Obama, Race, and History: A Panel Discussion

Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States was a watershed moment—an event that will go down in history as a turning point in the evolution of American politics. What led up to this moment? How did Obama beat the odds to become the first black president? What does his presidency mean to Americans—black, white, or otherwise? On December 8, 2008, The Juilliard Journal, in conjunction with the Student Affairs Office and Office of Diversity and Campus Life, held a panel discussion focusing on these and other questions. Participating were three students: jazz pianist Kris Bowers, dancer Jamal Callender, and actor Shalita Grant; and two faculty members: Carolyn Adams, Dance faculty, and Anthony Lioi, Liberal Arts. The moderator was Alison Scott-Williams, associate vice president for diversity and campus life. In honor of Black History Month, The Journal offers these edited excerpts from the discussion.

A panel discussion about the election of President Barack Obama was held on December 8, 2008, in the Student Multipurpose Room. Participants were (left to right) Jamal Callender, dance student; Kris Bowers, jazz student; Alison Scott-Williams, associate vice president for diversity and campus life, who moderated the discussion; Carolyn Adams, dance faculty; Shalita Grant, drama student; and Anthony Lioi, Liberal Arts faculty.

(Photo by Chris Downes)

Carolyn Adams and Shalita Grant

(Photo by Chris Downes)

Jamal Callender and Kris Bowers

(Photo by Chris Downes)

Kris Bowers and Alison Scott-Williams

(Photo by Chris Downes)


Alison Scott-Williams: As you were growing up, did you think—at the age of 5, 10, or even 15—that there would be an African-American president? Why or why not?

Kris Bowers: I actually always did think that. When I was between 5 and 10, I always thought there would be a black president, and I kind of wanted it to be a black woman, actually. Because I figured it would be both at the same time, and it’d be such a big deal that, when it happened, it would cause a whole bunch of events after that.

Shalita Grant: Well, especially at 5, when everyone asks you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” at the end of my life I always wanted to be president—so I thought it was going to be me. [Laughter] And then, somewhere around 10, I gave up that dream. I never really thought that there would be [a black president]. There were these spoof movies with, like, Chris Rock as president [Head of State], and I thought the country thought it was a joke and that it would never happen.

Anthony Lioi: I thought that there would be black candidates, but that they would not win. I guess I’m the pessimist on the panel. … I was born in the year that Martin Luther King was shot, and the first president I remember is Nixon. I mean, I don’t want to speak for my entire generation, but I think that people my age did feel fairly pessimistic, in the sense that, when we looked at Obama, many of us said, “This is a great idea but it’s not going to happen.” And that didn’t stop us from working on it, but it did stop us from thinking that the work would actually immediately blossom into a result.

Jamal Callender: Well, for me, I was about 15 years old—my cousin, who is younger than me, the only thing he wanted to be was president. So in a way it kind of sucked that Obama was president before my cousin! [Laughter] But looking back now, I think that was the moment where I had a feeling it was in my future, because the people who were younger than me really wanted this. … I’m all about people going for their dreams and making it happen, so I knew that it was just going to; something was going to change.

Carolyn Adams: [On this panel] we have a wide spread, generationally speaking. In my lifetime I’ve seen so many remarkable changes. When I was 5, my mother was removing inappropriate books from the libraries that we went to that were referring to Africa as the “Dark Continent” (if they had any materials at all), racist and sexist, both. By the time I was 15, I was picketing Woolworth’s and swaying in the wind with Martin Luther King followers. But in terms of looking at a black president—it was very noticeable when baseball had no black people. A lot of the milestones that I saw were enormous in a relatively short period of time: We have Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Thurgood Marshall, we have all of these incredible black leaders who’ve been in incredibly high places for a long time. So the presidency, given the fact that we’re talking about 44 people over the lifespan of the nation, did not seem like the ultimate milestone. I don’t mean to diminish in any way the wondrousness of this, but in that context it feels more organic. Hopefully later, we’ll get to talk about [how] the phenomenon of this man so far surpasses the notion of race, in my opinion. I happen to be a registered Republican; I couldn’t vote in the primaries, so I went out, stood on the street, and got two undecided voters to vote for Obama: one for me and one for my mother. So this is really a unique individual in my opinion.

