Where were you for the fist bump heard ‘round the world? The dap that changed America? The knuckles that knocked these United States into a new post-racial era?
More formally, where were you when Barack Obama was crowned as the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States?
Remember, this was pre-Palin and before the financiapocalypse; before bailouts became buzz-worthy and before Tim Geithner and Sonia Sotomayor became household banter. It might be a strain, but go back a year ago—to June 3, 2008—when hysteria over "The Obama Pound” first ensued.
Moments before taking the stage to deliver a speech that needed to claim victory and unite a fractured, primary-fatigued Democratic Party, a weary but elated Obama got one last gesture of moral support: His wife, Michelle, looked her man in the eye, mischievously stuck out her right fist and gave him a solid pound.
This June 3, a group of media and design impresarios are promoting “National Fist Bump Day” in honor of the anniversary. They want to celebrate a new iconic American expression of authenticity, political transparency and of course, change we can believe in.
"The idea behind National Fist Bump Day is to give Americans a chance to make the world a slightly better place with a simple and fun gesture of respect," says David Weiner, one of the organizers, along with Sarah Greenwalt. “It may not solve the world's problems, but it can at least reaffirm the fact that in the end, we all can get down with each other.”
This mainstream outreach may seem warm and fuzzy now, but at the time, some writers wondered if white folks had even noticed the gesture. And oh, they did. (To the point of not even paying attention to the perhaps more dubious booty-love tap that followed right after.) For a fascinating few weeks, the fist bump, a functional, hyper-hygienic descendant of the handshake and high five, was the topic du jour around America's water coolers. First came the blogs and tabloids, both here and across the pond. Then came the satirical cover of The New Yorker depicting the first couple as a Muslim Constitution-burner and an Angela Davis wannabe. This controversial image inspired parodies of the parody. And of course, the conservative response to Hurricane Obama made the whole thing feel like a game of “telephone” gone wrong: Fox News host E.D. Hill asked on-air, with fevered eyes: “A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab?”
So why take us back there? If anything, the fist-jab furor represented a profound moment in interracial misunderstanding. For blacks, the salutation was nothing new. We wondered, were white folks really so ignorant, our worlds so segregated, that they couldn’t tell what a good old-fashioned dap looked like?
It was not a good look for America. But this, apparently, is what it took for us to fall for our new exotic prospective first couple. This brief window into the intimate connection between Barack and Michelle became an extended window into black life—one that has only opened wider since that fateful day a year ago.
Primarily, the dap struck a chord with America because of its casual authenticity. Obama is attractive. He’s charming. And he knows how to spit a cool game even when the heat is on. But staid American formality is nowhere more entrenched than in our politics.
Which was why the dap was so surprising. I assumed that if Obama were really serious about becoming the first black president, surely he’d have to play by the old rules. He’d show up, but in a mask, keeping some part of who he is trapped in the closet. And if that were the case, his victory—our victory—might feel pyrrhic. Like we won the political Grammy with some fake lip-syncing Milli Vanilli tactics.
But no: Barack brushed his shoulders off when Hillary tried to ether him. Then he showed up in Philadelphia and challenged the establishment to not ignore the still divisive issues of race. And finally, upon his nomination, gave dap to his lady in a moment of spontaneous celebration. Because that’s how he felt.
Now, all kinds of people are “fist bumping” with verve and alacrity, from runners to astronauts in outer-space to Twitterers in virtual space. And this week, holiday organizers Weiner and Greenwalt have partnered with the creators of the "Bump" application for iPhone, which lets users share phone and other information by simply "bumping" them together.
Obama’s campaign triumph united America and resonated so deeply—not only because he assumed the position of the first real, living, breathing H.N.I.C.—but because he went out of his way to bring blacks with him. To make sure we all knew that black culture was real, not just a thought exercise for journalists. Even better, he demonstrated he didn’t need to go all Flavor Flav to let people know he was enjoying himself.
If any of us were still on the fence at that point, this may have been the moment we got off. This guy was doing it his way.
For those inclined to chuckle and be dismissive of a holiday honoring a relatively innocuous greeting, it’s important to remember that Fist Bump Day has a simple objective: to honor a signature moment in the history of this country. Think George Washington crossing the Delaware. Think Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
And think of our first black president and his lady giving each other some knuckle love one year ago. Now, go ahead, give someone you love a pound; celebrate National Fist Bump Day!
Patrice Evans is creator of the blog The Assimilated Negro. His first book, an encyclopedic send-up of the modern black experience in post-racial America, will be published by Crown/Three Rivers later this year.