White Loves Black
Tuvia Tenenbom, playwright of LOVE IN GREAT NECK, goes to Harlem and Denver to find out peoples' feelings about Barack Obama. (This article was published in the prestigious German weekly Die Zeit. To view the German version please click HERE.)
The white cultural elites of America kneel at the feet of presidential hopeful, Barrack Obama. This is nice. But behind this humbling gesture, stands hypocrisy that screams to heaven.
by Tuvia Tenenbom
These days America seems to be engulfed in self-love and self-praise. You walk on the streets of this huge country and you can't avoid seeing well-dressed white people smiling to themselves in utmost satisfaction. You would think these people are on a honeymoon or Ecstasy, but not really. For the most part, these happy-go-lucky well-to-do white people, usually of the well-educated sort, share a little pleasure in common. The source of their happiness, if you bother to find out, is a two-word magical formula: "Barack Obama." "Not since the days of Kennedy did our country do so well," some of them say to you. It doesn't really matter, and don't try to remind them, that many of them were babies, or not even born yet, in Kennedy's time. It doesn't really make a difference. The country is gripped by euphoria, why should anyone destroy it? "It's really great, isn't it?" they tell you. You look at them, faces smiling from mouth to ears, and you get a little jealous; you would like to be as happy as they are. But before you join in and send your $50 donation to the Obama Campaign, nobody can blame you if you ask for some clarifications. Such as: Why is it so great to have Obama in the White House? The answer you get, short and sweet so as to not waste time, is Obama's own one-word slogan: "Change." And if you pause for a minute longer, just before you sign your name on the check, to ask: Couldn't Change also turn out for the worse? What you get in response is a three-word sentence: "Barack is black." If you're totally dumb, or a miser by nature, an explanatory note immediately follows: "Wouldn't it be great for our country to have a Black Man in the White House!"
Many people think that Obama is making history: A black person running for the presidency on a major party's ticket. To them it would probably come as a total surprise that Shirley Chisholm, a black woman, tried the same thing in 1972. She failed. The black leader, Jesse Jackson, tried it in the 80s. Twice. He failed in both attempts. And four years ago the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil-rights leader from N.Y., also ran for presidency on the Democratic ticket. He, like the others, failed.
Only that Obama, a black newcomer, seems to avoid their fate. In August Obama goes to Denver, Colorado, to accept the Democratic Nomination. Originally he was scheduled to make his acceptance speech at the Pepsi Center, a big enough place with capacity for 21,000 seats. But the Campaign announced change of venue: Obama will deliver his speech at a football stadium that can hold 76,000 seats. The contrast between the fates of Shirley, Jesse, Al and that of Barack couldn't be sharper. Everybody who's anybody, so it seems, rushes to fly to Denver. Why?
Only a few weeks ago in that same Denver, another gathering took place. Under the title National Performing Arts Convention, over 4,000 people arrived to meet at the Colorado Convention Center. The top leaders of American theaters, dance companies, opera houses, orchestra halls, and composers came to Denver to chart the future course of American culture. These were the elite of the elites, the best this country has to offer. Mostly, they were liberal, intellectual and white. Yes, white. Don't get me wrong: there were some blacks around, and if you know how to find a needle in a haystack you would've found them as well. But for the most part, the gathering was for people who have good jobs and who could spend the roughly $2,000 that a 4-day stay cost. And if you were lucky enough to meet some black people there, you better didn't go out of your way to ask them how much they paid to come there. Many of those few, as it turned out, came there for free; all expenses paid by the good white people.
Happily, the kindness of the white people didn't stop there. The key speakers at the event, an honor normally given to the highest achievers in American culture, were mostly black that week. To add another level of kindness to an already kind and all-embracing event, this year's awards, normally given to the best and smartest in American culture, were awarded to mostly blacks and Latinos.
An outsider just dropping in from Mars, would be correct if he concluded that whites were either pretty dumb or they all were drunk last year and not worthy of honor or award.
If our UFO is right, the obvious question would be, How come that almost every one of the culture leaders around is white? To solve this logical problem, the organizers came up with a simple solution: Spend a few thousand dollars and have some black faces mingle in the crowd. When people see the blacks, they wouldn't ask too many questions. After all, the added cost of having more black faces at the Convention would hardly register on the multi-million-dollar expense sheets of their money-rich cultural institutions. The 'love of blacks,' of course, didn't end there: If you could have a dollar for every "I'm so happy that Barack Obama is going to be our next President," you'd be richer than Rothschild.