Scott-Williams: Well, let’s talk about how unique Barack Obama is. Would you mind sharing when was the moment that you realized how unique he is, because I think that’s a very important factor within the campaign.

Callender: I actually had the opportunity to hear Obama speak. He was awarded an honorary doctorate at my sister’s university [Xavier] in 2006 and it was remarkable. I mean, we were in the stadium in New Orleans and he was just giving this phenomenal speech. Everyone was just at [the edge of] their seats ’cause he was just so articulate and he understood, he really understood what people wanted to hear. And it wasn’t something that he was just saying just because; it was really something that he felt within himself that he needed to share with people so that they understood. … So that was my first, like, “Got it!”

Bowers: I had a similar experience, actually. It’s a funny story, because Loren Schoenberg, who taught jazz history here last year, came up to me one day and said, “Can you do this gig tomorrow?” I was like, “Uh, I don’t know; O.K., all right, sure. I’ll do it.” I showed up at this house in Harlem and all these people were there, and I was talking to my teacher and I was like, “So what’s going on? What is this for?” And this guy turned around and was like, “You don’t know what you’re here for?” I was like, “No.” “This is an event for Barack Obama.” “Oh! That’s great. Cool.” He’s like, “Yeah, he’ll be here in half an hour to speak.” I was like, “Wow! Really?!” And I got to be in this small house and hear him speak and go up and shake his hand afterwards, and it was an incredible experience that I will never forget.

Adams: I think when Obama made that speech at the convention, he was not thought of as being a presidential candidate. I think the message that he delivered about this being one America was so captivating to people, but they could buy into that message without having to buy into the messenger. In some ways, that was kind of the point at which, in retrospect, I thought, “This guy is going to win the election,” because I think the momentum around what he was talking about had ignited people before they had to deal with whatever the issues were around him. The other thing that struck me about that is that most black people in this country are actually multiracial. And his perspective—having grown up in different parts of the country … having a white mother and a black father—was part of the holistic view of the world that he took, and it seemed very global to me. So once he became a candidate, then I became a complete campaign junkie …

Grant: I was never really a big fan of the “bandwagon.” I’m part of the Independent Party so, during the primaries, he wasn’t on my radar. … And I guess that switch for me to be a true Obama supporter came during the Democratic [convention], when he became the official Democratic nominee. Now, I was totally impressed with him before that—like, how he dealt with press, how he dealt with the Hillary stuff with her financial manager, the comment that she made … He was a classic gentleman and how he dealt with things was really impressive. But he was my guy after the Democratic nomination, and that speech was so riveting and so moving. …

Lioi: Well, I guess I should ’fess up and say too, I’m not a registered Democrat, I’m a Green. So I couldn’t vote for him in the primaries, either. But I noticed him a long time before there was even a question about who to vote for; his opposition to the Iraq war actually made me notice him fairly early, because that was at a moment when everyone was still in that sort of vengeful fervor of like, “We’ve got to go get ’em! We’ve got to hit ’em hard! We’re gonna hit ’em now!” And he was saying, “No.” And almost no one else was saying no, so I took notice of that pretty quickly. But to go back to the convention speech—I teach speech, among other things. And I noticed right away that he is a classical orator. He knows those rules, he uses them consciously; there’s a classical, almost Latin beauty to some of the speeches, and … I thought to myself, “Well, whoever that is, we’re going to hear from him some more.”

Bowers: I was talking to a friend the other day about how African-Americans now are actually pretty far removed from Africa, obviously. And how interesting it is that Barack is literally African-American: his father is from Africa and his mom is American. So … I thought it was pretty symbolic that our first [black] president is literally African-American.

