Looking for America

“Few of us will have the will to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” ROBERT F. KENNEDY “I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the […]

“Few of us will have the will to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”


“I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”


Monday, November 8, 2004

I have sat in my Brooklyn, New York, apartment quietly, for several days now, too perplexed to talk with people, friends or not, about the American presidential election. I have read mainstream and alternative news accounts of the campaign, absorbed statistics and exit polls, sifted through the debates, flipped between CNN and the Fox News Channel, dodged most emails and phone calls coming my way, asking what I thought it meant that President George W. Bush had won, that Senator John Kerry had lost. I have heard the chorus of Bush supporters say it was Mr. Bush’s “faith” that led them to punch the hole, to pull the lever, to touch the screen for the president-elect. And I have heard the chorus of Kerry patrons say they feel robbed, that there must be some vast conservative conspiracy, that they are deeply traumatized, in a state of shock, that they know neither what to do next, nor to whom to turn. I have spoken with my mother, who has voted in every election since she has been able to, since the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, and who, with her sharp South Carolina accent and uncomplicated front-porch observations on the world, has always given me something to ponder. My mother, like me, is a lifelong Democrat and her sleepy response was dry, nonchalant, uncharacteristically melancholic: “Boy,” she said, “at least we got the chance to vote.”

Indeed, mother, indeed. But has it come to this? To real democracy, real freedom, real self-determination being tied solely to our right to vote? Is the vote it? Twenty years ago, when I was an eighteen-year-old first-year college student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the vote was the thing. I was stirred by a Southern Baptist preacher named Reverend Jesse Jackson, who, after Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm had run for president in 1972, was the only other serious Black candidate for president my community has ever had. Reverend Jackson encouraged us-young and old alike-to keep hope alive. And told us that we were, in fact, somebody, and we believed him, believed that our vote could, would, matter. President Ronald Reagan was reelected in a landslide that year, but by 1988, when Rev. Jackson ran once more for president and came in second in the Democratic primary to eventual nominee Michael Dukakis, many of us felt that Rev. Jackson, with those millions of Rainbow Coalition votes, had the power, the juice, to represent a new American coalition of progressive people-Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, labor, city and country folks, working class people, middle class people humane enough to care about their neighbors to the left and right, and all those groups that had been marginalized during the Reagan-Bush years. It was, we felt then, an opportunity to win back the soul of the Democratic Party, to have a party, an organization that truly reflected the diversity, the “gorgeous mosaic,” as former New York City mayor David Dinkins was fond of saying, of America. But, alas, and for reasons only Rev. Jackson knows to this day, a great compromise was struck: the Rainbow Coalition was allowed to wither on an ashen vine in exchange for Rev. Jackson’s seemingly cozy relationship with the Democratic Party hierarchy, and many of us young folks became disillusioned with politics for years to come.

I was 22, I was one of those people who walked away from politics in 1988, and stayed away right through the Clinton years, in spite of Mr. Clinton’s youthful appeal and Kennedyesque affectations. Yet I never stopped voting. I could not fathom that inaction. My mother chided me, habitually, that there was a time when we, African Americans, could not vote, that I had an obligation to do so for no other reason than that blood, literally, had been spilled, that heads had been smashed, literally, so that I could have a semblance of citizenship in these times.

I write all of this to say it hurt me, immensely, to see so many young Americans throughout America registering to vote for the first time, volunteering for Mr. Kerry’s campaign, standing in lines in some areas for up to ten hours to cast their vote, then dealing with the harsh reality that their candidate had lost. It hurt me to see their tears of defeat, to hear the echoes of “Hey, it does not matter what we do, nothing is ever going to change.” There was a sense of confusion, of hopelessness permeating young America, older America, Democratic America, liberal America, progressive America. Many people believed that MTV, BET, Rock the Vote, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, Russell Simmons, Oprah Winfrey, P. Diddy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Eminem, Michael Moore, and other popular and well-meaning institutions and icons could, and would, make a difference. People believed that because of the Iraqi war, the horrible economy, the outsourcing of American jobs, the ugly partitions that have been erected on our soil during the Bush-Cheney years-Black vs. White, White vs. people of color, Christian vs. Muslim, Americans vs. Arabs, poor vs. rich, straight vs. gay, and so on-that there was no imaginable way that Mr. Bush could get reelected. Many of us assumed, hoped, prayed that John Kerry, though a mediocre candidate at best, would somehow win this election and get America back on the course of figuring itself out, for the good of us all. But perhaps this is where our mistake began. We placed more faith in one person, Senator John Kerry, than we placed in ourselves.

