They were of the civil rights movement, mostly, the grainy black-and-white footage that appears every February during Black History Month, the same images that my mother had offered me as a child. A pair of college students, hair short, backs straight, placing their orders at a lunch counter teetering on the edge of riot. SNCC workers standing on a porch in some Mississippi backwater trying to convince a family of sharecroppers to register to vote. A county jail bursting with children, their hands clasped together, singing freedom songs.
Such images became a form of prayer for me, bolstering my spirits, channeling my emotions in a way that words never could. They told me (although even this much understanding may have come later, is also a construct, containing its own falsehoods) that I wasn’t alone in my particular struggles, and that communities had never been a given in this country, at least not for blacks. Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men-and in the civil rights movement those dreams had been large. In the sit-ins, the marches, the jailhouse songs, I saw the AfricanAmerican community becoming more than just the place where you’d been born or the house where you’d been raised. Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned. And because membership was earned-because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself-I believed that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.
That was my idea of organizing. It was a promise of redemption.
And so, in the months leading up to graduation, I wrote to every civil rights organization I could think of, to any black elected official in the country with a progressive agenda, to neighborhood councils and tenant rights groups. When no one wrote back, I wasn’t discouraged. I decided to find more conventional work for a year, to pay off my student loans and maybe even save a little bit. I would need the money later, I told myself. Organizers didn’t make any money; their poverty was proof of their integrity.
Eventually a consulting house to multinational corporations agreed to hire me as a research assistant. Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the globe. As far as I could tell I was the only black man in the company, a source of shame for me but a source of considerable pride for the company’s secretarial pool. They treated me like a son, those black ladies; they told me how they expected me to run the company one day. Sometimes, over lunch, I would tell them about all my wonderful organizing plans, and they would smile and say, “That’s good, Barack,” but the look in their eyes told me they were secretly disappointed. Only Ike, the gruff black security guard in the lobby, was willing to come right out and tell me I’d be making a mistake.
“Organizing? That’s some kinda politics, ain’t it? Why you wanna do something like that?”
I tried to explain my political views, the importance of mobilizing the poor and giving back to the community. But Ike just shook his head. “Mr. Barack,” he said, “I hope you don’t mind if I give you a little bit of advice. You don’t have to take it, now, but I’m gonna give it to you anyhow. Forget about this organizing business and do something that’s gonna make you some money. Not greedy, you understand. But enough. I’m telling you this ’cause I can see potential in you. Young man like you, got a nice voice-hell, you could be one a them announcers on TV. Or sales…got a nephew about your age making some real money there. That’s what we need, see. Not more folks running around here, all rhymes and jive. You can’t help folks that ain’t gonna make it nohow, and they won’t appreciate you trying. Folks that wanna make it, they gonna find a way to do it on they own. How old are you anyway?”
“See there. Don’t waste your youth, Mr. Barack. Wake up one morning, an old man like me, and all you gonna be is tired, with nothing to show for it.”
I didn’t pay Ike much attention at the time; I thought he sounded too much like my grandparents. Nevertheless, as the months passed, I felt the idea of becoming an organizer slipping away from me. The company promoted me to the position of financial writer. I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors-see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand-and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I had told myself I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve.
Then one day, as I sat down at my computer to write an article on interest-rate swaps, something unexpected happened. Auma called.
I had never met this half sister; we had written only intermittently. I knew that she had left Kenya to study in Germany, and in our letters we had mentioned the possibility of my going there for a visit, or perhaps her coming to the States. But the plans had always been left vague-neither of us had any money, we would say; maybe next year. Our correspondence maintained a cordial distance.
Now, suddenly, I heard her voice for the first time. It was soft and dark, tinged with a colonial accent. For a few moments I couldn’t understand the words, only the sound, a sound that seemed to have always been there, misplaced but not forgotten. She was coming to the States, she said, on a trip with several friends. Could she come to see me in New York?
“Of course,” I said. “You can stay with me; I can’t wait.” And she laughed, and I laughed, and then the line grew quiet with static and the sound of our breath. “Well,” she said, “I can’t stay on the phone too long, it’s so expensive. Here’s the flight information”; and we hung up quickly after that, as if our contact was a treat to be doled out in small measures.
I spent the next few weeks rushing around in preparation: new sheets for the sofa bed, extra plates and towels, a scrubbing for the tub. But two days before she was scheduled to arrive, Auma called again, the voice thicker now, barely a whisper.
“I can’t come after all,” she said. “One of our brothers, David…he’s been killed. In a motorcycle accident. I don’t know any more than that.” She began to cry. “Oh, Barack. Why do these things happen to us?”
I tried to comfort her as best I could. I asked her if I could do anything for her. I told her there would be other times for us to see each other. Eventually her voice quieted; she had to go book a flight home, she said.
“Okay, then, Barack. See you. ’Bye.”
After she hung up, I left my office, telling my secretary I’d be gone for the day. For hours I wandered the streets of Manhattan, the sound of Auma’s voice playing over and over in my mind. A continent away, a woman cries. On a dark and dusty road, a boy skids out of control, tumbling against hard earth, wheels spinning to silence. Who were these people, I asked myself, these strangers who carried my blood? What might save this woman from her sorrow? What wild, unspoken dreams had this boy possessed? Who was I, who shed no tears at the loss of his own?