Scott-Williams: I’m going to repeat three phrases that were just said: “multiracial,” “global perspective,” and “beyond race.” Can we go into a little further detail on that? I happen to be of the opinion that him being multiracial was kind of the gluing point for people in this country who kind of went back and forth. I overheard someone on the train platform say, “Well, you know, he’s half-white.” And it was the first moment I had ever heard anyone acknowledge someone else as being half-white. Because it’s usually half-black or half-Latino or half whatever is considered the non-dominant culture. … Where was the turning point?

Lioi: He has an incredibly sophisticated understanding of this himself, which has influenced my own understanding of it. But I would say there wasn’t one moment; there have been a series of moments, and the most recent of those is the White House dog speech. It wasn’t really a speech, but the moment when he was talking about getting his daughters the dog, and he said, “It’s going to be a mutt like me.” I think that a lot of people have that mutt feeling. When you ask them, “Where are your people from?” they’ll say, “From over here and then over here.” People have incredibly complex stories. The fact that he has a complex story that he’s willing to claim seems very significant to me. …

Adams: I think another thing is that he’s just really smart. You could have a person with that kind of background who wouldn’t necessarily put it all together the way he did. I mean, I just have a tremendous amount of respect for his intellect and the way in which he synthesized those experiences. He certainly didn’t have a golden childhood, by any means. But there’s a sense of self assurance. I was always amused when people said he’s elitist. I said, “What’s the matter? You never saw a black man in a suit?” Traditionally, the way that people have perceived black leadership in this country is the fist shaking, I’m-going-to-protect-black-people-from-white-people, and I think what he sort of embodied was the sense of being the Everyman, and that’s very reassuring. …

Grant: I had an experience maybe a month ago, where I was forced to look up the word “racism” and what does it mean to be a racist. Because you have these situations where you feel really uncomfortable, but you don’t know why—but you know maybe something was said that may be wrong. So I looked it up and the definition, which was really good, was a belief that human traits come from your race. And attached to that was that certain races have dominant human characteristics, so, you know, this race is better than that one because of these things. I’ve never really loved that about this country: the stereotypes, and how one race gets portrayed as opposed to another one, and these institutionalized feelings that a lot of us have when we look in the mirror, when we look at other people.

One of the things I [both] loved and [that] pissed me off a lot during this campaign was the issue of race. I loved how Obama was “Barack Obama” and not “a black man running for president.” It spoke volumes. I feel like people in this country and around the world have to take a second look at the people that they talk to, and how they look at other people, and the thoughts they have about other people, because—as opposed to that Chris Rock film where he was the epitome of the black stereotype—this is a man who happens to black, who happens to half-white, who happens to be Kenyan, who happens to be living in this country, and who happens to have run for president. I’m looking forward to how things are going to be different culturally, socially in this country after he’s been in office for a few years, because it’s time for those notions to be put aside. …

Adams: The Reverend Wright chapter was pivotal. I think that—picking up on what you just said—he could have just taken the easy way out on that one. And he took it on. And I think that if that hadn’t happened, then the whole outcome might have been different, because that’s what really opened the dialogue for people to really see the complexity of it. I mean, the one very important line is, “I understand why a lot of white people are resentful of affirmative action.” He showed in that speech depth of understanding of the complexity, and allowed people to voice issues around race that are not simple, that are sometimes convoluted [and] sometimes even conflicting, and that was very liberating for a lot of people in terms of the dialogue around race. Later in the campaign, in the general election, when the “palling around with terrorists” came up, it didn’t fly. It might have had more power if we hadn’t been through the Reverend Wright thing. So I think, by handling that the way he did, at the front end, it really kind of diffused [it] and that sort of became absurd anyway, but it was within the context of having seen this person being a man with a good brain and a lot of good ideas. …  So the lack-of-experience charge didn’t fly in the face of the way he handled just about everything. …

