*On Sunday evening, in the minutes after the official announcement of Bin Laden’s death at the hands of American Special Forces, I began receiving two kinds of phone calls. One genre came from my media junkie friends, ever eager to gab about the social significance of any news considered earthshaking.
The other calls came from black people.
The spirit of the latter calls returned me to my mid ’60s childhood, when, on any given evening, the home phone would ring and an anxious caller–a friend or family member–would forgo formalities. “Quick, turn on channel four,” they’d urgently insist. “There’s a colored guy (or girl) on.” Then they’d hang up.
If you were an American Negro in the ’60s and got such a call, you knew the drill: you’d quickly turn to the channel mentioned, simultaneously yelling for family to gather around. Singing on a variety show or acting a small part on episodic TV might be Sammy Davis, Jr. or Pearl Bailey; Nipsy Russell, Diahann Carroll; Scatman Crothers or Barbara McNair. Perhaps a performance by the Supremes or James Brown. We might not have even liked a particular entertainer. Didn’t matter.
To us, the important thing was that they were people of color. In those days, blacks weren’t on television very often. For the fleeting moments they were on the screen, we’d bask in the swell of pride and accomplishment that undoubtedly pervaded every black American household that happened to be watching TV at the time.
I heard similar gratification in the lilt of my black friends who phoned me Sunday evening. Like the rest of America, we are pleased that an evil man has met his fate. And since one of the first things you learn growing up black in America is that the unfortunate actions of one black person magically represents us all, we are especially elated and proud that Bin Laden’s end came under a black President’s watch.
“Let’s put it this way–walking around town this week sure will feel different for me than when O.J. was acquitted,” said a buddy. He was laughing as he said this, but it wasn’t a joke.
Some might wonder why I’ve injected race into America’s noble victory. I didn’t put it there. The issue of color lurks in most facets of American culture. While black Americans never get used to it, we have come to expect it. Nevertheless, how a segment of the country reacts to practically anything President Obama does would be downright hilarious were it not so offensive.
Thus, on Sunday night, in either a preemptive strike of emotions, a case of collective ethnic dysfunction or both, every one of my black friends who called, after applauding the courage and dynamism of America’s brave soldiers in Pakistan, proceeded, without prompting, to list all the things some people might possibly say to dismiss the operation simply because it was helmed by Obama.
They might say that killing Bin Laden now–as opposed to months earlier–is a political conspiracy designed to raise Obama’s figures in national polls. Maybe they’ll say credit for Bin Laden’s demise should ultimately go to Bush, since 9/11 happened during his administration and because that’s when the hunt for Bin Laden (but not the nation’s financial mess, right?) began.
You just wait, say my friends–they’ll insist the whole thing is a sham. “Where’s the birth certificate?” will soon have a sibling query: “Where’s the body?” It’s true that photos can easily be faked. However, these people have never questioned the grainy, decades old super 8 footage of Big Foot.
In any case, for America, a far weightier question looms. For sheer argument’s sake, let’s say Bin Laden really is gone. On what do we now focus our communal vigil of righteousness?
I say we set our sights on the abolishment of forces that, in many ways, are as dark, sinister, determined and certainly as nutty as al Qaeda. However, unlike those terrorists, this Public Enemy Number One doesn’t skulk in the caves of Afghanistan. No, our homegrown hate, ignorance and lunacy is embarrassingly transparent.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].