The Tender Balance of “Us-and-Other”
Today was my first day at Camp Obama. I’m sure some would wonder why it took me so long. Truth is I’m a cynic. I’d rather imagine the good in people than face people and be disappointed. It’s a fear. And like all my fears, I eventually get around to the confrontation. I think of it as my job. I’m a singer songwriter because I was afraid to talk. If I could get out 3 coherent minutes of an idea out, I thought I’d remedy it. But I digress….
The gist of today was we’re in the last days of the campaign (not the Palin-esque Last Days), so what we have to offer is our personal stories. We’re not going to wow people with policy at this point. Argument is a waste of energy. What we need to do is to motivate the already inclined to act. So (and here’s some red meat for the haters) the first half of the camp was basically an autobiographical sketch workshop. The task was identifying a personal challenge, explaining the choices we made because of it, and the outcome. Yes it was Obamacentric in that we all had made choices to come and volunteer for this campaign. And it had to be something that could be communicated in 120 seconds.
So I felt really esoteric when it came to my story. I mean I write volumes about this stuff. Our biographies overlap again and again. I have millions of challenge>choice>outcomes that led me here.
Few kept it to 2 minutes – it’s hard with emotional subject matter. But I like assignments, so I tried. I offered the “nigger” story.
I was 5 and it was the days of Richard Pryor on vinyl. My dad would call us “little shit asses.” So you can’t blame me for being a foul mouthed kid. I called a kid “nigger.” I got beat up. My parents explained the word to me and it began my journey into history and the language. In Irvine a few years later I got beat up and called a “nigger.”
My corporal identity has allowed me to be perceived as oppressed and oppressor, included or other. I focus on the inclusion in order to bring empathy toward the other for my peers. I am the derided other, yet I’ve been included as family. So take that a step further and include those for whom we don’t have a natural affinity. Let’s understand their stories because they’re not dissimilar from your friend, me.
I feel like I’ve been able to do that through my music, it’s actually my mission. I tried to do this a little through politics in college, but the pressure ate me up. I said it was the “no Red States/Blue States” speech that got me, but really it wasn’t until the race speech (my Julia Moment) that I was in. It’s that ability to speak in shared experience that I believe is Barack’s primary strength.
So is it all about race for me? There are many biracial people out there I wouldn’t trust with my country. Not many people would I trust with my country. It’s what one does with his or her experience that moves me. Obama does what I’d like to do in a larger forum. I don’t agree with everything he does. But that’s the great part about the conversation with those that are simultaneously “us-and-other.” We see and can represent the humanity of those with whom we may differ from a rather unique perspective. And if we’re practiced, we can hold this conversation in a really calm fashion.
I felt a little cold recalling this story to the group. Name calling and childhood beatings seem rather existential when you’re talking with people whose narratives include present battles with healthcare and unemployment. But it’s this essentialist tension that gives me the sense that Barack Obama has the skill set to hear the stories that will lead to effective leadership. I’m not looking for an affective President, I’m looking for an effective President. Affect is a large part of effective politicking, but something about the navigational balance of being “us-and-other” can blunt that when we’re trying for effective dialogue. We’re not going to get a lot of red meat from Obama, but we will get a reasoned, educated and respectful discussion.