Grant: And just on that Reverend Wright thing, CNN would [say]—and this pissed me off!—the “black church” as opposed to any other church. I mean, Jesus was all about us being one and, as a Christian, you believe that we’re all made by the same God, so hopefully there won’t be more than one God for each group of people. …

Adams: Well, historically, the black church was the primary institution. That was the way black people took care of each other; it was the social agency, it was the community glue. If you look at some of the inner cities that fell into decline and are starting to come back now, the only reason there was anything to salvage in some of those cases was because of the black church. When the middle class departed to the suburbs, they came back to Harlem on Sunday. I think it’s valid to talk about the black church historically, in terms of the way in which it sustained black people in this country, and that’s what I think Obama was trying to say initially, in defense of Reverend Wright—who then got star-struck and went too far …

Callender: For me, there was one thing in particular about Barack Obama—you talked about his slogan, “Yes, we can.” That really struck me because, when you see these debates, you always hear “I, I, I—I can do this for you, if I am president.” But just the idea of saying, “We can work together to do such-and-such,” or, “We can build this together.” And when he was talking to whoever he was debating with, he would say, “You know, you’re right …” He would make himself human. He didn’t have all the answers. … And he would say sometimes, “I will have people in my cabinet to help me get those answers.”

Adams: Just in terms of the dynamic of the campaign, which I thought was so fascinating—I mean, the way that he remained so steady and cool. This is a life lesson, you know; if you want other people to freak out, stay cool. [Laughter] I think that, just by being so steady … it was hard to push his buttons. That was a very powerful thing. And I think a lot of the things that happened, especially in the general election, kind of got to be flailings at him that didn’t really have much power. And every time they did that, it just made him look calmer and more unflappable. And that was really a strategy. I think he ran the whole campaign like a brilliant chess game. That takes patience, knowing when to lay back, you know; you don’t take a shot every time. That also gave me confidence in him.

Bowers: With all politics, they’re always going to be talking about the other campaigns, all the dirt of the other campaigns. But I just find it interesting that it seemed like everybody else was doing that a lot more than he was. Everybody else was saying, “Obama’s gonna do this and he’s going to do that—and that’s why I’m better.” But Obama would say, “This is what I’m going to do.” Not, “You know, he’s not doing this.” He would talk about himself more, rather than how bad the other person was. … And McCain just seemed to be flustered a lot. … I would much rather have somebody that, especially right now, is calm and cool and collected run my country than somebody who wasn’t.

Lioi: I just wanted to go back to “Yes, we can” and connect it to the Reconstruction issue, because I think that’s a really, really important issue. The more you learn about Reconstruction, the more it becomes apparent that was a “No, we can’t” moment. Reconstruction was violently repressed. So at many moments, I kept remembering that history and thinking, “Are we really going to be able to do this, this time?” And if you remember back to a moment before [Obama] was the nominee, there were a lot of voters in the primaries who said, “I’m not going to vote for him because—I want to, but he’ll be killed.” Right? And so there were plenty of people who remembered the problem of Reconstruction. He, of course, was completely cognizant of that. But I was astonished by the way he turned the “Yes, we can” rhetoric into a comment about history, about that: “I know that all of you were afraid that something horrible will happen, but really, we can do it, so let’s do it.”

Scott-Williams: Which brings me to a question about history. We have talked about a lot of very salient details that have basically pushed many groups in this country, in terms of understanding why it’s important to vote for [Obama] as a candidate and why he really should be the president elect …. Whereas, when you look at your fifth-grade history book, or even collegiate history book, and you look at the icons—Martin Luther King or J.F.K. or anyone who really pushed to catapult history, even Lincoln—maybe there’s a paragraph, right? Maybe there’s a page and a half, depending on who’s writing the history book. All of these details, right now, feel so important for our own understanding. How do you think this will play out in the history books? How do you think the black history section of a history book is going to look? Or is it all one history?

