Looking for America: An Online Exclusive
“Few of us will have the will to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
ROBERT F. KENNEDY
“I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”
I have sat in my Brooklyn, New York apartment, quietly, for several days now, too perplexed to talk with many people, friends or not, about the American presidential election of 2004. I have read mainstream and alternative news accounts of the campaign both on and offline, absorbed statistics and exit polls, sifted through the debates, flipped between CNN and the Fox News Channel, dodged most emails and phone calls coming my way, asking me what I thought it meant that President George W. Bush had won, that Senator John Kerry had lost. I have heard the chorus of Bush supporters say it was Mr. Bush’s “faith” that led them to punch the hole, to pull the lever, to touch the screen for the president-elect. And I have heard the chorus of Kerry patrons say they feel robbed, that there must be some vast conservative conspiracy, that they are deeply traumatized, in a state of shock, that they do not know what to do next, nor to whom to turn. I have spoken with my mother, who has voted in every election since she has been able to, dating back to the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. And who, with her sharp South Carolina accent and uncomplicated, front-porch observations on the world, has always given me something to ponder. My mother, like I, is a lifelong Democrat and her sleepy response was, well, dry, nonchalant, uncharacteristically melancholy: “Boy,” she said, “at least we got the chance to vote.”
Indeed, mother, indeed. But has it come to this? Where real democracy, real freedom, real self-determination, is tied, exclusively, to our right to vote? Is the vote it? Twenty years ago, when I was an eighteen-year-old first-year college student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the vote was the thing. I was stirred by a Southern Baptist preacher named Reverend Jesse Jackson, who, after Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm had done it in 1972, was the only other serious Black candidate for president my community has ever had. Reverend Jackson implored us, young and old alike, Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, to keep hope alive, that we were, in fact, somebody, and we believed him, believed that our vote could, would, matter. President Ronald Reagan was reelected, in a landslide that year, and by 1988, when Rev. Jackson ran a second time for president, and came in second in the Democratic primary to eventual nominee Michael Dukakis, many of us felt that Rev. Jackson, with those millions of rainbow coalition votes, had the power, the juice, to manifest a new American coalition of progressive people: Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, labor, city and country folks, working and middle class people humane enough to care about their neighbors to the left and right; and all those groups that had been marginalized during the Reagan-Bush years. It was, we felt back then, an opportunity to win back the soul of the Democratic Party, to have a party, an organization, that truly reflected the diversity, the gorgeous mosaic, as former New York City mayor David Dinkins was fond of saying, of America. But, alas, and for reasons only Rev. Jackson knows to this day, a great compromise was struck, the rainbow coalition was allowed to wither on an ashen sidewalk in exchange for Rev. Jackson’s seemingly cozy relationship with the Democratic Party hierarchy, and many of us young folks became disillusioned with politics for years to come.
I was one of those young people, at age 22, who walked away in 1988, right through the Clinton years, and in spite of Mr. Clinton’s youthful appeal and Kennedyesque affectations. I never stopped voting. I could not fathom that inaction as my mother chided me, habitually, that there was a time when we, African Americans, could not vote, that I had an obligation to do so for no other reason that blood, literally, had been spilled, that heads had been smashed, literally, so that I could have a semblance of citizenship in these times.
I say all of this to say it hurt me, immensely, to see so many young Americans, of various persuasions, registering to vote for the first time, volunteering for Mr. Kerry’s campaign throughout America, standing in lines in some areas for up to ten hours, then having to deal with the harsh reality that their candidate had lost. It hurt me to see the tears of defeat, to hear the echoes of Hey, it does not seem to matter what we do, nothing is ever going to change. There is a sense of confusion, of hopelessness, permeating young America, older America, Democratic America, liberal America, progressive America. Many people believed that MTV, BET, Rock the Vote, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, Russell Simmons, Oprah Winfrey, P. Diddy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Emimem, Michael Moore, and other popular and well-meaning institutions and icons could, and would, make a difference. Several people believed that because of the Iraqi war, the horrible economy, the outsourcing of American jobs, the ugly partitions that have been erected on our soil during the Bush-Cheney years (Black vs. White, White vs. people of color, Christian vs. Muslim, Americans vs. Arabs, poor vs. rich, straight vs. gay, and so on), that there was no imaginable way that Mr. Bush could get reelected. Many of us assumed, hoped, prayed, that John Kerry, though a mediocre candidate at best, would somehow win this election and get America back on the course of figuring itself out, for the good of us all.
