Obama’s Race in the West

In January the black poet Nikki Giovanni came to Boise.

She was asked what Martin Luther King Jr. would do in 2008. Would he march on Washington? Protest the war in Iraq?

Would he vote for Obama?

“How the hell would I know?” Giovanni quipped, launching into a little poem followed by an educated guess: “Martin would have braids and a tattoo,” Giovanni says pulling up her sleeve. “Mine says ‘Thug Life.’”

This is a white-haired academic. A great American poet standing alone on a stage in Boise, Idaho. A short, ironic 64-year-old firebrand who survived the 1960s and still pays attention in the post-civil rights era. She has a tenured position at a major university.

She’s taken the Lewis and Clark Trail across the West.

And she has a tattoo recalling the memory of rapper Tupac Shakur on her arm.

Candidate Obama has no such tattoo … that Fox News knows of at least. But after Philadelphia, he could be considered the Thug Life candidate. At least for those voters who consider running for president (or going to Harvard) keeping it real.

Just like Giovanni – who talked about her son, cancer, public transportation, Rosa Parks and Iraq – Obama, by his own recent admission, is a candidate rooted simultaneously in the African American struggle for rights and in the struggles of all Americans.

Because those seemingly separate strains of American experience are one in the same.

As Obama alluded to in his Philadelphia speech, American politics are racial politics. It has been so ever since the founding of this nation. From the writing of the Constitution to the Civil War to Reconstruction to the 1960s to today, every point in time that the American project has advanced it has been inspired by the black struggle for human rights.

This is true even in Idaho, a state known more for its racist image than its Black History Museum. A state where Obama supporters have to hang up on the all-too-frequent racist voter.

Yes, the Idaho Black History Museum in Boise traces the Idaho story back to York, an African American member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

That exploration of new territory is part of Obama’s appeal in the West, where people come to escape their history and start afresh.

I have been writing about the Obama camp in Idaho for some months now and race is almost always a subtext in discussions with Obama supporters.

In some ways Geraldine Ferraro was right: Many people will like Obama because he’s black.

Some white Idaho supporters can only go so far as to say he’s cute, or they like his energy. But there is always a racial element to these comments.

Some Idaho voters are escaping their oppressive conservative family culture and turning to Obama – the black Obama – in protest. As in, ‘Sorry daddy, I’m voting for a black guy.’

Other happy voters like the idea of a black candidate, but perhaps they don’t know why.

Then there is the hunger for some black culture in Idaho where five or six times a day blond-haired, blue-eyed moms remark on my daughter’s remarkably curly hair. And she’s not even black.

We have a jazz festival and a moderate black church and now a New Orleans kitchen downtown.

But when Obama came to Boise thousands of people showed up.

When Giovanni spoke at Boise State she did not have quite the same draw. But I went just to get a dose of Black Power.

We in the West need to be reminded that there is still a struggle out there on the coasts, and that it matters here in our little mountain paradises. In fact, there should be more struggle here. We need to be jilted out of our comfortable western lifestyles for a few hours and reminded that the American project is not yet complete.

This is what the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. gives us as well. A sharp analysis of “Problem of the 20th Century” and specific ways the color line continues to divide us in our era.

Giovanni says it too, but she speaks too quickly to catch it all.

Then she slowed down and said something surprising.

Poet Giovanni, in her Boise MLK Day address, noted the increasing number of writers and artists and cultural interpreters in the intermountain west. And she said to Idaho: “You’re going to find a way to make public policy that we’re all going to emulate.”

In other words, from a southeast coast, racial analysis perspective – the West is hope. The West is where it’s at.

And that means that when the chickens come home to roost again, it’s on us.

Editor’s note: Nathaniel Hoffman’s weekly blogs are part of NewWest.Net/Politics’ “Diary of a Mad Voter” feature, a group blog, published in partnership with the Denver Post’s Politics West intended give a glimpse into the hearts and minds of several independent-minded voters and thinkers in the Rocky Mountain West in the ’08 election cycle.

Hoffman is an independent reporter in Boise and was the only white boy in the Cornell Class of 1999 Department of Africana Studies. He writes at PaleoMedia.org.

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