Any day now…
If you are like me, still trying to process the meaning of Barack Obama as POTUS (President of the United States), then you surely must have been struck by the startling theater of President-elect Barack Obama’s first post election press conference as it unfolded on Television all around the world. At the time initially scheduled for the briefing, my phone rang, and on the line was the raspy baritone of my friend Wale Ajadi calling from Lagos. “Has the briefing started he asked” “Briefing” I asked somewhat quizzically, then I realized that indeed, regardless of space or time, New Jersey or Lagos, the World was waiting to hear again from Obama.
As is typical of Wale, always irreverent and disruptive, he tossed a line about Obama already operation on CPT (figure that out for yourself). To which I sallied forth in defense of Obama, chewing Wale out on the phone, even as he feigned ignorance about the needling aptness of his comment, all the while chuckling and pleading his mock innocence. That was a typical Wale encounter, a ruthless truthfulness that can either be funny or painfully funny. Mercifully, the announcement came that the President-elect was about to make his speech, and thus I was spared more of Wale’s wryness, until the next time.
On the TV a novel sight was unfolding, first was the phalanx of mostly white men and some “minorities,” dutifully lining up behind the lectern, a short pause, the Vice-President elect, and then striding purposefully toward center stage was the President-elect Barack Obama. I had to do a double take, heart was “a dancing” with joy, but my mind for a split second convinced me that it was one of those movies with “a black president” and at any moment, the heroic white male protagonist would leap on stage, shoot a couple of the bad guys, defuse the bomb, save the president and of course get the girl. But not this time, this was no theatre this was real. And now I have to deal with this new reality and process it whichever way I can.
One outlandish but really poignant thought was prompted by a short email from my friend Sonata Olumhense titled “Any day now.” Boy did that take me back. Well here is the story. True fiction.
Many years ago, perhaps a quarter of a century ago, I was sitting in a Barbershop in Brixton, London waiting for my friend Winston to have his hair cut. This was a couple of years after the first Brixton riots of April 1981 and as such it was the unspoken backdrop to the many conversations going on. We all know the archetype of the black barbershop, lots of people, most of them not actual patrons, but neighborhood folks chillin’ and catching up with the latest local gossip, as well weighing in on the global state of affairs, especially as it affected black people. I sat there like a faux social anthropologists catching the various threads of flittering conversations, and trying to subconsciously weave them into a mental parchment for later review. I strained my ears to understand the lyrical lilting singsong cadences of the many West Indian voices that I was soaking up. But one suddenly struck me, as much by the gravelly and authoritative baritone as the quiet and measured authority with which he spoke and other listened. He was one of the barbers; an older West Indian man, dark with a craggy handsome weather beaten face, his moustache undulating gracefully as he dispensed wit and wisdom. “I tell you man… tings are changing, tings will change” he said, snip, snip as he tenderly and unhurriedly cut the hair of another older black gentleman, wielding the scissors with practiced grace. As I discovered, there was also in this barbershop the call and response dynamic that is present in most African oral traditions, and to this Pollyannish view of the black world was a rolling wave of howls from the Cassandras, “no way mon… black people are doomed…” said one disembodied voice. The barber persisted, snip, snip, “black man are take over you know…” a pause, “any day now.” To which the response was a thunderous eruption of howls, thigh slapping disagreements, eyes rolling in disbelief and various expletives in patois, too deep for my untrained ears to fully grasp. In a nutshell, there was widespread disagreement.
For decades after, I carried this doubt in my psyche, and even as the tale became one my more famous stories, with each unvarnished retelling as the call, the response from my listeners was usually a nervous and painful laughter about the underlying truth of our pessimism. “Black man taking over?” Don’t make me laugh.
Now, I am not one ordinarily inclined to believe in latter day prophets, especially of the barbershop variety. But watching that press conference… well.