Me, my children, Chicago and Obama

A Black man’s thoughts on Barack Obama’s election, which I did not predict. A sign of my age. Exclusive extracts from C Gerald Fraser’s private notebook

My children, scattered across the United States, called me election night. One was overjoyed. One sought my reaction, what did old, cynical, no-faith-in-America’s-white-voters-Dad think. Dad was stunned. One asked the question directed, I learned, to many older people, “Did you ever think you would see this in your lifetime?”


Of course, my answer was no. I had envisioned a ballot-box lynching. After the votes were tallied, I thought, thank God for the ghastly economy, Americans have been forced to cope with reality. There was also, from my perspective, something that most people didn’t talk about, or realize, that I thought had at least a bit of significance.

As a resident of New York for many decades, I have often thought of my adopted hometown as a city of unrivaled eminence. If you thrive on knowing that your needs and wants are, figuratively, never far from your doorstep, New York is the place to be.

Politically, however, New York City is hopeless. Harlem had the reputation of being the “Black capital of the world.” But it has proven over the years to be a castrated community whose impotence has crippled its Black residents who once stood proud.


Obama’s victory underscores Chicago’s premier position as a city of vigorous, earnest, smart Black people. And, alas, that is nothing new. The Black Chicagoan–past and present–is who I thought played a critical role in the making of this new President.
In politics, Chicago always seems to be in front. The first Black member of Congress in the twentieth century came from Chicago, Oscar De Priest, who served from 1929 to 1935. As corrupt and unyielding as the legendary Chicago political machine was, in it Black Chicagoans had a place.

Chicago, in the twentieth century, has sent two Black individuals to the U.S. Senate to represent the state of Illinois: Carol Moseley Braun (1993 – 1999, the first Black woman U.S. Senator,), and Barack Obama (2004). No other state has done that.

Chicago elected its first, and only, Black mayor, in 1983, the tough-minded, hard-hitting Harold Washington. Seven years later, New York City, playing catch-up, put David N. Dinkins, “a nice man,” in the mayor’s chair.
Furthermore, the company that created the world-renowned Ebony (in 1945) and Jet (in 1951), Johnson Publishing Company, got off the ground with local Black Chicagoans’ support and in 1949 built its showcase headquarters on one of Chicago’s downtown main streets, Michigan Avenue.


The former spiritual home of Malcolm X, the organization now led by Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam, or the Black Muslims, has its national center in Chicago.
Oprah established Chicago as the base for her billion-dollar empire.

When Jesse Jackson, the astute yet often-maligned survivor of the 1960’s civil rights movement, the “shadow senator” from Washington, D.C., the presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988, put down roots for his political base, Rainbow/PUSH, he chose Chicago.

When it comes to business and politics, New York can’t hold a candle to Chicago. Why?
People I’ve talked to focus on the nature of Black Chicagoans. They have deep-South roots in Mississippi and Arkansas; their forbears came up the Mississippi River to work in steel mills and meat packing houses and equally inelegant but paycheck-producing employment.


Chicago forged tough people. The white people (many immigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe) were tough and the Black people were tough also and had to unite to survive…

This is part of what I believe it took to create the community organizer heading for the White House. New Yorkers are too couth, too individualistic–New York City’s fabled “melting pot” sapped our spirit, produced entertainers, a few athletes, and thousands of wannabees–Chicago produces doers. Hats off, Chicago.

Now what? What’s the next move for America’s Black population–the young and the old, the urban, suburban, and rural, the middle class (whomever), and the working poor?

Among the myriad activities we confront, I think invigorating, energizing, and waking up the Congressional Black Caucus should be high on our agenda. Forget that most of its 41 members (with the exception of the President-elect) were running after Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential primary dawned.

Forget that Black Caucus elders espoused, for example, the impeachment of President George Bush and the defunding the Iraqi war when they were out of power in the Congressional hierarchy. But when voters anointed them in 2006 with the might to do, or even try to do these things, they backed off. 

Now it behooves those of us who send Black men and women to Congress to individually and collectively light a fire under them to push the new President in the proper direction and to use the bully pulpit to let their constituents and the country at large know what is happening in the nation’s capitol.

(Let’s hear from them beyond their self-serving newsletters and taxpayer-paid-for communiques to the faithful constituents. Let’s see them force their way, if they must, into the media–print and broadcast. Let’s hear from them.)

We want transparency, we want to be able to hold elected and unelected movers and shakers responsible. We kept hope alive, now we want change.

C Gerald Fraser, Chronicleworld Occasional Correspondent, is a senior journalist and cultural critic.