Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Behind The Glass
I have had time to reflect now on what the nomination, election, and inauguration of Barack Obama means to the past, present, and future of da brovas. Riding the “hope train” has taken my mind more places than it has my body or my wallet… but then again, if your mind can’t conceive it, there is no reason for the other two to attempt to make the trip. Time hasn’t allowed for a summary as much as it has for a symbol that stands out in my mind. Where Obama is, where the brothers are, was brought to my attention by a conversation I had with my middle boy the day after Presidential acceptance speech. I was talking to Alexander, aka - Xantastic, about the election; did his friends watch the speech, and what were the kids in school saying about having a Black man as president. He did his usual commentary… a few disjointed facts broken up by a bunch of jokes. Then he got quiet, somewhat somber and reflective, and asked: “Dad, will he always be behind the glass?” Being an empathetic 13 year old, Alexander was disturbed by the same sight I saw. Usually the camera was either too close or too far away to pick it up. But for a moment as the camera panned away, you could see it… the glass. It was high and wide. It wrapped around the stage, and Obama.
It was ironic that on a night when hundreds of thousands of people had traveled from across the country and around the world to see a man they had grown to love, a man who was willing to risk his life to serve them, they could not touch him… nor he them. The reason: although there are millions that love him, there is a handful that would be willing to kill him if they get the chance. They had made their intentions known early and often. According to the FBI, by the time he was sworn in, Obama had broken the record for presidential death threats… more than any two term president. And thus, he was where he would be for the next four years... behind the glass. The glass represents the life that Obama has taken on for himself. In order to serve the people who love him, and even the people who hate him, he must live behind the glass. As time goes by, he will be seen as out of touch… and in some respects, it will be true. It will be said he won’t know what the common man… particularly da brovas… are dealing with. It will be said that he has left his people behind to deal with issues of Afghani soldiers, North Korean missiles, African AIDS, and South American oil… even though those issues are part of his job. And on the rare occasion he comes out from behind the glass, it will be seen as window dressing… a photo op. Even being “as Black as he can be” in a White world… he will be accused of becoming whitewashed.
And so goes the life of every brother who lives behind the glass. Make no mistake, if a brother goes far enough in this world, he will have to choose whether or not to live behind the glass. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, as it was with Obama… it comes with the job/purpose/mission. The glass separates you from the people you love. Sometimes from the community you had to leave, because you could not walk into your destiny if you continued to stand in your past. Sometimes from your own family, because what you’re doing is too dangerous/safe/traditional/innovative/long-term/short-sighted for them to understand. Sometimes from your boys, or your girl, because you’ve changed (rather than you’ve grown), and they want things to be the way they were. Then the glass is also there for your protection, because you don’t know who to trust in the place you're traveling, so you keep a wall… a glass wall… so you can interact on a personal level, but they can’t get close enough to hurt you. The truth is Obama was behind the glass long before he got where he is… it’s just visible now. Sometimes a brother will choose not to live behind the glass. He does not want to be separated from the people he loves. Also, by not putting himself in compromising situations, he won’t have to compromise… and staying true to himself is a key to his survival. The reality is, the duality of the complete exposure and complete confinement inherent in life behind the glass would kill many brothers. Thus, those brothers do excellent work on a small level, but never make the major impact on the world that they could if they moved into the realm where the glass comes with the territory.
Before I started writing, I bounced this concept off of two minds I respect greatly, and was given insights that I wouldn’t have gotten on my own. My friend the Harvard educated government official for the federal government said, “Don’t forget about the brothers behind the glass ceiling!” She has definitely seen them in her travels. Brothers who could not move past the invisible barrier between them and the positions they are qualified for, but cannot access. Obama’s presidency is making folks consider removing the ceiling in some places, and at least raising it in others. But the ceiling, as a concept and as a practice, will be there long after Obama’s presidency. The other person gave the opposite side of the glass. She asked, “what about those guys behind the prison glass?” Wow... that made sure I don’t forget that there but for the grace of God... It is a profound experience talking to a brother from behind the prison glass. The look in their eyes… no matter how “hard”, “conscious”, or “spiritual” they may be, there is always an element of regret. Not guilt, because not all of them feel guilty, or are guilty, but the regret part is consistent. If only they had just done differently, or if someone had done differently for them. Good men + bad circumstances + bad choices + bad/no guidance + no vision = prison + regret. Obama was one college drug bust or drunk and disorderly arrest away from a life where “community activist” would have been his ceiling and not his jump-off point.
When you live behind it, the glass can become like the hall of two-way mirrors at the county fair (I’m in the south now… so that reference applies). You see yourself differently depending on which direction you look, and you know that’s how people in that direction see you. Then when the light gets brighter on the outside than on the inside, you see the people and only a faint image of yourself. “Dad, will he always live behind the glass?” I had been thinking about it for almost 24 hours when he asked me, and I still didn’t have an answer. Caught between my knowledge of what is, and my faith in what I hope for, I gave a long answer that amounted to: Yes, but he will step out from behind the glass more as time goes by… all great leaders do. Obama proved both right during the Inaugural Parade, when he stopped the car and jumped out. Shades on, one black glove on and the other in his hand, and his woman coming to his side, my man, Mufasa “44” McCool had stepped out from behind the glass a lot sooner than I or anyone else expected. Later, I was asked, “do you think he will get out again?” I said, “Absolutely!”…and of course he did. By that point I could understand why he is where he is. While life behind the glass does confine him, it doesn’t define him. With that in mind, I think I’m going to have another talk with Alexander.