When Mr. Bush was awarded the presidency in December 2000, after a long and acidic fight that wound up in the United States Supreme Court, I did not, could not, read the newspapers or watch the news for several months. I felt cheated, I felt a high crime had occurred. This was the sentiment of many Americans. But while we stuck our heads in the sand, the Bush-Cheney regime took root, its agenda took flight, and before we knew it a tax cut was passed that greatly benefited the rich, September 11th happened, a war on terrorism began, and we invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq. Civil liberties have been eroded under the heading The Patriot Act. Over 1000 American soldiers, mainly young Americans, have lost their lives to date. The count for dead Iraqis is 100,000, according to several reports. And we have essentially been in reactionary mode the entire time; we being liberals, progressives, the Democratic Party; we being Americans who know that America does not belong to one particular party, to one particular ideology, to one particular race of people, to one particular history, to one particular God. And as we have been playing catch up, the incredibly wealthy leadership of the Republican Party has pandered-so very effectively, with the help of a well-oiled propaganda and marketing initiative, and via, among other instruments, talk radio-to blue-collar, rural White Americans in the Midwest, in the Deep South, catering to their most basic thoughts about God, religion, and, if we are to be mad truthful, to their fears and prejudices. I was in Ohio a couple of days after the election. It was striking to be in areas where some of the poorest Whites lived, and there, on the windows of their homes, on their pick-up trucks, stamped on their minds, was some symbol (a poster, a bumper sticker, a hunch) that Bush and Cheney were on the right side of God.

Some time ago, the Democratic Party ceased to be the party of the people, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have developed very few leaders who know how to talk with and listen to the masses of Americans. We have shied away from what the party had been about, at least on the surface, during Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure, and as manifested in the thoughtful dreams of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, of his brother Ted at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, and of Reverend Jackson for much of the 1980s. And we have allowed the Republicans to paralyze us with inertia, forcing us, again and again, to replicate strands of the Republican agenda, rather than fulfill our mission of doing what is right for the people, all people, all the time. I now wonder: how many leaders in the Democratic Party actually spend time consistently in their respective communities, in the ghettoes, in the backwoods, in the suburbs, on college campuses, in the churches, at prisons, at homeless shelters, at battered women’s facilities, interacting with the people not only when it is time to rally the troops for votes?

While we remain a nation still embarrassingly segregated by race, gender, class, region, religion, sexual orientation, and the like, we share the common stories of alienation. I have been fortunate, these last several years since the mid-1990s, to have traveled America extensively as a public speaker, political organizer, and writer, to have seen life beyond my city, county, state, and region. I have visited nearly all fifty states, big cities and small towns, densely populated locales and places where I did not see another person for miles at a time. These trips have given me a very different take on America. A fuller, more comprehensive take. I am struck by the multitudes living on the frayed fringes of this so-called democratic nation. For example, the middle-aged White gentleman in New Hampshire I met back in January, at the tip-off to the presidential crusade, who told me he was a Vietnam veteran, that he was driving a cab because there were no jobs for him, that he was on welfare and ridiculously destitute, that he felt the government had been neglectful, woefully neglectful, of Vietnam War veterans. That he was not going to vote, and, as a matter of fact, he had not voted in over twenty years. Because, as he explained with contempt at the borders of his mouth, politicians did not care about people like him. When I asked which politicians, he muttered, All of them. Or there was the Black man, early 40s, whom I met only a week or so ago in Mr. Bush’s home state, Texas, who, in his twenties during the Reagan 80s, was falsely accused and convicted of raping a White female. His jury was composed of 11 Whites, 10 men and one woman, and, sadly, in a state with a history of sadistic racism (let us not forget that semi-retarded Black man, James Byrd, who was tied to the back of a truck a few years back by bigoted and demented White males and dragged to his death) this gentleman did not stand a chance. He lost his youth, he lost his innocence, he lost bits and pieces of his sanity while in prison for a crime he did not commit. Only the use of a DNA test exonerated him, right at the beginning of Mr. Bush’s first term in office. This man now carries in his hip pocket crumpled copies of articles about his case, as well as a crumpled copy of his official pardon, as if he were in another time in American history when one, if Black, had to carry his or her freedom papers to prove without question that one was free.