But perhaps this is where the mistake began. We placed more faith in one person, Senator John Kerry, than we placed in ourselves. When Mr. Bush was awarded the presidency in December 2000, after a long and acidic fight that wound up in the United States Supreme Court, I did not, could not, read the newspapers nor watch the news for several months. I felt cheated, that a high crime had occurred. This was the sentiment of many Americans. But while we stuck our heads in the sand the Bush-Cheney regime took root, its agenda took flight, and before we knew it a tax cut was passed that greatly benefited the rich, September 11 happened, a war on terrorism began, and we invaded, first, Afghanistan, then Iraq. Civil liberties have been eroded under the heading The Patriot Act. And over 1000 American soldiers, mainly young Americans, have lost their lives to date. And the count for dead Iraqis is 100,000, according to several reports. So we have essentially been in reactionary mode the entire time; we being liberals, progressives, the Democratic Party. We being Americans who know that America does not belong to one particular party, to one particular ideology, to one particular race of people, to one particular history, to one particular God. And as we have been playing catch up, the incredibly wealthy leadership of the Republican Party has pandered, so very effectively, and with the help a well-oiled propaganda and marketing initiative, via, among other instruments, talk radio, to blue-collar, rural White Americans, in the Midwest, in the Deep South, catering to their most basic thoughts about God, religion and, if we are to be mad truthful, to their fears and prejudices. I was just in the great state of Ohio a couple of days after the election, and it was striking to be in areas where some of the poorest Whites lived but there, on the windows of their homes, on their pick-up trucks, stamped into their minds, was some symbol (a poster, a bumper sticker, a hunch) that Bush and Cheney were on the right side of God. Somewhere, some time ago, the Democratic Party ceased to be the party of the people, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have developed very few leaders who know how to talk with and listen to the masses of Americans. We have shied away from what the party had been about, at least on the surface, during Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure, and as manifested in the thoughtful dreams of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, of his brother Ted at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, and of Reverend Jackson for much of the 1980s. And we have allowed the Republicans to paralyze us with paranoia and inertia, thereby forcing us, again and again, to replicate strands of the Republican agenda rather than fulfill our mission of doing what is right, for the people, all people, all the time. I now wonder how many leaders in the Democratic Party actually even spend consistent time in their respective communities, in the ghettoes, in the backwoods, in the suburbs, on college campuses, in the churches, at prisons, at homeless shelters, at battered women’s facilities, interacting with the people, and not just when it is time to rally the troops for votes?
I can say this because, for sure, I have been fortunate, very fortunate, these last several years, dating back to the mid-1990s, to travel America extensively as a public speaker, a political organizer, and a writer, to see life in this nation beyond my city, county, state, region, and I have visited nearly all fifty states, big cities and small towns, densely populated locales and places where I did not see another person for miles at a time. These trips have given me a very different take on America. A fuller, more comprehensive take. While we remain a nation still embarrassingly segregated due to race, gender, class, region, religion, sexual orientation, and the like, I am also struck by the common stories of alienation, of the multitudes living on the frayed fringes of this so-called democratic nation. There was the middle-aged White gentleman in New Hampshire I met back in January, at the tip-off to the presidential crusade, who told me he was a Vietnam veteran, that he was driving the cab I was in because there were no jobs for him, that he was on welfare and ridiculously destitute, that he felt the government had been neglectful, woefully neglectful, of Vietnam War veterans. That he was not going to vote, and, as a matter of fact, he had not voted in over twenty years. When I asked him why not he said, with contempt at the borders of his mouth, that politicians did not care about people like him. When I asked which politicians, he muttered, “All of them.” There was the Black man, early 40ish, in Texas, Mr. Bush’s home state, whom I met only a week or so ago, who, when in his twenties during the Reagan 80s, was falsely accused and convicted of raping a White female. His jury was composed of 11 Whites, 10 men and one woman, and, sadly, in a state like Texas, with its history of sadistic racism (let us not forget that semi-retarded Black man, James Byrd, who was tied to the back of a truck a few years back, by bigoted and demented White males, and dragged to his death) this gentleman did not stand a chance. He lost his youth, he lost his innocence, he lost chunks of his sanity while in prison for a crime he did not commit, and only the use of a DNA test exonerated him, right at the start of Mr. Bush’s first term in office. This man now carries in his hip pocket crumpled copies of articles about his case, as well as a crumpled copy of his official pardon, as if he were in another time in American history where one, if Black, had to carry around his or her freedom papers to prove, without question, that one was free. And I have mentally recorded more tales than I can recount in this space, but the point is that America, this country, our country, continues to be stuck, spiritually, emotionally, in spite of the proclamations of democracy, of equal opportunity, of being one nation under God (which God, and for who?), of this being the greatest show on earth. If all of us are not completely free, and free in every sense of the word, then, dear friend, none of us are as free as we have been led to believe. And what, pray tell, is freedom, anyhow, and what is democracy, when in the alleged most democratic nation in the universe millions upon millions of human beings wondered, and still wonder, if their vote was actually counted on Tuesday, November 2, 2004, and why, for God’s sake, did some of them have to present an I.D. or otherwise prove why they have the right to vote in the year 2004? Is that being free after all that has happened to make the vote accessible to anyone qualified to vote?
