‘Futureland’ and a co-worker’s racism harsh my Obama high

January 21, 2009

futurelandFROM JASON’S GRITTED TEETH — My outlook swings day-to-day from gloriously optimism to blood-boiling pessimism.

Yesterday, watching Obama take control of the mess into which the executive branch had fallen, was a good day. In the evening, I told Andrew I believe we’ve done much more than we realize to eliminate racism in this country, or at least make it so socially odious that it might as well not exist.

Today, however, was a pessimistic day as my idealism was smashed. In the cubicle next door, I heard a co-worker raving about an encounter with a client he labeled “a damned Arab.”

“They’re all terrorists. Even the children… You can’t trust any of them. I don’t know why they have to call me, talking all Arab. We should blow them all up,” he said.

I am sheltered. I normally associate with people of extreme education, raised in a strict environment of social correctness. This co-worker’s words were alien and loathsome. There was nothing in them to which I could connect on any level.

They were not the starry-eyed hope I felt during Tuesday’s inauguration. This co-worker clearly does not agree with Obama’s words: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The fever of the inauguration had given me a temporary peace. But my co-worker’s words jogged me into a blacker vision for our nation’s future, one that’s been reinforced in the last week while reading an excellent science fiction work by Walter Mosley, titled Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World.

This dystopia is no Idiocracy; it’s a world of corrupt geniuses and the helpless victims pulled into their sphere of influence. Futureland is a place of designer brain-viruses, corporate city-states and megalomaniacal dictators, genetically-engineered slaves, and politically oppressed masses.

It’s a place where children are drafted into government cabals; where the race and gender divides have exploded; where the Supreme Court allows citizenry to be revoked from anyone the authorities deem socially dangerous; where property rights have been all but abolished; where pre-teens live in underground concentration camp castes while the rich cavorte in the streets above; and where science and religion have been merged into one InfoChurch to keep the desperate under thumb.

Some days Mosley’s futurescape seems laughable. Others — when a co-worker reveals such ill-masked, torturous hate — his grim vision seems as imminent as the vignets he ties together in this book. And then I wonder whether we’ve really progressed at all as a nation, or whether we’ve simply deluded ourselves into thinking our attitudes are evolving at all.

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Obama’s eloquence straightened American spines today

January 20, 2009

165357FROM JASON’S LUNCH ROOM — Everyone today will have an Obama story.

Mine happened in a small, corporate lunch room where about 40 people gathered in absolute silence. Where mainly there’s a deafening rabble of voices, there was respectful silence. All mouths — from 18 to 65, black, white, brown, male, female, poor, less poor, smart, less smart — were clamped shut.

And every eye was on the LCD flat-screen on one end of the room. Every head nodded in unison as the 44th President talked about economic and military crises, and about unity in the face of very palpable threats. A buzz of electric agreement surged through the room when Barack Obama told us to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking.”

My co-workers are not people to remain quiet long; but for 30 minutes today, they listened without speaking. They agreed without dissenting. They prepared for hard work without grumbling.

One giant of a man, who looked like he could crush me with a glance, wiped tears away. When Obama finished speaking, a white man and black man at the back of the room gripped each other in a bear hug and then went separate ways without saying a word. At the end of the 30-minute address, there was no hooting or whistling in my lunch room; everyone walked from the room with backs straight, eyes thoughtful, and minds in a mutual alignment.

The word I’ve been avoiding here is “hope,” because it carries with it the weight of a political slogan. What I can say I saw instead in that room was an expectation of success.

After 12:30 p.m., it was finally right and prideful again to be an American. After eight long years of confusion and embarrassment, we were no longer ‘Merkans. There’s no more need to worry about “strategery.”

It was liberating, and for the first time (especially watching the faces of my black co-workers) I could start to scratch the surface of what it really means to live an historical moment. I thought to myself that if I could magnify my content by a thousand, it might come close to what our black brothers felt in 1964 when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

I couldn’t help questioning the ethics of the swelling patriotism I felt in that lunch room.

The day after the nation elected Obama, I asked a black worker what it felt like to have a black man become president. She told me it was a feeling I could never as a white person understand. She apologized, saying it wasn’t meant to be racist; just that I lacked the cultural lexicon necessary to get it.

This, she said, was validation that a person like her could achieve the highest level of power. All the doors were finally thrown open to her, not on paper but in practice.

She’s right, of course. I’m not sure that I can understand the spiritual release she experienced on election night, or at noon today. I’ve never been shackled with the onus of minority race.

But I can understand in many other ways. My family grew up in poverty. My family accepted government cheese. My family did not often have money for new school clothes, let alone luxuries. My family did not have money to send me to college, and so I paid my way on the sweat of my brow instead of the polish of my spoon.

And here is a man that embodies that golden American upward mobility, that seed of manifest destiny we all want to nurture in ourselves. When I watched President Obama’s address today, I saw myself on that stage even though my skin is white and my paycheck is small.