Obama: "a stake in this order..."
Readers will recall this entry from several days ago:
I had begun to see a new map of the world, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications. We were always playing on the white man's court, ... by the white man's rules. If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher, ... wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had power and you didn't. If he decided not to, if he treated you like a man or came to your defense, it was because he knew that the words you spoke, the clothes you wore, the books you read, your ambitions and desires, were already his. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motives and inclinations, any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning. In fact, you couldn't even be sure that everything you had assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self -- the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass -- had been freely chosen by you. At best, these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger. (Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, page 85)In a comment, Hathor asked: "Why do you think he moved from that logic?"
Well, Obama eventually gives a hint, along with other details about how things can go wrong. In the following passage, he first describes how things began to get worse for young inner-city African-Americans:
[S]omething different was going on with the children of the South Side that spring of 1987 ... an invisible line had been crossed, a blind and ugly corner turned.Hathor had a post back on January 13, 2007 in which she talks about Lost Boys, or one in particular, a boyfriend from junior high who got lost growing up:
There was nothing definite I could point to, no hard statistics. The drive-by shootings, the ambulance sirens, the night sounds of neighborhoods abandoned to drugs and gang war and phantom automobiles, wherre police or press rarely ventured until after the body was found on the pavement, blood spreading in a glistening, uneven pool -- none of this was new. In places like Altgeld, prison records had been passed down from father to son for more than a generation; during my very first days in Chicago I had seen the knots of young men, fifteen or sixteen, hanging out on the corners of Michigan or Halsted, their hoods up, their sneakers unlaced, stomping the ground in a desultory rhythm during the colder months, stripped down to T-shirts in the summer, answering their beepers on the corner pay phones: a knot that unraveled, soon to reform, whenever the police cars passed by in their barracuda silence.
No, it was more a change of atmosphere, like the electricity of an approaching storm. I felt it when, driving home one evening, I saw four tall boys walking down a tree-lined block idly snapping a row of young saplings that an older couple had just finished planting in front of their house. I felt it whenever I looked into the eyes of the young men in wheelchairrs that had started appearing on the streets that spring, boys crippled before their prime, their eyes without a trace of self-pity, eyes so composed, already so hardened, that they served to frighten rather than to inspire.
That's what it was: the arrival of a new equilibrium between hope and fear; the sense, shared by adults and youth alike, that some, if not most, of our boys were slipping beyond rescue. Even lifelong South Siders like Johnnie noticed the change. "I ain't never seen it like this, Barack," he would tell me one day as we sat in his apartment sipping beer. "I mean, things were tough when I was coming up, but there were limits. We'd get high, get into fights. But out in public, at home, if an adult saw you getting loud or wild, they would say something. And most of us would listen, you know what I'm saying?
Now, with the drugs, the guns -- all that's disappeared. Don't take a whole lot of kids carrying a gun. Just one or two. Somebody says something to one of 'em, and -- pow! -- kid just wastes him. Folks hear stories like that, they just stop trying to talk to these young cats out here. We start generalizing about 'em just like the white folks do. We see 'em hanging out, we head the other way. After a while, even the good kid starts realizing ain't nobody out here gonna look out for him. So he figures he's gonna have to look after himself. Bottom line, you got twelve-year-olds making their own damn rules."
Johnnie took a sip of his beer, the foam collecting on his mustache. "I don't know, Barack. Sometimes, I'm afraid of 'em. You got to be afraid of somebody who just doesn't care. Don't matter how young they are." (pages 252-253)
Beginning high school was such an adventure, that I soon forgot him. Several years later I ran into a mutual friend, I ask about him. I was told he was in prison for fatally shooting his best friend. I never knew why, although I did see him later, I never asked. That last time I had seen him he was high and his appearance disheveled. We just made small talk. I walked away thinking what had happened to that good looking black boy. He never really became a man, because murder and drugs had usurped that. What is sad, is that there are so many stories like this one. That was almost fifty years ago.That would have been nearly 30 years before what Obama saw in 1987. Hathor saw the isolated case way back during the early 60s, but in Obama's time, entire generations of young men -- even young boys -- were being lost to the streets.
In the late 80s, I was living in Berkeley but just on the border to Oakland, along Alcatraz Avenue, and I used to lie awake at night and listen to the crack wars being fought over the control of turf. I've already blogged on one violent experience from the fall of 1987, but there were more than one. Like Obama, I used to see crippled young African-American men, or even boys, hobbling along and using canes to support themselves -- casualties of the crack wars, I guess, or of the crack itself.
Like Johnnie, I found the scene frightening.
Even Obama begins to worry one night when he get out of bed to ask some teenage boys in a car to move on:
"Listen, people are trying to sleep around here. Why don't y'all take it someplace else."Obama remembers being a young boy like them ... but not quite like them:
The four boys inside say nothing, don't even move. The wind whips away my drowsiness, and I feel suddenly exposed, standing in a pair of shorts on the sidewalk in the middle of the night.... (page 269)
I'm thinking that while these boys may be weaker or stronger than I was at their age, the only difference that matters is this: The world in which I spent those difficult times was far more forgiving. These boys have no margin for error; if they carry guns, those guns will offer them no protection from that truth. And it is that truth, a truth that they surely sense but can't admit and, in fact, must refuse if they are to wake up tomorrow, that has forced them, or others like them, eventually to shut off access to any empathy they may once have felt. Their unruly maleness will not be contained, as mine finally was, by a sense of sadness at an older man's injured pride. Their anger won't be checked by the intimation of danger that would come upon me whenever I split another boy's lip or raced down a highway with gin clouding my head. As I stand there, I find myself thinking that somewhere down the line both guilt and empathy speak to our own buried sense that an order of some sort is required, not the social order that exists, necessarily, but something more fundamental and more demanding; a sense, further, that one has a stake in this order, a wish that, no matter how fluid this order sometimes appears, it willl not drain out of the universe. I suspect that these boys will have to search long and hard for that order -- indeed any order that includes them as more than objects of fear or derision. (page 270)Here, I think that Obama hints at what helped him exit from the "maddening logic" of his youth -- logic telling him that since everything was already governed "by the white man's rules," the only alternatives were withdrawing totally into oneself or violently lashing out against everybody. Or even choosing both alternatives simultaneously, as the youth of 1987 seemed to be doing. The way out of this logic opened up for Obama when he came to see that he had a stake in a rule-governed order that transcended race even if the specific, existing system didn't treat every group alike.
But I'm speculating a bit, for I see from this last passage that Obama has left out some details of his teenage years and given us a mere shading, allusions to things that might have passed...