The Next Black Senator?

Election '04

I first met Barack Obama in the old Kroch's and Brentano's bookstore on 53rd Street in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago. His memoir, "Dreams From My Father," had just been published and he was just beginning to emerge as a name to know in the post-Harold Washington, black political Chicago of the mid-1990s. And I -- not one to miss an opportunity to meet a progressive newsmaker, not to mention a fine brother -- approached him. I was the only person in the store who did.

He looked every bit the law professor, peering studiously at displays in the store and jotting down notes, clearly wondering where his book was and why it was not out front. I sidled next to him with a broad smile and asked, "So how's the book doing?" He took my extended hand, smiled back and said, "I'm trying to figure that out right now."

Obama, 42, has clearly "blown up" since that quiet, bookstore encounter. First as a popular and effective lawmaker in the Illinois Legislature; then as a candidate in an ugly and unsuccessful Congressional race against former Black Panther Bobby Rush; and now Obama, who won the US Senate primary in Illinois against seven candidates, is poised to make history.

And now he can't go anywhere without scores of people recognizing and approaching him.

Obama is now positioned to carry the November election in this overwhelmingly Democratic state. If that happens he will join an elite club of African American US senators, becoming the second from Illinois behind Carol Moseley-Braun, and the first black man to hold a US Senate seat since Republican Edward Brooke of Massachusetts served from 1967 to 1979.

His political positioning and rising star should be unsurprising because for much of his life Obama has been a "First Black," gaining attention most notably for being the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. But in Chicago's well-established African American political community, which prefers its leaders homegrown, Obama has struggled against criticism from some blacks who mocked his Ivy League education, biracial heritage and African name, painting everything from his smooth speech patterns to the multiculti neighborhood where he lives as anything but "authentically" black.

The stinging loss in 2000 to a lackluster, unpolished and largely inarticulate Bobby Rush, who was successful in painting Obama as an over-educated, elitist outsider, led to a retooled image for Obama in this campaign. The revamping of Obama's image has made it difficult, if not impossible, for his presumptive African American political base to see him as anything but theirs.

He makes fun of his name ("My name is Obama, not Yo Mama") but speaks little of the prominent, long-dead Kenyan father for whom he was named. Although the African Committee to Elect Obama in Illinois has held fundraisers for him, they are largely on the margins of Obama's campaign. He speaks little of a childhood spent in Indonesia and Hawaii and offers little about the white mother who raised him. He said recently that his mother, now deceased, recognized that "he was a black man in the United States and my experiences were going to be different than hers."

"My view has always been that I'm African American," he said recently. "African Americans by definition, we're a hybrid people."

Campaign commercials made reference to his historic appointment at the Harvard Law Review but his status as an alum of Columbia and Harvard, and as a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, were downplayed.

Played more prominently is Obama's early work as an organizer, registering 100,000 African American voters in Chicago in the early 1990s. He touts his membership in one of the city's most popular black churches, Trinity United Church of Christ -- something that clearly endears him to older, more traditional black voters. He has also leveraged political relationships with people like Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and others who haven't always supported him in previous races. He has an African American wife (let's face it, sisters wouldn't have it any other way) and two daughters whose presence is prominent in campaign literature.

The strategy worked. Through an already strong network of black professionals and liberal whites, Obama built a campaign that appealed broadly to urban voters and those in predominantly white-collar counties and rural areas downstate.

"He was always a part of us but somehow it seemed to be a secret before. White people are always looking for somebody black who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and can tell the Horatio Alger story," said Chicago political consultant Delmarie Cobb. "That doesn't play well in the black community because we've always done that."

"What makes him attractive to white people is that he's biracial. But he has never distanced himself from the black community, even when others tried to distance it from him," she said.

Oddly enough Rush, the former Black Panther, persisted in singing the "he's not one of us" song and supported Blair Hull, a white, independently wealthy trader. The baiting fell on deaf ears and now Rush finds himself on the outs with black Chicagoans, who are suspect of his support for a rich, white man who has never held elective office.

Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, one of the most powerful black elected officials in the state, said at a prayer breakfast for Obama that politicians like Rush will eventually regret that they were "on the wrong side of history."

"Barack Obama is our son. All of the other candidates combined do not have his intellect," Jones said. "This is our son and our son deserves a chance."

Whether he realized it or not, Jones had invoked the most African of sayings in urging black Chicagoans to vote for Obama: I am because we are and because we are, I am.

Sabrina L. Miller is a Chicago-based freelance journalist who has written for the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times, and covered City Hall for the Chicago Tribune.

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