Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How Barack Obama Is Thriving In Spite of His "Toby" Moment

Many of us know the scene well from Alex Haley's Roots. Kunta Kinte, the proud, young African has been captured. He has endured the Middle Passage and sold in America on an Annapolis, Maryland auction block. He must now endure life on a Spotsylvania County, Virginia plantation.

He still has his energy. He still has his confidence. He still has his fire. He still has his love for his people, his homeland and his way of life. He does not want to disconnect from his family, his heritage or his faith.

The overseer is offended that he has not accepted the good name his new master (Master Reynolds) has chosen for him.
So he seeks to beat that pride out of him. It is the "lesson" he must learn about how things have been done and are done on "this hear land".

Watch it here.

For weeks now, I have not been able to get this image out of my head.

The Pursuit of the Proud American with the African Name

I see how it directly relates to this historical moment of Sen. Barack Obama, the proud American with the African name and heritage, as he runs for President of the United States and I'll explain how in this essay.

Ever since he entered the race for president, people have been trying to capture Barack Obama. They have been trying to find whatever evidence they could to discredit him and kill his spirit. It is something that many African-Americans know deeply and converse about at water coolers, on Internet blogs and listervs and on Sunday mornings after service.

Capture him! "Let's bring up his past drug use." (He talked about it freely in "Dreams of My Father" long before he decided to run for President of the United States.)

Capture him! "Let's excoriate him for his church membership. You know they have that black value system. That must be racist."

Capture him! "Let's crucify him because he is the son of a man who practiced the Muslim faith. You know his grandmother in Kenya is a Muslim, too."

Capture him! "Let's get him because he and his wife live in that nice mansion in Hyde Park. How'd he get a mansion like that? It must have been something illegal. You know they don't deserve to live like that."

In the meantime, Barack Obama has caught America on fire. He has set the nation ablaze warm with thoughts of hope, change, possibility and America living up to its promise and responsiblity to the "least of these" - the poor and the disenfranchised.

Obama, the proud American with the African name and heritage, continues to conquer in spite of the capture. He conquers territories unimagined. He wins the popular election - the vote of the masses - in Democratic primaries in states that do not have majority populations of people of color. As his wife so aptly says there has never been a moment when a candidate like this can win states like "Idaho, Washington, Maine and Hawaii."

But since he's been captured - now we (the naysayers, the people that don't want him to succeed) have to whip him.

Whip him for being proud!
Whip him for telling the truth!
Whip him for being different!
Whip him for winning in spite of our attempts to keep him from winning!

The Whipping: Explained

Lash #1: During the February 26, 2008, Cleveland Democratic presidential candidate debate, Tim Russert said the following:

"On Sunday, the headline in your hometown paper, Chicago Tribune: "Louis Farrakhan Backs Obama for President at Nation of Islam Convention in Chicago." Do you accept the support of Louis Farrakhan?" link to

The bullwhip has hit the back of Obama, the proud American with the African name and heritage. It is intended to start the breaking process. Obama stands, but does not wince.

Obama's response: "You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments. I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible. I did not solicit this support."

Lash #2: The bullwhip rares again. "Do you reject his support?"

Obama's response: "Well, Tim, you know, I can't say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy. (Laughter.) You know, I -- you know, I -- I have been very clear in my denunciations of him and his past statements, and I think that indicates to the American people what my stance is on those comments."

Lash #3: The lash speed increases. It is clear that it is a challenge to break this proud man's spirit.

"The problem some voters may have is, as you know, Reverend Farrakhan called Judaism "gutter religion."

Obama's response: "I am very familiar with his record, as are the American people. That's why I have consistently denounced it. This is not something new. This is something that -- I live in Chicago. He lives in Chicago. I've been very clear, in terms of me believing that what he has said is reprehensible and inappropriate. And I have consistently distanced myself from him."

Lash #4: "The title of one of your books, "Audacity of Hope," you acknowledge you got from a sermon from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the head of the Trinity United Church. He said that Louis Farrakhan "epitomizes greatness. . . What do you do to assure Jewish-Americans that, whether it's Farrakhan's support or the activities of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, your pastor, you are consistent with issues regarding Israel and not in any way suggesting that Farrakhan epitomizes greatness?"

Obama's response: "When I was -- just last point I would make -- when I was giving -- had the honor of giving a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in conjunction with Martin Luther King's birthday in front of a large African-American audience, I specifically spoke out against anti- Semitism within the African-American community. And that's what gives people confidence that I will continue to do that when I'm president of the United States."

Lash #5: (It is not unusual to have someone else symbolically take the whip for a moment if a particular point of emphasis is trying to be made to the proud man or woman being whipped. At times, it may considered a point of privilege.).

