Obama: The Long Journey

By Maida Cassandra Odom


When I was in graduate school I wrote extensively about slave narratives – documented oral histories of enslaved Africans – mostly recorded post-emancipation.  One paper dealt with how people found out they were free.  Without access to even that era’s mass media – newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets and the telegraph – many people labored on, remaining the chattel of particularly unscrupulous owners.


In one narrative I came across, an enslaved man said he learned of his freedom from “a smart Negro.”  I was delighted to learn that the term “a smart Negro” had such old origins – at least back to the mid-19th Century, maybe even earlier.


Listening to a smart Negro turned out to be a wise move for this brother who, as I remember it, reacted by simply walking away from his servitude; marching bravely into an uncertain future.


America has, at last elected a smart Negro.


There’s much that’s good about this – beginning with at least for the time being a departure from this nation’s preoccupation and enthusiastic embracing of mediocrity.

Throughout this election, I just wanted to shout again and again, “Just vote for the smart guy!”


Much will be made of this nation’s so-called transformational phase – in terms of race, in terms of generation, in terms of political campaigning, technology and fund-raising.


The demographic statistics will be pulled apart, reconfigured and put back together again as pundits blather on and on and on.


Even though public speculating is a respected profession, most of us understand that, in truth, the future – the great unknown – is always a gamble – as much for me, as it was for the brother who walked away from slavery. Life is a game of risk and reward, that’s true for individuals and that’s true for the nation.


In past elections, working class and poor uneducated white people have consistently voted against their economic interest. They failed to properly assess the risk or understand the potential of the reward. That failure continued to happen with this election  – many of us listened cynically un-astonished at irrational rationales given by politicians, pundits and editorial writers – for rejecting the smart guy.

So, alas, despite temporary euphoria, we know from the popular vote that our nation’s racial division is not at an end.  But thank God, with this election, a lot of educated whites finally drank the Kool-Aid, and voted in their own self-interest– for all our sakes.


Obama has made a big deal about being bi-partisan, being president for everybody about the United States of America.  I don’t know whether conciliation is the way to lead, but it’s clearly the way to get elected.  Obama’s likeability quotient certainly won him a lot of votes. 


Willingness by whites to embrace one likeable black won’t require a wholesale change in methods to achieve racial parity because a lot of race matters are entrenched and must be fought-out – sometimes in a disagreeable fashion. Racial tolerance may be on the rise, racial understanding, I think, will lag behind. It’s a worry, but a manageable one. 

Especially since race matters along with the world’s other challenges are in better shape today because a lot of people grew beyond their racial prejudices and steeled themselves to get behind the election of a smart Negro.


(Maida Cassandra Odom, who has written for The National Urban League’s Opportunity Journal, The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer, worked as a newspaper writer for more than 20 years. She is now on the faculty of the Journalism Department at Temple University in Philadelphia.)

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