Grant: Is there a black history section?

Scott-Williams: Or is there a black history section—right! I want to explore that, because everything that everyone has said has been such an important kernel as to why this is, and why it’s destined to be. So how do you think this will be portrayed 10 years from now in a history book? Five years from now? Where we aren’t talking as openly, maybe, about these very uncomfortable issues of race?

Adams: Well, I think, partly because of the Internet and desktop publishing, there’s so much more consensus that can build because of communication—it’s sort of like the way jokes travel around [on the Web]. The way that you can put an idea out there and it begins to have a life of its own … I just think that there won’t be a “snapshot.” My answer to your question is, I think there’ll be a lot of writing that’s very accessible. The books will probably, in some ways, be referencing the diversity of what’s out there. And I think it’s going to be more dialogue-like. This is just a prediction, but I think that if I was teaching history 10 years from now, I would be looking at it much more as sort of how historical facts interact with current phenomena. I think it’s going to be much more multidimensional and multimedia. I don’t think there’s going to be any one story; I think it’s going to be multiple perspectives. …

Grant: I guess I’m a pessimist on our history books, just from my own education. I don’t think there’ll be much. And if there is, I think it’ll be very much on the surface—it’ll be about race and it’ll be a good page and you’ll get unit questions on the end ... I mean, we honestly don’t know how full those pages will be, because we don’t know what he’ll do during his term. But I do believe that, just him being elected, there will be a good couple of paragraphs on it, but I don’t believe that it’ll be in grave detail. …  I think that a great deal of the information on what we’re living through now will be for the students to go out to get on their own, you know? It’ll be information that you’ll have to run out and get. However, I do hope that during Black History Month—if it’ll still be around in the next couple of years, or whatever—that it won’t be a renegade history. I remember during February the history books were put away and it was like the teacher going out on her own to see what she could get, you know? [Laughter] So it very much didn’t feel like it was real history; it just felt like we were just cut-and-pasting stuff together. I do think that after he’s [inaugurated] and hopefully in a few years, black history will be very much a part of American history … it’ll be very much a part of our thread as Americans and not some separate thing.

Callender: I must also say that, seeing black and American history, I would love to see it gel together more and make it infuse. Because it is one history; it is all in our current history, and one of the things I must say also is that the people who write these textbooks 10 years from now can be people just like us, people who are looking to see this infuse. So that’s what I’m hoping for; I’m hoping that there are young and old people who really want to see the textbooks change, because the textbooks have been a problem for not only African-Americans or black people, but for anyone, you know, on any subject. … Maybe the textbook isn’t the right thing for students to learn from. Maybe it’s something more visual or something like that. Maybe there’s something else that people need to have. So we’ll see in the next 10 years——

Grant: Or more efficiency in the textbooks. Real historians, doing textbook writing …

Callender: I know now a lot of teachers use the History Channel. They use different documentaries on PBS or whatnot that allow the students to be engaged more, in ways that the textbook just simply couldn’t do.

Lioi: Well, on that note, we should pay attention to the fact that [Obama’s] already giving weekly addresses and plans to continue on YouTube. So future historians are going to have to deal with all of that video evidence in a way that’s going to be fairly new. And not only that, but he has a Web page already as president elect, where there’s a blog, you can write into it. So all these new multimedia tools are going to be part of this presidency that people will see as a watershed, you know, in a completely different way. But to answer the question directly, I wanted to say that, if I were the historian 10 years from now, one of the things I would emphasize, if everything goes well, is the capacity for democracies to correct themselves. Because the classic critique of democracy has always been that people go crazy, that they can’t make the right decisions for themselves; they’re too influenced by their passions. So the people shouldn’t be the ones who rule. So if this presidency succeeds, we’re gonna be able to say, “Look, the United States actually managed to correct itself in a number of different ways. Not just about race, but about a lot of other important things, too.”