Enter Sen. Clinton's commentary -

"I just want to add something here, because I faced a similar situation when I ran for the Senate in 2000 in New York. And in New York, there are more than the two parties, Democratic and Republican. And one of the parties at that time, the Independence Patty, was under the control of people who were anti-Semitic, anti- Israel. And I made it very clear that I did not want their support. I rejected it. I said that it would not be anything I would be comfortable with. And it looked as though I might pay a price for that. But I would not be associated with people who said such inflammatory and untrue charges against either Israel or Jewish people in our country."

Lash #6: "Are you suggesting Senator Obama is not standing on principle?"

Lash #7: "No. I'm just saying that you asked specifically if he would reject it. And there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting. And I think when it comes to this sort of, you know, inflammatory -- I have no doubt that everything that Barack just said is absolutely sincere. But I just think, we've got to be even stronger. We cannot let anyone in any way say these things because of the implications that they have, which can be so far reaching. "

The naysayers say: "You cannot just criticize him. You must deny him. You must deny your father. You must give up your name. You must give up your heritage. You must deny your church."

The lashes continue.

Realizing that he does not want to die politically during this debate and his campaign, Obama gives more emphasis. He accepts his "Toby" moment. He, like Kunta Kinte, makes a decision to live. Perhaps he feels inside of him the possibilities that exist if he LIVES.

Obama's response: Tim, I have to say I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word "reject" Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word "denounce," then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.

The Reality of Survival

So Obama, the proud American with the African name and heritage, continues on. He survives this moment. He does not die on the whipping post. He keeps his pride. He accomplishes much. He even wins victory in the land that has soil rich with the blood and memory of enslaved Africans generations before (and their descendants). That land is Mississippi. Obama, the proud American with the African name and heritage, wins the popular vote of the Mississippi democratic primary.

But you can never assume that you ever lash free - as you navigate a new land, a land that you do not ultimately control, but are trying to survive and thrive in nonetheless. The overseer can pull you back at any moment for a "seasoning" designed to keep you in line and to diminish your pride.

"The main method used to control the behaviour of slaves was the threat of having them whipped. The number of lashes depended on the seriousness of the offence. Austin Steward wrote that on his plantation 39 was the number for most offences. Francis Fredric ran away and was free for nine weeks. After he was captured he was given 107 lashes. Moses Roper, received 200 lashes and this was only brought to an end when the master's wife pleaded for his life to be spared." From ""

Lash #8: A weekend before Holy Week begins the issue of comments by his pastor in sermons delivered in 2003 are elevated as YouTube and broadcast news networks are flooded with 30-second clips of Wright's "inflammatory" sermons. Obama has tried to avoid the moments of disrespect to his elder - an elder that has given him and his community much. He has repeatedly criticized the statements, but not the man.

But the lashes continue.

"Denounce him, they say."
"Deny him, they say."

The crowds increase. The modern day lynching continues.

Some of the other enslaved Africans (and well-meaning abolitionists) hang their heads low. Sad, that Kunta has accepted the name "Toby" after repeated whipping, after almost being whipped to death.

Some call him a sell-out. Others say "I would have never said the name Toby if they whipped me. How could he?" (Note: that the lash has never touched their back in such a way.")

The blessing in his "Toby" moment

In his "Toby" moment, Obama was not and is not a sell-out.

For even though Kunta Kinte took the name Toby to survive, his African spirit lived. Not only did it live, it thrived.

His legacy remained strong and revered for 6 generations and beyond. His warrior spirit and his perseverance gave birth to Chicken George - an entrepreneur who was born two generations later. Three generations later that same warrior spirit had connected with generations of grace, faith and creativity to give birth to Alex Haley.

Alex Haley, the descendant of the proud African Kunta Kinte that took the name Toby, inspired a generation of people to be proud of their heritage and to research their roots.

In the same token, even in his "Toby" moment, what has Sen. Obama, the proud American with the African name and heritage, given birth to? A generation of young people energized. A legion of elders inspired. He has given birth to a new America - America will never be the same because of what his candidacy and success has meant to so many people from so many backgrounds and walks of life.

His candidacy has brought people from every class to work together for a new America. An America that looks different than the one we have now. An America where everyone can achieve more, realize their dreams and work together for a common good.

Kesha Boyce Williams, M.A.
Copyright 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Day 6

1. How difficult it is to catalog 4pm thoughts when you are driving (since I've driven the past two days).
2. The scariness of the HIV/AIDS crisis (that was Michael Baisden's topic today).
3. How the media covers white murders vs. black ones (all of this "what went wrong with the man in Omaha).
4. Why the story about the 10-month old in Pa. got so little coverage and SO LITTLE outrage.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Day 5

1. There was a really loud drunk woman on the bus and I thought about how sad it was that she didn't know how she sounded and how hard it must be to walk away from addiction.