Well, we certainly were not free at the Democratic National Convention in Boston back in July. As happy as I was to be there I could not help but think, far inside the marrow of my Democratic bones, that it was a charade, a hoax. There was no far-reaching vision, no expansive, humanistic agenda, no imaginative leadership, just, with the exception of brilliant speeches by Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a lot of empty rhetoric and unsophisticated retorts to the Bush-Cheney platform. It was evident to me that while the Dems had more A-list celebrities, threw better parties, allowed hiphop, the forever controversial yet dominant culture of our day, into its sacred halls, it was all dental floss distorting the fact we had, and have, no teeth on the left, and, really though, have been missing our teeth for some time now. A month later I attended the Republican National Convention here in New York City and you could feel the focus, the vision, however myopic, and the battle plan. While the Dems barely spoke of faith, of religion, of spirituality, the Republicans spoke of it every chance they got, and they monopolized the market on moral values. The perception became the reality: the right is of God and the left is of the devil. And the Democratic Party, the liberals, the progressives, or whatever we label ourselves, have allowed the right to act as if they are more in step with God, with morality, with spirituality, with personal virtue, than we are. This is sheer lunacy, from my perspective as an African American, given that practically every movement, from the anti-slavery rumblings of the 1800s right through the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, has been led by the spiritual leaders of my community, of individuals who had a deep belief in a higher power, no matter what we called that higher power. And we were always clear that we were on the right side of God, that religion was about liberating and uniting people, not oppressing and dividing the multitudes. Certainly, we Americans who do not suffer from selective amnesia know something of the hypocrisy of racist White American Christians and their skill at distorting God’s words to suit their needs. Let us not forget that there was a time when these very types of Christians manipulated and abused the bible to justify slavery, for nearly three centuries. Let us not forget that there was a time when these very types of Christians turned their noses up and turned their backs on Jews as they were being stuffed into Holocaust ovens in Germany. And let us not forget that there was a time when these types of Christians, under the guise of representing the true intentions of the Lord, physically assaulted Civil Rights marchers, Black and nonBlacks alike, in places like Alabama (down South) and Illinois (up North).
The point, dear reader, is that much of the Bush-Cheney agenda has everything to do with fear, with playing to folks’ base bigotries. The Southern White Democrats of the 1950s and 1960s (popularly known, then, as “Dixiecrats”) used the race card and their interpretation of Christianity to attack the Civil Rights Movement, then slowly but surely championed a mass exodus of the party (as Negroes got they right to vote) to become the driving force, all these years later, of those too many to count red Republican states we see today. While the race card is still used, albeit in more guarded, coded language, this year the taboo topic was homosexuality, or, rather, same-sex marriages. And what does it mean that right-wing Republicans, during an election year, can play political football with this polarizing subject, get it on the ballot in several states, while Vice-President Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is openly gay, is there at the post-election victory celebration, shoulder to shoulder with her lover, her partner, being photographed for the world to see? What kind of hypocrisy is that? Or, better yet, does it not suggest, we people of moral conscience, that many Americans have someone in our lives, a sister, a brother, a son, a daughter, a cousin, a friend, someone from our childhood, someone from high school or college, a coworker, a neighbor, a church member, a pastor (gasp!), who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, just as Dick Cheney does, but we are too ashamed to recognize their humanity, their existence, so terrified, in fact, to do so, that the Republicans can steamroll in and make homosexuality one of the central issues on which we are deemed as spineless, and lacking in morality? Why did anyone not say, boldly, Look, homie, Dr. King, a man of God, a Christian, a Christian minister, a Christian scholar, worked with Bayard Rustin, a gay man, who was the chief architect of the March on Washington in 1963? Dr. King may not have agreed with Mr. Rustin’s life path, but he at least respected the man’s genius, the man’s work ethic, the man’s humanity, the man’s quest for democracy, the man’s right to exist. And what could be more Christian than that? And who among us is God, himself, herself, itself, that we are in a position to say what form a person’s life should take anyhow?
