“Chilly B” Raps to his Peeps
by Playthell Benjamin
When President Obama spoke to the Congressional Black Caucus it wasall blues and soul, rendered in elegant sermonic cadences. There was a lot of jokin, jiving, and testifying, but he was also droppin science….and signifyin for days! His oratory was informed with so many inside Afro-American cultural references, esoteric nuances and complex allusions to our tradition of struggle, that most of the white pundits who monopolize the commentary on his speech are clueless and miss the point altogether. In one headline after another the corporate media confidently portrayed the event as a pissed off President chastising his ungrateful black brothers and sisters in a “do-nothing” Congress: but it was no such thing!
These were Barack’s oldest and closest political comrades, some of whom mentored him in the art of playing politics in Washington. He knows they share his hopes and dreams for America. They were the ones who never doubted that he could be a great President, and except for the few who felt bound by long-time political alliances to the Clintons, they all wished him well and offered support.
It was in this caucus that Barack had found refuge as the lone Afro-American in the Senate. Watching him speak to his old comrades I saw a love fest, a celebration of Afro-American style, language, humor, verbal virtuosity, and hip body language – all the things that have made us the most imitated people in the world were prominently on display. What I saw was a man who could not only go home again…but return in style to a rousing welcome.
From the moment Barack stepped onto the podium, the audience gave him a boisterous ovation worthy of a hero. The first thing our President said was how he enjoyed visiting “the conscience of the Congress,” a compliment of great generosity and gravitas. He went on to personally thank the leaders of the Black Caucus for inviting him in the most effusive language. These kind accolades are reserved for those whom one holds in highest esteem. When he laid out his jobs program, explaining the moral basis upon which it is designed, ridiculing Republican duplicity and dissecting the shameless sophistry of their arguments, he was repeatedly applauded by the audience.
As he spoke, this master orator and serious student of Afro-American history and culture constantly called upon our traditions to make his point and carry the crowd with him. It was a remarkable performance, an intoxicating blend of highbrow erudition and folksy humor. Once he connected with the audience he held them spellbound; he was part Richard Pryor, part Malcolm X, part Thurgood Marshall and part Martin Luther King.
It was as grand a performance in the Afro-American oratorical tradition – the most dynamic in the world – as I have ever witnessed in a professional politician. At times he reminded me of that silver tongued preacher/politician from Harlem – who also would have made a great President – the Reverend Doctor Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
The comparison was most compelling in his use of irreverent humor to expose the shameless hypocrisy of the Republicans, and his use of repetition to sell a particular idea. His refrain “Pass this bill” reminded me of Powell’s “what’s in your hand” speech when he was imploring black folks to get out and vote.
The President’s speech was at once a panegyric to the heroism of the Afro-American struggle and a sanitized trip through the Dirty Dozens for the Grand Obstructionist Party. The audience was with him every step of the way. When he admonished the crowd to buck up, stop crying and complaining, and join him in the fight; this was not a put down of the audience but a call to battle!
It was another way of saying: don’t get mad get even. Life is not fair but we still got to struggle
and win with the hand we were dealt, and crying won’t help. So don’t tell me your troubles because I’ve got my own. Just put your shoulder to the wheel and keep on pushing: I got yo back! As Barack’s voice rose to a crescendo at the conclusion of his speech, he issued a call to action.
“So I don’t know about you, CBC, but the future rewards those who press on. With patient and firm determination, I am going to press on for jobs. I’m going to press on for equality. I’m going to press on for the sake of our children. I’m going to press on for the sake of all those families who are struggling right now. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I am going to press on. I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC! “
The President’s defiant and triumphant tone in the face of adversity was a life affirming pep-talk. It reminded me of what the Black Nationalist firebrand Minister Khalid Muhammad used to say to black audiences down on their luck: “No matter what we are confronted with we will survive! We’re Bey Bey’s kids…we don’t die we multiply!”
Far from a put-down, Barack’s speech was an expression of a love supreme. And the constant applause was proof positive that the audience returned the love. So how could the major media get it so wrong? Except for the right wing press, I believe it was the result of confusion rather than animosity. After all, what do most Euro-Americans really know about Afro-Americans?
The most enlightened think of us as just white people with dark skins, and are quite proud of themselves for it. Most recognize that we are very good at singing, dancing, playing basketball and Jazz. Few understand that we have been the strongest voices in support of the most cherished ideals of American civilization: personal freedom, social equality, democratic governance, innovation and freedom in diversity.
Yet you can hear these values clearly celebrated in our classical music – the quintessential American art of jazz – which realizes these values more successfully than any other American cultural form. When I watched Barack speak to the Congressional Black Caucus, with his soaring lyricism and skillful use of pauses between virtuosic riffs, I was reminded of another Pres, Lester Young, who became world famous as President of the tenor saxophone, during his days with the fabulous Count Basie Orchestra.
When Pres took center stage to speak his piece, the orchestra listened intently and responded to his statements in ways that energized the groove and lifted him higher, until both he and the band were inspired to tackle greater obstacles and attempt heroic things. Some times they hit the notes they were aiming at; sometimes they missed. But they were always inspired to try again… no matter the obstacles. That’s what really happened when Barack gave a shout out to his peeps in the CBC.
Benjimamin is a veteran political journalist out of Harlem NY. His essays can be read on his blog site Commentaries on the Times.