Adams: I wanted to go back a little bit to what you were saying before. I think it’s really interesting to think, talking about the history—black history, American history—we’re all part of this institution. And I think the cultural history tells a story fairly well. It’s a very important role for the arts in terms of integrating these histories. You could do a whole American history course with an arts curriculum, and it would address a lot of the issues that we’re talking about—the way in which different cultures have influenced German Expressionism, African dance, Native American, all of the things that have really produced contemporary [art]. … I think there’s also an opportunity for us and our students and colleagues to really address this through the arts.

Scott-Williams: Thank you. Are there any final words?

Bowers: I just wanted to say that I like the fact that now a lot of our youth have a better African-American figure to look up to, instead of saying I want to be——

Callender: A basketball player.

Bowers: ——LeBron James, or I want to be Lil Wayne, or I want to be T.I. Like, they can say, “I want to be the president of the United States” and not feel embarrassed to say that, or feel like it’s so far-fetched to say that.

Grant: I think that the diversity within this race is finally being addressed and being celebrated in a way that it hasn’t been for years. So I’m really happy about that.

Adams: I want to say something about Michelle Obama ... The notion of the first lady as an African-American was very much an image issue. That the first family—people made jokes about, you know, fried chicken on the White House lawn—that buying this family, taking the package of those two adorable little girls and the African-American, sort of multiracial woman without the immigrant piece, was really a picture that people had to buy into. I mean, a lot of people thought that the Bill Cosby Show was a little bit of a fantasy. This was a real family about to move into the White House. And I think that Michelle Obama’s role in clearly creating and defining her profile as highly articulate, very focused on her family, solid … I just think that’s a big piece of this too, the way that her image evolved and the way they both helped define that.

Callender: I must say, it was very interesting to see how the people really marketed [Obama]. He’s like an icon; he’s like a Britney Spears, a Paris Hilton. He’s like a 50 Cent. I mean, people have diamond beads of Barack Obama on their chest and Barack on their hat. I’m not really a big fan of stuff like that, but it’s amazing to see how people are invested in it. … It shows that they understand. There’s something going on. There’s some educational value, which is being embedded, which is really good.

Adams: I’m just going to say one more thing. I think there are some very intelligent, well informed people in this country who didn’t want him to be president, who wanted to vote for John McCain. And I don’t feel comfortable—I mean, we’re sort of canonizing this man. But I think what we’re going to see … that a lot of the views that belong to McCain and that campaign are valuable notions. I think the economy is very complex. I think you could analyze where one campaign went down the tubes and another one continued to rise, but we can’t throw out those ideas, and we don’t want to present ourselves as being, “Of course, we know everyone in the world wanted Barack Obama to be president.” Simply not true. And I think, of all people, he was mindful of that, and I think you can also see—I mean, I never saw him as [being as] liberal as people said he was, and he’s not. And we shall see! So I think we just have to not just fall over to one side of the boat and lose our sense of equilibrium.

Lioi: Well, on that very note—he himself has said, “Judge me by what I do.” I mean, there’s all this bling coming out that’s associated with Barack, but he’s not interested in that, it seems—right? In other words, he has said to people, “If you want me to fulfill your vision, you’d better tell me what it is, because I have a complex job, and now I have to do it.” So I agree with you; I think he’s more of a centrist than people thought he was originally——

Adams: And always was.

Lioi: And always was. For instance, when he said, “I am not for this war, but I do understand that sometimes you have to go to war,” that was a classic moment—you know, it’s not like he’s the spirit of the '60s, in some bizarre, cartoonish way, suddenly embodied. He’s a pragmatist and a centrist. But at the same time, he wants to say, “Now you’ve put me in this position and I have to perform it. If I don’t perform, you know, you have to take responsibility for that, too.” And that’s an important way of empowering politics as well. It’s not just all about him.

Scott-Williams: Thank you. This was glorious.


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