President-elect Barack Obama gets congratulated for running a campaign that was race-free. Ironically, this post-race candidate saved his harshest criticism for black men. Some hypocritical cable male pundits, some of whom are divorced or head dysfunctional households, congratulated him for his Father's Day speech during which this scolding took place and called it his Sister Souljah moment. A week later, he appeared before The Council of La Raza and said that he shared the values of the Hispanic community. With hope that doesn't include drive-by shootings, gang violence, a huge school-dropout rate and unmarried motherhood. The problems of Hispanics and South Asians are neglected because the media have found that those of blacks are more marketable. Entertaining.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. lamented the fact that Obama's victory wouldn't reduce black teenage pregnancy. Black teenage pregnancy has shown a remarkable decline over the last 10 years. Moreover, while two-parent households among blacks are on the rise, those of whites are on the decline.
In the same article about Obama's victory, Gates bemoaned the drug addiction in the black community. I guess there is no tough love for the white suburban kids who are overdosing on cheese heroin in the suburbs of Dallas and the California white suburban women who do more dope than black and Latino kids. Is HBO planning to do a show about these women along with the pimp series they plan to do for Oakland? A series that will show what these women have to do to get their drugs?
One of the marketing strategies of the media since the penny press of the 1830s has been to contrast the moral superiority of whites with the degeneracy of blacks. The only difference between those penny sheets and today's media is that we rarely get stories about black cannibalism, although The New York Times Magazine manages to carry one from time to time.
Most of the black op-ed writers and cable regulars are operatives for the right. They're there to give feel-good injections to white subscribers by condemning black men wearing dreadlocks and saggy pants. This was the response of NPR's Michele Norris to Obama's victory. MSNBC's Michelle Bernard of the far right Independent Women's Forum fulfilled the same marketing goal when she said that Obama's appeal to personal responsibility was especially needed by the black community. This is the kind of group libel that blacks have faced from a segregated media for over one hundred years, and I don't see it changing.
— Ishmael Reed has written more than 20 books, including novels, essays, plays and poetry; has taught at UC-Berkeley, Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth; and has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and two-time National Book Award nominee. His latest book is "Mixing It Up" (2008). He lives in Oakland.
Energizing the new narrative
On energy, I'm fervently hoping that Obama will be No Drama — removing the emotion from our energy policy, and starting us down a sensible path toward energy efficiency, greenhouse-gas legislation, alternative energy and a general feeling of empowerment. His pick of Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Nobel Prize winner Steve Chu for the Department of Energy is a good sign. Chu is famous for using physics equations to make decisions — and in the context of energy, that'll be a radical move. Americans' one thought about energy is a fever dream of "cheap gas" at any cost, which has led to everything from crazy corn ethanol subsidies, to spending tens of billions policing the world's oil shipping lanes, to getting involved in pipelines as far away as Azerbaijan, Peru and Chad, and this horrible war in Iraq. Making mature, rational plans about energy would be a great improvement.
But then, it strikes me that nothing says more about the depressing failures of the last decades than my hope that the next president acts like a grown-up. The bar has fallen pretty low, hasn't it?
So here is my deeper hope, the one I'm almost afraid to say in public for fear of jinxing it: I hope Obama helps Americans tell ourselves a new story about our future, one where all of us have the power to make the world a better place. I'm tired of hearing Americans of all political stripes say that our best days are behind us before we lost (check one): the empire, the manufacturing jobs to China, the Iraq War, the housing and credit bubble, the Vietnam War, control of the world's oil, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the nuclear family, the nuclear option, the Founding Fathers, the counterculture, the New Deal, punk rock, respect for our elders, etc. It's lazy thinking — this idea that our future is entirely determined by the vacuum caused by what's "gone." Obama's autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," suggests he has the ability to bring us together with a new story about the best of our past and the future we can create. But of course, making that story come true will require a lot of us acting like grown-ups.
— Lisa Margonelli is an Oakland-based Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation; her "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank" was recognized as one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007 by the American Library Association, and won a 2008 Northern California Book Award for general nonfiction.
In around 1998, my dad went to a small fundraiser at a neighbor's house in Chicago for a young state senator named Barack Obama. By chance, Dad happened to answer the door when Obama arrived and they wound up talking for a few minutes. That night he called and announced to me without a hint of sarcasm that this charismatic young man would one day be president. Clearly, my father, no easy mark for cheap rhetoric, had been momentarily seduced by the good-sense idealism of this likable but hopelessly unviable kid from the neighborhood. "They've framed Al Gore as a lunatic-fringe radical! Imagine what they'd do with a mixed-race college professor from the South Side?" But even as the glow of their brief meeting faded, his enthusiasm never waned, and a few years later, after the speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, I decided never again to question the old man's judgment.
