s movement began to raise the Hillary question. Wasn’t I going to automatically vote for her? If so why not, and there was a subtext of losing my feminist hang-out card if I didn’t follow the party line. But, they forgot, I wasn’t in their party.

But to be fair to my dear friends, even though I believe they are wrong-headed, I went back and revisited Hillary’s resume. Now last time I looked at a politician’s vita, being First Lady of the US, or wife of a Governor was not electoral experience. She had it all on her resume, in her press releases, appropriating those years in State House and White House. Then I looked at her contributors – those whose names and affiliations I could find. Then I looked at a history of politics she’s been engaged in with her husband, and past financial dealings that didn’t sit right with me. I dug my feet in and resisted my friends. I DO want a woman in the White House one day. But it was quite clear that Hillary wasn’t the one and could never be the one. And yes, attacks on her for being assertive are sexist. But a growing group of feminists were beginning to also open up and question her positions, and her vita. I signed on to their petition.

I then began to listen more closely to the pundits and commentators, and pronouncements from the Hillary camp. I was appalled. There were lots of automatic assumptions. I heard remarks that would curl my already curly hair even tighter. “Latinos hate Blacks” so Hillary automatically gets the Latino vote. Have any of these people actually explored the rich cultural diversity of Spanish speaking US citizens? Apparently not. Last time I looked my husband was what he calls “Afro-Boriqua” (Black Puerto Rican).

Then there were the “Hillary has labor tied up” pronouncements. Hmmm… don’t think so. Her positions on NAFTA are on the record no matter how hard she tries to squirm out of them.

Okay, health care reform. I am not happy with the programs of either candidate, I don’t think they go far enough, and I won’t quibble about the differences. But Hillary had a shot at shepherding a health care bill through Congress and blew it. Both of their plans are better than what we have now. Someone is going to have to take a hard look at the role of insurance companies and at least I know Obama isn’t funded by them. I know what poor health care looks like and its impact on children and families, from long years of community work and activism around health issues. I was there when we tested every child in East Harlem for lead poisoning. I sat-in in the takeover of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, where rats regularly ran across operating tables. I worked on an infant mortality project, not in the third world but right here in the US and the rates are higher in some neighborhoods than in parts of the 3rd world. I have done AIDS work since the beginning when it was something called Grid. I have seen the impact of broken policies called the “war on drugs” but which should be called a war on poor folks, that penalizes small time addicts, fills the prisons (the new factories of upstate NY), and does nothing to stem the epidemic.

And if you think the situation here in the States is bad, you should take a first hand look at the situation in Puerto Rico. My husband will confirm that after every field trip to Puerto Rico, where I spent time in the caserios (public housing projects) and poor neighborhoods like La Colectora and La Perla, I had nightmares for weeks. The United States only interest in Puerto Rico is to maintain its enormous number of military facilities there. The welfare of its peoples, American Citizens who don’t have the right to vote for the President, well, lets just say they are ignored.

I know what it is like to be afraid of losing health insurance. I am only teaching part time today because I need health coverage. If not for that I’d be retired. And I’m one of the lucky ones because I have a job that provides adequate coverage, thanks to my union. Millions of my fellow citizens do not.

Recently I been hearing that “the press is biased against Senator Clinton, because of sexism”. But when I do a media analysis (I do have a degree in Media Studies and a background in broadcasting), I find that the mainstream press has bought her entire resume hook line and sinker. Where are the tough questions asked of her? I swear I can’t find them. I carefully watched the debate in Texas, and have as yet to read in any major news outlet the fact that the “moderators” allowed her to ride over their questions, to interrupt, to avoid answering questions and to go on and on about HER health care plan. This is then characterized as an Obama Hillary fight. Not a failure of debate moderation. When the cakewalk didn’t happen, when each firewall fell, state after state, she has been allowed to bluster on, and gets a huge amount of free airtime each time her campaign decides to take yet another tack (read attack) on Senator Obama and his supporters. And the press dutifully reports her every smear. I’m still shaking my head over the non-story of “plagiarism” which to date gets thousands of hits on google, and got endless hours of print and television coverage.

Are some comments made about Senator Clinton sexist? Yes. Does she merit them? No. Are some comments made about and to Senator Obama racist? Yes. Does he merit them? No. But the arguments some of my friends make about the relative gravity of sexist remarks over racist ones, given the history of this country don’t pan out. The same argument was used during the history of the women’s suffrage movement when Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton decided to scrap the struggles of newly freed slaves to woo Southern white females into the movement, women who refused to sit in meetings with black women. Who held fast to principle was Lucy Stone. If you ask me what kind of feminist I am – I grin and reply, I’m a “Stoner”.

