The words “fight” and “battle” anchor America’s political lexicon.
The presidential race this year featuring Sen. Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s first black nominee for the Oval Office makes me think of great black heavyweight fighters and discussions I’ve had with my dad.
When I was a kid we went to see a movie about Jack Johnson, who defeated Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the first black man to win the heavyweight championship of the world.
Johnson was the champion of his race for my grandfather’s generation. My grandfather was a railroad brakeman and son of a slave. I was named after him.
The fighting black hero of my dad’s generation, Joe Louis, won the world heavyweight title in 1937, knocking out James J. Braddock. Louis and Johnson instilled a sense of strength and pride in blacks.
Their victories showed that despite terrorizing racism, blacks could overcome the worst oppression. There have been many black boxers since then. For my generation, Muhammad Ali was the champion. He was boastful in an unprecedented way and represented the best of us in the civil rights era. Our government’s efforts to crush him failed miserably.
Now for my children’s generation, Obama is the champion. He wears no gloves but is a fighter.
He has the charisma, charm and intellect of Ali without being overbearing. Obama has the quiet power of Louis, efficiently knocking out challengers and the doubting media in the primary season. Like Johnson, he came out of nowhere and has wowed audiences.
Now just two weeks and a majority Electoral College vote count separate Obama from becoming the nation’s first black president. I talked about that with my dad this month during a visit in St. Louis.
Like many blacks, we worry about hatred and scapegoating, which historically have followed black men who beat the odds, especially in tough economic times.
We also worry about Obama’s safety as black people had worried about Johnson, Louis and Ali because they dared to challenge whites in a nation with a long racist and violent past. I shared with dad that Obama told the Trotter Group of black columnists in 2007 that he and his wife, Michelle, appreciated the concerns for his safety from people nationwide and prayers for the strain that the threats pose to their family.
But he said he was running for president because he had work to do to make America a better place for all of its residents and to redeem its image in the world.
“The country really is desperate for change,” Obama said.
If Obama wins, black children who say the Pledge of Allegiance in school won’t face the ugly realization that “liberty and justice for all” were just pretty words to people like me and older who could never dream of being president of the United States.
If Obama is elected president, black children today might avoid the limitations of a poor education, stunted opportunity and inequality.
Obama said people would proudly see his daughters playing on the White House lawn because it is every American’s home.
That’s an awesome thought during this week when the nation celebrates Columbus Day. If Obama is elected, we may begin to rediscover America.
Maybe then we can drop our guard and our fears. Maybe then the fight motif will disappear from American politics and we can begin the hard work of repairing the damage in U.S. race relations, economics, opportunity and America’s global image.