The Long Struggle

Yesterday I asked whether or not we’re looking for a therapist-in-chief during this presidential race. That was based on some comments by Democratic strategists/pundits who said that Clinton is offering solutions while Sanders is “reflecting back their feelings to people.” The assumptions underlying that assessment are that people are angry/afraid and candidates need to mirror those feelings to show that they “get it.”

That’s one of the many reasons why I found this excerpt from a book by Erin Aubry Kaplan to be so fascinating. As an African American woman, she is writing about her initial reaction to candidate Barack Obama back in 2007. In this quote, she is explaining why she hadn’t been impressed with his 2004 speech at the Democratic convention, with it’s emphasis on finding “strength in unity across party and ethnic lines.”

I had grown up with a fiercely activist father, a soldier of the movement and a New Orleans native who believed in justice and equality for all, but he harbored no illusions about the depth of white American resistance to both. He was committed to changing laws and behaviors; changing hearts and minds was not a reachable goal. It depended too much on feelings, and in my father’s line of work and in his own life experience, feelings were unreliable, mercurial, even dangerous, for everybody concerned. Anybody talking about feelings as they related to justice and politics had his head in the clouds or was secretly averse to the real work needed for racial progress — work that was tough, unglamorous, and distinctly unsentimental. It was also lonely. Erasing differences and coming together across color lines as a way to effect change was one of those facile ’60s utopian ideas commercialized by companies like Coca-Cola that celebrated brotherhood and equality as the good feeling Americans get singing a song or downing a soda. Now that feeling had been resurrected as a serious message for a seriously disillusioned age that seemed to be always invoking the ’60s, minus its actual events and unfinished business. The sense of possibility, of transformation being eternally on the horizon, was the only use people had for the ’60s anymore. Mainstream politics had long ago stopped talking about its hard lessons and touted only hope and rainbows, talking up the idea of change rather than the mechanics of it.

In that quote is an explanation of why African Americans like Kaplan and her father don’t find their feelings reflected in presidential candidates and probably wouldn’t trust one who attempted to do so. You also see an understanding that the “real work” of change is “tough, unglamorous and distinctly unsentimental.”

A lot of people have wondered why African Americans seem to be more supportive of Clinton’s pragmatic approach than they are of Sanders’ idealism (I know that’s oversimplified, but bear with me). There are probably as many answers to that as there are African Americans. But themes do emerge. People like Kaplan and her father have learned some hard lessons about what to expect from white Americans and our politicians. The older generation still has memories of what it took to actually change segregation and dismantle the legal framework of Jim Crow. After all that, they find themselves almost 40 years later still having to assert that black lives matter, defend their right to vote, and fight to change our criminal injustice system.

In addition to Kaplan’s eloquent words, perhaps this theme is best captured by the song that has become the Black National Anthem…”Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Take a few minutes to watch this rendition that pairs the words of the song to images of what the long struggle means.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.