I once had the temerity at a Black Press luncheon at the National Press Club to whisper to Army General Vincent Brooks: “Don’t mess up. Don’t embarrass us.”
I had a lot of nerve.
Gen. Brooks is “The Barack Obama of West Point.” He is the first Black Brigade Commander at the U.S. Military Academy–the highest rank attainable by a cadet at West Point. That’s like being the President of the Harvard Law Review. Like being first in his class.
And just like Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) who is poised to be elected President of the United States, Gen. Brooks has Hollywood-leading-man good looks, and he earned his honors based on his undeniable qualifications inside a system that remains to this day, everything but a meritocracy, a level playing field.
But unlike Sen. Obama, who was reared by a single mom with the help of her parents, Gen. Brooks is the younger brother of an Army General–Leo Brooks Jr.–and his father, Leo Brooks, was also an Army General.
I had a lot of nerve cautioning a distinguished soldier like Gen. Brooks. But I come from the generation of Black men whose memories are fresh with the example of friends with college degrees, sometimes master’s degrees, who still worked the night shift at the U.S. Post Office because they could not get work in their fields of preparation. We knew the Post Office to be the “Graveyard of Black Ambition.”
So I just wanted Gen. Brooks to know that some of us Brothers in the Barbershop who only joke every week about one another’s make believe exploits in the corridors of power were looking at him, and hoping that he would realize that our own crushed aspirations were shining brightly in the stars on the epaulets on his shoulders.
Today, Sen. Obama is the valedictorian of the “Post Racial” generation, when a Black person just might have a chance to be judged on his or her merits, and not just on her or his skin color, and soon perhaps, not even be judged because he or she has a “funny” sounding or even a Muslim name, and maybe even become President of the United States of America.
Sen. Obama–with his beautiful wife and family who look to me like they could have been painted by Romare Bearden with Norman Rockwell’s brush–Sen. Obama, who accepts the Democratic nomination for President today on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is not just the living embodiment of that dream, he is the walking, talking, dream-come-true of Charles Hamilton Houston, an Amherst College valedictorian, a Harvard Law School (cum laude) graduate, and a member of the Harvard Law Review who was simply too dark skinned to ever practice law in the then-still very racist world of American law and letters…the dream of the brilliant law school graduate, All-America athlete, actor and singer Paul Robeson who was also too dark skinned to even contemplate a law career in this country.
I come up on the cusp of the two generations, at the end of the very racist era when men like Houston were openly penalized because of their race, and before the “Post Racial” age of success by Black folks like Obama and Brooks, and Oprah, and Tiger Woods, and the Williams Sisters, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and don’t forget the fictional Dr. Cliff Huxtable–the Obama story on network television 20 years before the real-life Huxtables are poised to become America’s first family indeed.
I came up with college classmates like Tommy Smith and John Carlos, with role models like Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) and Muhammad Ali, who called me to forsake my own ambition inside still-racist America and to throw myself into the arms of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad to struggle for Freedom, Justice, and Equality for the millions and millions of our people who are yet cut off from even the dream that the Obama family is fulfilling right before our eyes.
So, yes, I’m proud–who wouldn’t want children, or nieces and nephews, or cousins like Barack and Michelle Obama. I’m proud of the Obamas and wish them every success. But I confess, I’m too much like the Revs. Jesse Jackson, and Jeremiah Wright: too old to forget, and too scarred, with too many stripes on our backs to forgive America for her sins against our people for 400 years. So now, I want the “post-racial generation” to remember that “the struggle continues.”
And until all of our brothers and sisters in “Da Hood” are free to strive for excellence without the stigma that excellence and intelligence are equal to “acting White,” then men and women like Gen. Brooks, and the Obamas just can’t “mess up” in their public or private lives, otherwise they will crush the ambitions of the “post-post racial generation” which still slumbers like a sleeping giant in our midst.