There may be a temptation to look at this as the emergence of Obama’s “Talented Tenth,” a revival of the phrase coined by W.E.B. Du Bois to define a class of intelligentsia that would lead black America to a hypothetical promised land. The phrase itself, for all its grand intentions, came to exclude as many as it included.
What Obama is doing runs deeper. There was a common rhetorical thread throughout his campaign: Obama spoke to Americans across the usual lines of distinction. But implicit in his message of hope and possibility was the transmission of the idea to beleaguered African Americans that being young, gifted and black isn’t so much a matter of degree or pedigree as it is a shift in our perception of ourselves, our potential, our reason for being. For all the trappings of the high office he’s about to inherit, it all really started for Barack Obama when he was a grassroots community organizer, when he was that YG&B brother down the block.
Almost 40 years ago, Nina Simone helped to cement a phrase in both the popular lexicon and the emotional armature of black America. But now, with Barack Obama ready to raise his hand and make history, the idea behind the phrase is what’s indelible, more now than ever before. For all of us.
Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root.