I have more tales than I can recount in this space, but the point is that America, our country, continues to be stuck spiritually, emotionally, in spite of the proclamations of democracy, of equal opportunity, of being one nation under God (which God, and for who?), of this being the greatest show on earth. If all of us are not completely free, and free in every sense of the word, then, dear friend, none of us are as free as we have been led to believe. What is freedom anyhow, and what is democracy, when in the allegedly most democratic nation in the universe millions upon millions of human beings wondered, and still wonder, if their vote was actually counted on Tuesday, November 2, 2004, and why, for God’s sake, did some of them have to present an I.D. or otherwise prove that they have the right to vote in the year 2004? Are we truly free?

Well, we certainly were not free at the Democratic National Convention in Boston back in July. As happy as I was to be there, I could not help but think, deep inside the marrow of my Democratic bones, that it was a charade, a hoax. There was no far-reaching vision, no expansive, humanistic agenda, no imaginative leadership. With the exception of brilliant speeches by Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, there was only empty rhetoric and unsophisticated retorts to the Bush-Cheney platform. It was evident that while the Dems had more A-list celebrities, threw better parties, allowed hiphop-the controversial yet dominant culture of our day-into its sacred halls, it was all dental plaque distorting the fact we had, and have, no teeth on the left and, really, have been missing our teeth for some time now. A month later I attended the Republican National Convention here in New York City and could feel the focus, the vision, however myopic, and the battle plan. While the Dems barely spoke of faith, of religion, of spirituality, the Republicans spoke of it every chance they got. They monopolized the market on moral values. The perception became the reality: the right is of God and the left is of the devil. And the Democratic Party, the liberals, the progressives, or whatever we label ourselves, have allowed the right to act as if they are more in step with God, with morality, with spirituality, with personal virtue, than we are. This is sheer lunacy, from my perspective as an African American. Practically every movement, from the anti-slavery rumblings of the 1800s right through the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, has been led by the spiritual leaders of my community, individuals who had a deep belief in a higher power, no matter what we called that higher power. And we were always clear that we were on the right side of God, that religion was about liberating and uniting people, not oppressing and dividing the multitudes. Certainly, we Americans who do not suffer from selective amnesia know something of what happens when a group of people appropriate God and distort his words to suit their needs. Let us not forget that there was a time when these very types of Christians manipulated and abused the Bible to justify slavery, for nearly three centuries. Let us not forget that there was a time when these very types of Christians turned their noses up and turned their backs on Jews as they were being stuffed into Holocaust ovens in Germany. And let us not forget that there was a time when Christians, under the guise of representing the true intentions of the Lord, physically assaulted civil rights marchers, Black and non-Black alike, in places like Alabama (down South) and Illinois (up North).

The point is that much of the Bush-Cheney agenda has everything to do with fear, with playing to folks’ base bigotries. The Southern White Democrats of the 1950s and 1960s (popularly known, then, as “Dixiecrats”) used the race card and their interpretation of Christianity to attack the Civil Rights Movement, then slowly but surely championed a mass exodus of the party (as Negroes got the right to vote) to become the driving force, all these years later, of those too-many-to-count red Republican states we see today. While the race card is still used, albeit in more guarded, coded language, this year the taboo topic was homosexuality, or, rather, same-sex marriages. And what does it mean that right-wing Republicans, during an election year, play political football with this polarizing subject, get it on the ballot in several states, while Vice President Dick Cheney’s openly gay daughter stands there, shoulder to shoulder with her lover, her partner, at the post-election victory celebration being photographed for the world to see? What kind of hypocrisy is that? Or, better yet, does it not suggest that many Americans, we people of moral conscience, have someone in our lives-a sister, a brother, a son, a daughter, a cousin, a friend, someone from our childhood, someone from high school or college, a coworker, a neighbor, a church member, a pastor (gasp!), who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, just as Dick Cheney does, but we are too ashamed to recognize their humanity, their existence. So terrified, in fact, to do so, that Republicans can steamroll in and make homosexuality one of the central issues on which we are deemed as spineless, and lacking in morality? Why did anyone not say, boldly, Look homie, Dr. King, a man of God, a Christian, a Christian minister, a Christian scholar, worked with Bayard Rustin, a gay man, who was the chief architect of the March on Washington in 1963? Dr. King may not have agreed with Mr. Rustin’s life path, but he at least respected the man’s genius, the man’s work ethic, the man’s humanity, the man’s quest for democracy, the man’s right to exist. And what could be more Christian than that? And who among us is God, himself, herself, itself, that we are in a position to say what form a person’s life should take anyhow?

