President Barack Obama’s victory is meaningful to a cross-section of Americans. His candidacy resulted in more new registered voters than at any other time in American history. As we reflect now on his journey, especially his Democratic primary battle with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, it is safe to say that this country was energized by seeing a woman and an African American compete for the highest office in the land. I believe that women everywhere hailed the accomplishments of Clinton, now the U.S. Secretary of State. Young girls are now thinking that they could someday become president of the United States of America. It is in that same vein that I think young African American boys have also been buoyed by President Obama’s achievement. To my mind, I hope that that the bar has been raised for African American boys.
There are many aspects of President Obama’s demeanor that can serve as a road map for young African American boys. Obviously he has seen and unseen traits. At or near the top is self-respect. His self-respect did not just begin when he became successful. He had it as a child. As we all know, he was raised primarily by his mother and his grandparents. He also developed goals, had dreams at an early age and factored in the need for an education in order to achieve his goals. His respect for other people is tied to his own self-respect. All throughout his march to the presidency, we saw that people of all races/ethnicities, young and old, were attracted to him. One of my old expressions is that in order to get respect, you must first be willing to give respect. I have long held the opinion that respect is earned and is not an entitlement. Obama has been able to move effortlessly through environments where the vast majority of people, at times, have not looked like him but they have respected him.
Another character trait that has endeared President Obama to the American electorate is his grace under fire. He had the ability throughout to deal with pressure-packed moments and not show his agitation or frustration. As he said early, on folks were examining his kindergarten papers yet he remained unruffled. His critics attacked the fact that he was black, yet he was undaunted. One of the most defining moments for me was the speech that he gave on race in Philadelphia. It was thoughtful and eloquent yet it is unfortunate that in 2009 race is still at the windowsill of our discontent. But he made his enemies that day his footstool and did it in such a respectable manner that he won over even more supporters. His inner qualities and his outward appearance was simply a winning combination. His adroitness when it came to his communication skills certainly gave him a clear and distinct advantage. The naysayers, of course, said that “anybody” can give a good speech. Of course when you are losing you tend to make those kinds of statements. His appearance was always presidential, with or without a suit and his trademark white shirt and stripped tie. His level of confidence transcended whatever he wore.
During this two-year process that led Barack Obama to become this nation’s 44th president have black boys paid attention and have they learned anything? Do they see him as a role model? If the answer is yes then self-respect and character must become more important in their lives. African American parents and love providers must become more proactive, and we must raise our own level of expectation about what we expect and more importantly what we are willing to do. It is exciting that he is in the White House but it also means that we must take care of our house too. While some will call it “uppity” it is imperative that our young men learn to speak correctly. We still have far too many African American boys who don’t see the advantage in speaking well. If young African American males want to enjoy the many fruits of success they will first have to learn how to master the English language. Not all black boys will go to Harvard Law School like Obama but at a bare minimum they must graduate from high school and get a job with a training component and advancement to it. Having at least an associate degree is now being seen as a means to achieve a decent quality of life. Wearing droopy pants and oversized jackets thinking that you will get a job much less respect is only fooling yourself. African American males can’t see President Barack Obama saying “yes we can” when they are standing at the corner of despair and disappointment lamenting the system.
As African American males, we all have choices. I was young once and I, too, had some choices to make. Many of us as older black men had the good sense to listen to our elders and followed their rules for success. Young African American males can now see someone who looks like them as president of the United States of America. But in all of their jubilation and exhilaration they must remember one thing and that is success won’t grab them, they must grab it.