I looked at them in between sessions as they self-importantly walked the streets of Denver, each and everyone proudly displaying their nametags on their chests. White followed by white. The thought of giving blacks leading jobs at their institutions probably never crossed their minds. That's too much to ask of them. They spent a lifetime creating an image of themselves as open-minded people, intellectual, caring for the poor, for the disadvantaged, for the disabled, for minorities--especially for blacks. They love blacks. Said it a million times before, and plan to keep on saying it till the day they die. Their ancestors have done the blacks wrong, and they were gonna fix it. It's an open wound on their conscience and they must correct it. Cost: A few thousand bucks. Don't ask for more. Don't dare. I looked at them one more time, from across the street, as they made their way to exclusive restaurants--no blacks this time around--and I knew: These were not my people.
This hard feeling of blatant hypocrisy at the highest levels of American culture left a bad, bitter taste in my mouth. As the days passed, I wanted to believe that I was wrong; that what I saw was in reality just a bad dream. But then a thought came to my mind: There goes Tuvia, becoming a hypocrite just like the rest of them.
On the 4th of July, America's Independence Day, I went to Harlem to find out what the black community thinks. On the 4th, many people like to have a picnic in their backyards; it’s an American Tradition. You put on the fire, grill the burgers and hotdogs, don't forget the cold beers, add the cakes, and fill your belly in the backyard of your house. Problem is, not everybody has a house with a backyard. The residents of Harlem, for example, don’t. So, they went to the park. Hundreds and hundreds of them packed the Morningside Park, and hot burgers stared at you from behind every tree. Almost everybody's black, some Latinos; it took less than one hand to count the whites all around.
This is the 'Hood, like it or not. When I came in, I became an instant "star." Everybody wanted to feed me. "Yo like burger, man? How 'bout beer? Drink Vodka? We got that. God bless you, man. Feel home. Yo like chicken? We got plenty. Eat!"
Not that I look like a skinny man who's about to die of starvation. What I experienced there was simply warm hospitality. I ate like a pig, drank like a camel. They wouldn't let me stop. Here a man gave me whisky, there a young girl gave me orange juice, and a grandma put a bottle of Ginger Ale on my lap. It didn't end. Everybody was feeding the White Guest. Then, between my third burger and my second chicken, I finally spotted a white girl. She's young, she's blond, and she wore an Obama T-shirt. I felt good: A "Melting Pot" right in front of my eyes. But when I approached her it turned out that she was there to sell Obama T-shirts. She came to make money on the poor blacks. Sadly for her, almost no one was buying. I asked Frankie, a teacher and a mother, if the people didn't like Obama. "It's all a charade," she started. "The white people want Obama because he talk like a white man. They wasn't voting for Rev. Sharpton when he ran, 'cause he is real black. Obama ain't black, he's a mulatto. His mother is white. Everybody know it. He talk white and he behave white. Nobody care nothing 'bout us. Whites come to Harlem to take our apartments, leave us homeless on the street, and put our children in jail. Nothing gonna change. Nothing." The rest of the family looked on, nodding in agreement. "She tell the truth," they said.
I moved on, from family to family, and finally stopped for a chat with Scott. He impressed me as a highly intelligent man and I asked him for his thoughts about racism. "Racism in America is only increasing, because now people know how to hide their racism. I don't celebrate the 4th of July, not my holiday. My mom, she came from the South, and she wanted me to go to the park with her. How would you like your burger?"
The 4th of July is over, but I miss Harlem, miss being a star. So I come back. This time, to St. Luke Baptist Church. Though open to all and everybody's welcome, everybody here is black. As the pastor raises his voice, "Watch it: You think your neighbor's grass is greener, but I say the grass is greener where you water it," a white couple enters. And when Twanna, a gifted singer, starts her rendition of "Everything the Lord gives you is good," the white woman takes out her camera. She checks out the scene, in a manner reminiscent of your average tourist at the zoo. "Don't they look cute?" she says and clicks. She's excited about her 'cute blacks,' but gets annoyed when a church employee asks her to stop taking pictures. "Why?" she wants to know.
The prestigious Council on Foreign Relations in N.Y. hosted James Glassman, Under Secretary at the Dept. of State, the other day. James, a Republican, is in charge of presenting a good image of America to foreign publics. The moderator at the event asked James if he didn't think that an "African American with some Muslim ties in his family becoming the President of the United States" would be a "boon" for America's image abroad? There was laughter in the audience, as if to say: How would this Republican get out of this? James looked them straight in the eyes, promptly replying that yes, "you might have a honeymoon, but I wouldn't think it would necessarily last that long." Change, he let them know, was not always for the better. Their laughter immediately stopped. If Frankie and Scott were there, they would probably laugh. Nobody can fool them.
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