The Gifted Ones

Obama's top-shelf cabinet shows how much we have changed.

In November 1969, the great Nina Simone released what would be her entrée to mainstream popular culture, one of her biggest selling records ever, and an anthem of a movement that, robbed of its messenger 19 months earlier in Memphis, still carried forth his message:

To be young, gifted and black
Is where it’s at.

The Simone song, “Young, Gifted and Black,” has been covered by everyone from Aretha to Dionne Warwick to a pre-fame Elton John and remains Simone’s great crossover triumph.

Most recently, the idea of being young, gifted and black has acquired an unprecedented burnish on the American experience, and not just because Barack Obama won the election.

Now that President-elect Obama has put in place his cabinet and advisers—informed by sensitivities to gender, ethnicity and race—it’s plain to see that YG&B isn’t just a state of mind; it’s becoming a fact of our next national leadership.

From Melody Barnes, 44, named director of White House Domestic Policy Council, to Rob Nabors, 37, the next deputy director of the Office of Management; from Susan Rice, 44, the next U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to Eric Holder, 57 (OK, youngish, gifted and black), the Attorney General-designate, to Desiree Rogers, 49, the next social secretary, a body of talent is taking shape in the aborning Obama administration. It’s not only a vanguard of new political talent, but also a harbinger of black and minority capability poised to make its presence felt far beyond the Beltway.

It is, of course, anyone’s guess as to how many of the 300,000-plus résumés that have carpet-bombed the Obama-Biden transition office are from black and minority job seekers. It’s undeniable that Obama’s election, and the make-up of his corps of advisers, has sent a signal to African Americans across the country, young professionals hoping to make their mark in a government they believe may have a place for them like it never has before.

The fact that most of them won’t gain entry to the White House as anything other than part of a tour group almost doesn’t matter. What’s important is the sense of possibility Team Obama imparts—the feeling that the way is clear for black and minority scholars and business people, writers and thinkers to attain a visibility and influence, by virtue of both their competence and their unique worldview, unlike any other time in the nation’s history. Not just in Washington, D.C., but everywhere in the country.

“[Obama’s] network of black executives, lawyers, fund-raisers and advisers stretches from Chicago to Cambridge, Mass., to Wall Street to Washington, D.C.,” the Wall StreetJournalnoted in a Nov. 6 article on black power brokers. “They are also bound by an intricate social web that operates largely out of sight from whites: family connections, black law-school alumni organizations, black fraternities and sororities, as well as popular vacation spots for affluent African-Americans like Martha’s Vineyard.”