I grew up in Obama's Hyde Park — a progressive Chicago neighborhood not dissimilar to Berkeley or parts of Oakland, attending the same school as Sasha and Malia, and walking the same tiny grid of distinctive streets. When I heard that Barack and Michelle's first date took place at the beloved Baskin-Robbins of my youth, I felt as though I were having some sort of "Matrix"-like delusion in which my childhood memories had merged with reality. It is not this tenuous "personal connection," however, that excites me about an Obama presidency, but his grounding in the values of this flawed (Bill Ayers, Milton Friedman) but vital community and a sense that he embodies the best of those values — high-level intellectual rigor, an understanding of true diversity, and a streak of pragmatic Second City individualism — that make him such a timely antidote to his poisonous predecessor.
My father, unfortunately, didn't get to see his prophecy come true. He died in March, during the dark days of the Rev. Wright controversy. As much as anything, I am heartened by the surprising faith Obama inspired in my dad — a man who, if not an outright cynic, was certainly no Pollyanna — in not only the potential of his improbable candidacy, but in the inherent pragmatism, despite much evidence to the contrary, of the American people.
— Daniel Clowes is an Academy Award-nominated American author, screenwriter and cartoonist of alternative comic books; films he adapted from his works include "Ghost World" (2000) and "Art School Confidential" (2006). He lives in Oakland.
On Nov. 5, 2008, the day after Barack Obama was elected to the United States presidency, a friend of mine in Iowa updated his Facebook status to: "In Iowa this began."
One of the most memorable places I have been to in America is my best friend Aviya's house in Iowa City, Iowa. Between 2003 and 2005, once or twice a month we had lunch there with our mentor and friend, James Alan McPherson. Aviya grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Monsey, N.Y., in a predominantly Hasidic neighborhood. I grew up in Beijing, China, and came to the States in 1996. James was born in Savannah, Ga., and spent his early years in the segregated South; later he became the first African-American author to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
None of us, at first glance, seemed to belong to Iowa, and our life experiences overlapped little. But it was in Iowa where we met and became friends, and at lunches we discussed authors we loved: Ralph Ellison, Isaac Babel and Bernard Malamud; places we were concerned with: China, Israel, America. Our talk went back to the Bible as much as to "The Arabian Nights," and I remember, even then, I was keenly aware that only in America could this happen. The small one-story house in Iowa City has, ever since then, represented something very beautiful about America — that it is a place where one could go beyond ethnicity, nationality and religion to get to know another human being.
One of the favorite topics of James, at our lunches, was the practice of being a good neighbor, and Iowans, he believed from his experience, excel in being good neighbors. When one street turns into the next street, a neighborhood is joined by another; the streets will soon turn into a city, and cities into a country. With the end of the eight years of the Bush administration, during which more countries have been turned away from America, one would hope that the country, under its new leadership, would become a better neighbor as a nation.
— Yiyun Li's "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" (2005) won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award and California Book Award for first fiction. Li teaches at Mills College and lives in Oakland.
Optimism: They can't take it away
Like a lot of people, I was overwhelmed with joy and disbelief on Nov. 4. It was a feeling that couldn't last, not really — but it was a singular experience to be in Oakland, to live that moment and all the emotions that came with it, here, in this particular community. Life goes on, and since that beautiful night, we've had the horror of the Mumbai attacks, the Madoff scandal and endless depressing economic news, the attempted auction of the president-elect's own Senate seat, the Rick Warren betrayal, the savage assault on Gaza (and Obama's silence), and closer to home, the shooting death of an unarmed 22-year-old by BART police, at the very station I take almost every day. The night of chaos that followed a peaceful afternoon rally only serves to underline how tenuous it all is.
Reality, the hard edge of it, the nakedness of it, has a way of dulling the shine off every promise, no matter how great, how well-intentioned. In a way, I expected this, of course, but it's hard to recall the hope or the optimism right now. It's winter and it's cold out, though I know when I am in the crowd in our nation's capital, surrounded by millions of my countrymen and women, I will feel it again.
Obama's impact on the policy side of things, I suspect, will be very middle of the road: His politics are those of a centrist New Democrat, and furthermore he is constrained on all sides by the wreckage of the situation President Bush has left him. Left us, actually. That being said, I hope he will not squander the opportunities inherent within this crisis, and that he will be bold when it is required of him. These are complicated times. He will change things to the extent that competence in government — something so simple, yet so elusive — represents a stark break with the last eight years, and that in itself will be no small accomplishment.
Culturally, I look at Obama's election as a milestone of tremendous importance. We won't really know what impact it will have on my niece and nephew growing up here in Oakland — we can't know. What will it feel like to come of age with a black president in charge? With a president whose story also begins in a country far from this one? If there's any part of that hopeful election night that no one can take away, it's that — this particular optimism will not disappear or fade so easily. It's what I'm most looking forward to watching in the years to come.
— Daniel Alarcón wrote the story collection "War by Candlelight" (2006) and the novel "Lost City Radio" (2007); he has won a Whiting Award, Guggenheim and Lannan fellowships, and a National Magazine Award, and is a visiting scholar at the University of California-Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies. He lives in Oakland.