But we on the left, as Newark, New Jersey Deputy Mayor Ras Baraka has said of the hiphop generation, need to grow up. Grow up and ask ourselves what do we, in fact, believe in? What are our moral values, our spiritual values?There are many Americans, in the Deep South, in middle America, who believe we have no principles whatsoever, that we believe in nothing more than having a good time. Any extreme is dangerous. That means the extreme of blind religious zealotry, but also the extreme of no boundaries, no agenda, in any form, for our lives, for this nation. Where, then, is the middle ground, where are our souls, and where is the soul of America, or are we simply destined for a certain kind of hell these next four years, and beyond?
As I continue to struggle and grow in my spiritual walk, in my Christian walk, in my human walk, I am clear that I don’t want to go to hell, nor do I want life in America, for any of us, to be a hellish nightmare. Nor do I believe that the 4 million votes that separated President Bush from Senator Kerry constitutes a mandate. We need to state, emphatically, that it does not. Mr. Bush may be the president, Republicans may control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but the struggle has only begun. Our work was not in vain. I feel we have awakened a sleeping giant, or, more importantly, the giants, the leaders, in any of us who care about real democracy, real freedom, real self-determination, real people power. The younger Americans who became passionate about politics, about life, about living, in 2004, give me hope. Hope in spite of the fact that more bodybags will come home from Iraq. Hope in spite of the fact that extreme poverty is as deadly in America’s ghettoes as it is in any so-called third world nation. Hope in spite of the ugly divides, the intolerance, the lack of humanity we often show to each other. Hope in spite of the fact that the budget deficit will continue to force this nation to it knees, and in spite of the fact that unemployment and despair has reached epidemic levels unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Undoubtedly, I think all of us, myself included, because of Tuesday, November 2, 2004, must do a gut check, confront our personal demons (I assuredly have mine and have no problem, none whatsoever, owning them and working through them), shovel the debris surrounding our souls, struggle against our blatant contradictions, think, hard, about all the unnecessary fights, arguments, petty jealousies, juvenile competitions, pathetic trips into backbiting and gossip and ask ourselves, amidst another term of Bush-Cheney, Is this the best we can be in America? Is this what I, we, desire to be, anutterly imperfect human being, wallowing and content to be in a state of arrested development for the remainder of my natural life?
I am not going to surrender the moral high ground, any longer, to these right-wing activists who pretend to care about the average American, and really do not. And you should cease surrendering as well, if you truly care about freedom and democracy. For if we capitulate in this arena we will never be able to have any fruitful discussions, debates, and actions about the Iraqi War, this destructive economy, the lost jobs, nor about race, gender, class, religion, sexuality, poverty, hunger, homelessness, the environment, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the genocidal mayhem in the Sudan, the crisis in Haiti, and every other human drama that demands our attention. And at the end of the day it should not matter whether one is Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, or Arab; liberal or conservative; a Democrat or a Republican; Christian, Jew, or Muslim; what should matter is what type of human being you are, what type of human being you aspire to be, and whether you have any regard, any concern, any God-given compassion, true compassion, not just lip service, for other human beings.
And what do we do with that true compassion? Well, if we did not learn any other lesson from the tragedy of September 11, 2001, we should have at least learned this: As the Twin Towers were hit by those two jumbo airliners, as those buildings came crashing from the sky to the earth, as bodies leaped from windows or were crushed beneath the force of that concrete and steel, at that very moment suddenly trivial categories like race, gender, age, class, sexual orientation, religion, status in society, did not matter. What mattered, on that day, was how one had lived one’s life, what one had done with one’s life, to advance humanity, be it via the tiniest of baby steps, or via gigantic strides. That is the kind of American I yearn to meet, the kind of America I am looking for.
America did not begin as a real democracy, and in spite of the changes, the upheavals, the lives lost, the sacrifices made, we are still not there, yet. Mr. Bush and his crew need to think again if they believe, truly, that the American people have spoken. No, the last word has not been uttered, the last battle has not been waged. The freedom fighter legacy represents the America I am looking for. Freedom fighter as in Patrick Henry and Harriet Tubman. Freedom fighter as in Cesar Chavez and Fannie Lou Hamer. Freedom fighter as in the multicultural young leadership of today, of young people with names like Billy Wimsatt, Rosa Clemente, L. Joy Williams, Jeff Chang, Farai Chideya, and T.J. Crawford. Freedom fighter as in the millions of young people who voted in this presidential election, who understand, clearly, that they, we, younger Americans, are the leadership we are waiting for. What would the so-called American democracy look like if these folks had not existed, if they did not exist today?
