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 discovered they were free. Without access to that era’s mass media — newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets and the telegraph — many labored on, remaining the chattel of unscrupulous owners.
In one narrative I found, an enslaved man said he learned of his freedom from “a smart Negro.” I was delighted to learn the term had such old origins — at least back to the mid-19th century, maybe even earlier.
Listening to a smart Negro was a wise move for this brother, who, as I remember it, simply walked away from his servitude, marching bravely into an uncertain future.
America has, at last, elected a smart Negro.
Much will be made of this nation’s so-called transformational phase — in terms of race, generation, political campaigning, technology, fundraising and more. The demographics will be pulled apart, reconfigured and reassembled as pundits blather on.
Speculation aside, most of us understand that, in truth, the future is always a gamble — as much for us as it was for the brother who walked away from slavery. Life is a game of risk and reward.
In past elections, working-class and poor uneducated whites have consistently voted against their economic interest. They failed to properly assess the risk or understand the potential reward. That failure continued in the run-up to this election — many of us listened to irrational rationales given by politicians, pundits and editorial writers for rejecting the smart guy.
We know from the popular vote that our nation’s racial division has not ended. But thank God, with this election, a lot of educated whites finally voted in their own interest.
Barack Obama has emphasized being bipartisan, a president for everybody. I don’t know whether conciliation is the way to lead, but it’s clearly the way to get elected. Likeability certainly won Obama a lot of votes.
Whites’ willingness to embrace one likeable black won’t require a wholesale change in methods to achieve racial parity. 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 because a lot of people grew beyond their prejudices and got behind a smart Negro.