America’s Chitlin’ Era

Blacks are experts at turning nasty scraps into feasts. Enter President Obama.

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What does this mean for Americans in general, for black Americans in particular, for Obama himself?

On the good side, perhaps it will serve as a small reminder that there’s another side to the never-ending debate about what’s wrong with black people (manifested most recently by the four-hour-long CNN series Black in America). Whether “our problem” is really racism or culture, or some combination thereof, surely it is worthwhile to recognize and celebrate all that we have managed to accomplish given the available tools. Africans in America created culture(s), music(s), a language and a cuisine out of little more than scraps and leftovers, some of this and some of that. This is reason to be proud.

On the other hand, the Chitlin’ Era does present some problems. For Obama, it no doubt means that, should he actually win, the tough challenges and high expectations that await him will be matched by deep bitterness and recriminations whenever he fails. And fail he will, sometimes; all presidents do. However, when The One tries to clean up the mess in which we find ourselves, it’s gonna be stinky. Some people won’t like it; they might get nervous and flee to the suburbs, which in this case would be Canada, I suppose. Those of us who stay and stick it out might find ourselves with only check-cashing stores and hair-supply shops for services. (Here, I fear I have lost control of my metaphor, but you know what I mean.)

But quiet as it’s kept, some things do go back after going black. Neighborhoods, for instance. Look at Harlem, Northeast Portland, North Kenwood-Oakland in Chicago—all gentrifying at a rapid clip. A good friend of mine swears that the South End neighborhood of Boston—now home to a largely white, largely gay and so pricey a parking spot costs more than my house—was, 30 years ago, the poorest neighborhood in town. (And 30 years before that home to Boston’s solid black middle class, including a huge segment of Pullman Porters.)

Likewise, the first time I took my children to visit the African Meeting House in Boston I was surprised to find it tucked away on Beacon Hill, one of the city’s toniest, most exclusive slices of real estate. But then I learned that Beacon Hill, or at least the northern slope of it, had been the heart of black Boston in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Can you imagine? We owned the joint!

Trust me: This is no longer the case.

So, fret not, America. Face an Obama future with confidence. Remember that black folks are highly-skilled at making the best of a rotten situation. We excel at spinning straw into gold, or at least at taking offal and making dinner. We might all have to eat chitlins for a while. But we shall not starve.

Kim McLarin is a regular contributor to The Root.