We on the left, as Newark, NJ, Deputy Mayor Ras Baraka has said of the hiphop generation, need to grow up. Grow up and ask ourselves what do we, in fact, believe in? What are our moral values, our spiritual values? There are Americans in the Deep South, in middle America, who believe we on the left have no principles whatsoever, that we believe in nothing more than having a good time. Any extreme is dangerous-the extreme of blind religious zealotry, as well as the extreme of no boundaries, no agenda, in any form, for our lives, for this nation. Where, then, is the middle ground, where are our souls, and where is the soul of America, or are we simply destined for a certain kind of hell these next four years and beyond?

As I continue to struggle and grow in my spiritual walk, in my Christian walk, in my human walk, I am clear that I don’t want to go to hell, nor do I want life in America for any of us to be a hellish nightmare. Nor do I believe that the 4 million votes that separated President Bush from Senator Kerry constitutes a mandate. We need to state, emphatically, that it does not. Mr. Bush may be the president, Republicans may control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but the struggle has only begun. Our work in support of Kerry’s campaign was not in vain. I feel we have awakened a sleeping giant, or, more importantly, the giants, the leaders, in any of us who care about real democracy, real freedom, real self-determination, real people power. The younger Americans who became passionate about politics, about life, about living, in 2004, give me hope. Hope in spite of the fact that more bodybags will come home from Iraq. Hope in spite of the fact that extreme poverty is as deadly in America’s ghettoes as it is in any so-called third world nation. Hope in spite of the ugly divides, the intolerance, the lack of humanity we often show to each other. Hope in spite of the fact that the budget deficit will continue to force this nation to its knees, and in spite of the fact that economic despair-the lack of jobs that pay a living wage-has reached epidemic levels unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Because of Tuesday, November 2, 2004, I think all of us must do a gut check, confront our personal demons (I assuredly have mine and have no problem, none whatsoever, owning them and working through them), think hard about all the unnecessary fights, arguments, petty jealousies, juvenile competitions, pathetic trips into backbiting and gossip and ask ourselves, amidst another term of Bush-Cheney, is this the best we can be in America? Is this what I, we, desire to be, an utterly imperfect human being, wallowing and content to be in a state of arrested development for the remainder of my natural life?

I am not going to surrender the moral high ground any longer to these right-wing activists who pretend to care about the average American, and really do not. And you should cease surrendering as well, if you truly care about freedom and democracy. If we capitulate in this arena we will never be able to have any fruitful discussions, debates, and actions about the Iraqi War, this destructive economy, the lost jobs, nor about race, gender, class, religion, sexuality, poverty, hunger, homelessness, the environment, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the genocidal mayhem in the Sudan, the crisis in Haiti, and every other human drama that demands our attention.

At the end of the day it should not matter whether you are Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, or Arab; liberal or conservative; a Democrat or a Republican; Christian, Jew, or Muslim; straight or gay; what should matter is what type of human being you are, what type of human being you aspire to be, and whether you have any regard, any concern, any God-given compassion, true compassion, for other human beings.

And what do we do with that true compassion? Well, if we did not learn any other lesson from the tragedy of September 11, 2001, we should have at least learned this: As the Twin Towers were hit by those two jumbo airliners, as those buildings came crashing from the sky to the earth, as bodies leaped from windows or were crushed beneath the force of concrete and steel, at that very moment suddenly trivial categories like race, gender, age, class, sexual orientation, religion, status in society, did not matter. What mattered, on that day, was how one had lived one’s life, what one had done with one’s life, to advance humanity via the tiniest of baby steps or via gigantic strides. That is the kind of American I yearn to meet, the kind of America I am looking for.