The quality of a candidate’s courage and wisdom is to rise above these bone-headed vestigial and antediluvian attacks which are rooted in America’s historic past and unpleasantly part of our present. A true feminist would opt for a different style and practice. I went through struggles in the women’s movement critiquing a particular brand of “feminism” that said women of color need not apply. I resented that then and still resent it, and struggle against it to this day. The race baiting that Senator Clinton allowed in her campaign, using her husband, and others, as surrogates is unacceptable. When have you heard Senator Obama state that women aren’t prepared to be President? Yes, he has disagreed with her positions, and her nasty aspersions, but he has maintained a calm that is almost unnatural. But I believe he knows too well that a black man in America cannot go on the attack, even verbally against a white woman. Some folks still hang nooses in trees in this country. Hillary benefits from this “white female gender privilege”. And we have recently seen that a black woman in America can’t even be her own person. I guess Michelle Obama is supposed to do an imitation of Cindy McCain in blackface, or morph into Laura Bush, or Roselyn Carter.

It is not anti-feminist for me to bring up Bill Clinton. Ms Clinton has opted to rely upon the political capital of her husband. How not feminist, but how expedient. Herein lies one of the more fatal flaws in her candidacy. Are we to have co—presidents? If Hillary had ditched Bill, or locked him up in the Harlem State office building, run her campaign on her own record as a junior Senator, not appropriating her husbands legacy as her own – she’d be more believable, and supportable. But I’m not gonna cotton to some kind of knee jerk response to her so-called feminism just because of her gender. The same way I don’t allow socially constructed racial categories, or gender to determine how I view male candidates. If I did that I’d be a slavish admirer of Condy Rice and Clarence Thomas. I shudder the thought. I resent very strongly the suggestion that because I am a black woman in America that my automatic choice is to select a black candidate, over a white, latino, asian or candidate of any ethnicity, socially constructed race or religion.

And that when it is expedient my gender becomes an issue and I am told I have to choose. Says who? Do I need to remind you that feminists can be male as well? Do I expect a woman running for office to become a man in a pant-suit? Hell No. Do I expect a man who happens to be black to run for President to only speak to black Americans? Hell No again.

Who has actually been able to address a broader spectrum of the jambalaya that is the American populace? At this point it is Senator Barak Obama, and only Obama.

Is he perfect? No. Can he fix everything wrong with this country? Hell no – Presidents rarely fix much (though they can do a lot of damage – see Bush). But they set a tone.
Right now, given the rising global tide of hatred of America and Americans we are in dire need of a President who can restore some type of global respect for us as a nation. Us means all of us – no matter “race”, gender or ethnicity or political party.

Do I see Hillary Clinton as this leader? No! Do any Republican candidates fit the picture? No! Bomb-bomb Iran McCain, or religious right conservative Huckabee, will dig us into a deeper muck than the one we are currently mired in.

My final thoughts about all of this are about words. The power of words. What the Yoruba of Nigeria call the “ashé of the tongue”. Words echo to us down through the corridors of time and are what separate us from our primate cousins. As a young child I was moved by the then banned Paul Robson. I was inspired to join VISTA (the domestic peace corps) because of words spoken by JFK. I was given a dream to hold onto by Martin Luther King. I was given mottoes to live by, from the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth and Lucy Stone.

How dare Senator Clinton, and others question that words matter? Words and song were sometimes the only aid and solace to my ancestors. The sarcastic mockery of Ms Clinton waving her arms in the air, snidely speaking of celestial choirs as if that is somehow a bad thing to be compared to. Anyone who has ever listened to a choir singing Handel, or a Bach Cantata, anyone who has never felt the power of a hymn like Amazing Grace, anyone who has changed their life, found hope, because of something they read, or heard, or sang, knows that words move our hearts to action. Our constitution was based on a powerful oral traditions – words called Gayanashagowa (the Great Law of Peace) of the Iroquois Confederacy.

I must remind her gently that the word is a powerful tool and her very words may come back to haunt her one day. History is being written here. Does Ms Clinton in her relentless attack think that somehow her words will just disappear when the campaign is over, no matter who is victorious and the real battle is begun for the Presidency?

No matter who “wins” the primary, she has been the candidate who is setting up a loss for the Democratic Party. Not Senator Obama. But I doubt that she even cares. And that is a very sad thing. I wish you well Senator Clinton, but you will never again in life get my vote. Not even if you win the nomination. That’s how your words have affected me. If Senator Obama has this primary stolen from him I will go back to my roots and work to organize a third party, that listens to the words of the people. And I will work tirelessly to see that you are not the representative of my state in the future.

You have my word on that.