2. I wondered what would happen to me if something really jumped off on this bus. I remember in Chicago people used to fight on the #4 Cottage Grove bus all the time. I didn't ride that bus past 35 and King Drive.

3. There was cursing on the bus and I really wish there was a better way for people to use words. There are so many out there that sound a whole lot better and are a lot more descriptive than curse words. I didn't grow up in a house where cursing was encouraged or tolerated so I guess as an adult it still is not music to my ears.

I really wanted to say something, but you can't really say things like that to people these days without getting cursed out or worse.

4. I saw a man reading BusinessWeek and the cover story was "Can Greed Save Africa?" I wondered why animals are used to represent Africa more than people. The cover had a LION on it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Day 4

I'm reading In Sweet Company by Margaret Wolf and the first two excerpts brought the following thoughts yesterday:

1) Sister Helen Prejean (of Dead Man Walking fame) talked about the difference between SUCCESS and EXCELLENCE. She said it is more important to aim to be EXCELLENT. I thought about what that really meant and why success was such a limited term.

2) Grandma Twylah Nitsch talked about her concept of meditation and sacred silence and how it differs from other concepts. She makes specific requests for answers to the sacred during her meditation. Made me think about my own meditation approaches.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Day 3

Yesterday's thoughts.

1) It's cold, really cold. Time to get new tights, gloves, scarf, etc.

2) Currently reading Kickboxing Geishas by Veronica Chambers. As a fellow journalist, her approach to finding out how Japanese women navigate modern life and craft so many different identities, reminds me of my own research and reporting style.

3) My husband is preaching on a pre-Thanksgiving service on next Wednesday, I wondered what his message might be.

4) I revisited Facebook and found a lot of old friends. The world is becoming so isolated that is interesting that the popularity of internet social networking (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn) is that it connects you to people you already know primarily.

5) Current soundtrack in my head: Kirk Franklin's "Looking for You."
6) I had a migraine for more than an hour before I jotted my 4pm thoughts down.

7) Other soundtrack in my head: Bishop Larry Trotter's " What's To Come Is Better Than What's Been."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Day 2

Yesterday's 4pm thoughts.

1) My bus was 10 or 15 minutes late. I was a little upset about it.

2) I reflected on a conversation I had with a colleague earlier in the day about servant leadership and how important it was.

3) I saw an RTA ad about homeownership opportunities and compared that to the dilapidated homes I saw along my bus route.

4) I reflected on how much Cleveland reminded me of my former home Baltimore. Baltimore has remade itself as the new "it" place during the last 10 or 15 years, be encouraged Cleveland. You can do it too.

5) I passed a daycare center called "Little Midgets DayCare" and I thought isn't that an offensive name?

6)I saw a very, skinny woman with red pants and yellow socks and no coat on, smoking outside of one of those neighborhood grocery stores. I wondered was she addicted to anything.

7)Yesterday on the news there was a story about a woman who had bought a home and it had been burglarized. She was a soldier, helping people in Iraq and thieves had picked apart her home. They took her pipes, hot water heater. Times are desperate, but not that desperate. Why would someone do that?

8) On 13th and Superior, the bus door opened and a man through his trash out of the bus on to the ground. He stayed on the bus. I picked the litter up. How different would our cities and our neighborhoods look if we picked up the trash, didn't break bottles and leave them on the ground,etc. How does God feel when we abuse the Earth He made?

9) Mary J Blige's "My Life" played in my head. Listen.

10)I got on the bus and a man was working on his laptop. Technology makes us work around the clock. Is that a good thing? Why do we feel like we have to work all the time?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Day 1

Today I thought about:

1) I saw a pregnant girl smoking. I wondered did she know the dangers of smoking when she's pregnant? I wondered did she care? I wondered why not, if she didn't? Read why it's not the thing to do.

2)I passed the VA hospital on my route and thought about how my dad was in the VA hospital two years ago for a bit and wondered about the challenges that veterans have from wars past and present.

3) I passed the Fatima Family Center and noticed the adrinka symbols out front.

4)I saw a hotdog vendor at 13th and Superior and thought about the challenges of working and eating in the city. I thought about my days eating hot dogs from street vendors in other cities I've lived like Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

5)I saw school kids coming out of the Cleveland Lighthouse Community school and wondered how hard it must be to actually learn anything with the state of education these days. I thought about how hard the teachers must be working to be inspiring when they are getting paid almost next to nothing. I noticed that most of the kids were black and there were only a few black teachers among them.

6)I boarded my bus to the suburbs and thought about how much nicer the buses are going to the suburbs than to the city.

7) I listed to Michael Baisden on the radio and wondered how one of the leaders of the Jena Six movement could also be talking simultaneously about things like getting your groove on, mama's boys and is your house clean?

8) I thought about what would be good holiday gifts for our day care providers.