I am looking for an America that will acknowledge, finally, its history of taking Native American land; of using free Black labor to build this nation; of treating women as objects, as invisible, second-class citizens; of viewing Latinos as nonspeaking nuisances to be seen, worked to death, but not heard; of marginalizing and excluding, at different times in our history, among many others, the women, the Chinese, the Jews, the Irish, Italians; of scapegoating and isolating the Japanese and, in this new millennium, Arabs, Muslims, gays and lesbians. I am looking for an America that will acknowledge that this nation would not exist were it not for the Native American, the Blacks, the women, the Latinos, the Chinese, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese, the Arabs, the straight, the gay, the liberal, the conservative, the me, the you.
I am looking for an America that respects every explanation for life, for the creator, the lifegiver, the higher power, that entity some of us may refer to as God, that others may refer to as Allah. I am looking for an America that ceases to refer to itself as a Christian nation but, instead, as a nation of many faiths, or many spiritual walks, a nation that has a tolerance and a patience not just for Christians, but also for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Rastafarians, Yorubas, all the many belief systems that manifest themselves daily within these borders.
I am looking for an America that does not rely on celebrities, on superstars, to be the leaders of the people, but understands that the real celebrities, the real superstars, the real leaders, are the mill workers, the secretaries, the construction workers, the teachers, the layers of cables and telephone lines, the postal workers, the artists, the grassroots organizers, the bus drivers, the home health aides, like my mother, the military veterans, like my uncle.
I am looking for an America that will have the courage to abolish the electoral college once and for all, that will have the audacity to create uniform and modern voting methods across the land, that will not seek to disenfranchise the most vulnerable persons in this society from their God-given right to be free, to speak their minds without fear of punishment or alienation. I am looking for an America that will no longer attempt to teach other nations how to make democracy work until we get it right, and working, here at home.
I am looking for an America that will raise the minimum wage, provide more money for public school education and less for war, an America that will really rehabilitate prison inmates, that will insure that elders, like my mother, can afford their prescription drugs and have a Social Security program that acknowledges what they have given to this country by way of labor, taxes, and endless loyalty.
And I am looking for an America where through much defeat and pain and suffering we can birth new possibilities, new ways of being and doing. We are not losers, friends, those of us who voted for Mr. Kerry, or, in some instances, against Mr. Bush. I am not, and neither are you. We who believe in real democracy, in real freedom, in real self-determination, who believe in the creative force or forces that placed us on this planet, who believe in the possibilities of humankind, in truth, in justice, in life, who believed that our efforts, our sweat, our vote, could and would count a few days ago, on Tuesday, November 2, 2004, here in America, have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing at all. Nor should we see the reelection of President George W. Bush, and the defeat of Senator John Kerry as the beginning of a great catastrophe for us, for this country. No, what we have is a beginning, a start, with necessary speed bumps along the way. But the questions remain for all of us to ponder. What are we going to do to create the America, to create the world, we so desire? And are we, each of us, willing to look within ourselves for that answer?
Kevin Powell is an essayist, poet, journalist, community activist, public speaker, hiphop historian, college lecturer, and the author of six books, including his most recent, Who’s Gonna Take The Weight? Manhood, Race, and Power in America. Powell’s next project, Someday We’ll All Be Free, will be published in the Fall 2005 and will feature three original essays on American democracy, American leadership, and the American dream. Powell is also at work on his childhood memoir, homeboy alone, and his second volume of poetry, My Own Private Ghetto. A former senior writer for Vibe magazine (where he wrote several cover stories, among them the definitive pieces on the late rapper Tupac Shakur), Powell’s essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications over the past 18 years, including the Washington Post, Essence, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and the Amsterdam News. Kevin Powell regularly comments on political and cultural issues for all forms of media, and he has been involved in many organizations and social movements since his teen years. Powell initially came to national notice as a cast member on the very first season of MTV’s “The Real World,” New York City, in 1992. A native of Jersey City, New Jersey, Powell has been based in Brooklyn, New York for several years.
Kevin Powell can be reached at [email protected]