America did not begin as a real democracy, and in spite of the changes, the upheavals, the lives lost, the sacrifices made, we are still not there. Mr. Bush and his crew need to think again if they believe, truly, that the American people have spoken. No, the last word has not been uttered, the last battle has not been waged. The freedom fighter legacy represents the America I am looking for. Freedom fighter as in Patrick Henry and Harriet Tubman, freedom fighter as in Cesar Chavez and Fannie Lou Hamer, freedom fighter as in the multicultural young leadership of today: Billy Wimsatt, Rosa Clemente, L. Joy Williams, Jeff Chang, Farai Chideya, and T.J. Crawford. Freedom fighter as in the millions of young people who voted in this presidential election, who understand, clearly, that they, we, younger Americans are the leadership we are waiting for. What would the so-called American democracy look like if these folks had not existed, if they did not exist today?

I am looking for an America that will acknowledge, finally, its history of taking Native American land; of using free Black labor to build this nation; of treating women as objects, as invisible, second-class citizens; of viewing Latinos as mute nuisances to be seen, worked to death, but not heard; of marginalizing and excluding, at different times in our history, among many others, the women, the Chinese, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians; of scapegoating and isolating the Japanese and, in this new millennium, Arabs, Muslims, gays and lesbians. I am looking for an America that will acknowledge that this nation would not exist were it not for the Native American, the Blacks, the women, the Latinos, the Chinese, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese, the Arabs, the straight, the gay, the liberal, the conservative, the me, the you.

I am looking for an America that respects every explanation for life, for the creator, the lifegiver, the higher power, that entity some of us may refer to as God, that others may refer to as Allah. I am looking for an America that ceases to refer to itself as a Christian nation but, instead, as a nation of many faiths, or many spiritual walks, a nation that has a tolerance and a patience not just for Christians, but also for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Rastafarians, Yorubas, all the many belief systems that express themselves daily within these borders.

I am looking for an America that does not rely on celebrities, on superstars to be the leaders of the people, but understands that the real celebrities, the real superstars, the real leaders, are the mill workers, the secretaries, the construction workers, the teachers, the layers of cables and telephone lines, the postal workers, the artists, the grassroots organizers, the bus drivers, the home health aides like my mother, the military veterans like my uncle.

I am looking for an America that will have the courage to abolish the electoral college once and for all, that will have the audacity to create uniform and modern voting methods across the land, that will not seek to disenfranchise the most vulnerable people in our society from their God-given right to be free, to speak their minds without fear of punishment or alienation. I am looking for an America that will no longer attempt to teach other nations how to make democracy work until we get it right, and working, here at home.

I am looking for an America that will raise the minimum wage, provide more money for public school education and less for war; an America that will rehabilitate prison inmates, that will insure that elders like my mother will be able to afford their prescription drugs and count on a Social Security program that acknowledges what they have given to this country by way of labor, taxes, and endless loyalty.

And I am looking for an America where through much defeat and pain and suffering we can birth new possibilities, new ways of being and doing. We are not losers, friends, those of us who voted for Mr. Kerry, or, in some instances, against Mr. Bush. I am not, and neither are you. We who believe in real democracy, in real freedom, in real self-determination, who believe in the creative force or forces that placed us on this planet, who believe in the possibilities of humankind, in truth, in justice, in life, who believed that our efforts, our sweat, our vote, could and would count a few days ago, on Tuesday, November 2, 2004, here in America, have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing at all. Nor should we see the reelection of President George W. Bush, and the defeat of Senator John Kerry as the beginning of a great catastrophe for us, for this country. No, what we have is a beginning, a start, with inevitable speed bumps along the way. But the questions remain for all of us to ponder. What are we going to do to create the America, to create the world, we so desire? And are we, each of us, willing to look within ourselves for that answer?

Kevin Powell, Brooklyn, New York-based writer, activist, and public speaker, is the author of 7 books, including the new title SOMEDAY WE’LL ALL BE FREE (Soft Skull Press, www.softskull.com), in which the essay “Looking for America” appears.

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