I still wonder sometimes how that first contact with Auma altered my life. Not so much the contact itself (that meant everything, would mean everything) or the news that she gave me of David’s death (that, too, is an absolute; I would never know him, and that says enough), but rather the timing of her call, the particular sequence of events, the raised expectations and then the dashed hopes, coming at a time when the idea of becoming an organizer was still just that, an idea in my head, a vague tug at my heart.
Maybe it made no difference. Maybe by this time I was already committed to organizing and Auma’s voice simply served to remind me that I still had wounds to heal, and could not heal myself. Or maybe, if David hadn’t died when he did, and Auma had come to New York as originally planned, and I had learned from her then what I would only learn later, about Kenya, and about our father…well, maybe it would have relieved certain pressures that had built up inside me, showing me a different idea of community, allowing my ambitions to travel a narrower, more personal course, so that in the end I might have taken my friend Ike’s advice and given myself over to stocks and bonds and the pull of respectability.
I don’t know. What’s certain is that a few months after Auma’s call I turned in my resignation at the consulting firm and began looking in earnest for an organizing job. Once again, most of my letters went unanswered, but after a month or so I was called in for an interview by the director of a prominent civil rights organization in the city. He was a tall, handsome black man, dressed in a crisp white shirt, a paisley tie, and red suspenders. His office was furnished with Italian chairs and African sculpture, a bar service built into the exposed brick. Through a tall window, sunlight streamed down on a bust of Dr. King.
“I like it,” the director said after looking over my résumé. “Particularly the corporate experience. That’s the real business of a civil rights organization these days. Protest and pickets won’t cut it anymore. To get the job done, we’ve got to forge links between business, government, and the inner city.” He clasped his broad hands together, then showed me a glossy annual report opened to a page that listed the organization’s board of directors. There was one black minister and ten white corporate executives. “You see?” the director said. “Public-private partnerships. The key to the future. And that’s where young people like yourself come in. Educated. Self-assured. Comfortable in boardrooms. Why, just last week I was discussing the problem with the secretary of HUD at a White House dinner. Terrific guy, Jack. He’d be interested in meeting a young man like you. Of course I’m a registered Democrat, but we have to learn to work with whoever’s in power….”
On the spot he offered me the job, which involved organizing conferences on drugs, unemployment, housing. Facilitating dialogue, he called it. I declined his generous offer, deciding I needed a job closer to the streets. I spent three months working for a Ralph Nader offshoot up in Harlem, trying to convince the minority students at City College about the importance of recycling. Then a week passing out flyers for an assemblyman’s race in Brooklyn-the candidate lost and I never did get paid.
In six months I was broke, unemployed, eating soup from a can. In search of some inspiration, I went to hear Kwame Touré, formerly Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and Black Power fame, speak at Columbia. At the entrance to the auditorium, two women, one black, one Asian, were selling Marxist literature and arguing with each other about Trotsky’s place in history. Inside, Touré was proposing a program to establish economic ties between Africa and Harlem that would circumvent white capitalist imperialism. At the end of his remarks, a thin young woman with glasses asked if such a program was practical given the state of African economies and the immediate needs facing black Americans. Touré cut her off in midsentence. “It’s only the brainwashing that you’ve received that makes it impractical, sister,” he said. His eyes glowed inward as he spoke, the eyes of a madman or a saint. The woman remained standing for several minutes while she was upbraided for her bourgeois attitudes. People began to file out. Outside the auditorium, the two Marxists were now shouting at the top of their lungs. “Stalinist pig!”
It was like a bad dream. I wandered down Broadway, imagining myself standing at the edge of the
Lincoln Memorial and looking out over an empty pavilion, debris scattering in the wind. The movement had died years ago, shattered into a thousand fragments. Every path to change was well trodden, every strategy exhausted. And with each defeat, even those with the best of intentions could end up further and further removed from the struggles of those they purported to serve.
Or just plain crazy. I suddenly realized that I was talking to myself in the middle of the street. People on their way home from work were cutting a small arc around me, and I thought I recognized a couple of Columbia classmates in the crowd, their suit jackets thrown over their shoulders, carefully avoiding my glance.
I had all but given up on organizing when I received a call from Marty Kaufman. He explained that he’d started an organizing drive in Chicago and was looking to hire a trainee. He’d be in New York the following week and suggested that we meet at a coffee shop on Lexington.
His appearance didn’t inspire much confidence. He was a white man of medium height wearing a rumpled suit over a pudgy frame. His face was heavy with two-day-old whiskers; behind a pair of thick, wirerimmed glasses, his eyes seemed set in a perpetual squint. As he rose from the booth to shake my hand, he spilled some tea on his shirt.
“So,” Marty said, dabbing the stain with a paper napkin. “Why does somebody from Hawaii want to be an organizer?”
I sat down and told him a little bit about myself.
“Hmmph.” He nodded, taking notes on a dog-eared legal pad. “You must be angry about something.” “What do you mean by that?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know what exactly. But something. Don’t get me wrong-anger’s a requirement for the job. The only reason anybody decides to become an organizer. Well-adjusted people find more relaxing work.”
He ordered more hot water and told me about himself. He was Jewish, in his late thirties, had been reared in New York. He had started organizing in the sixties with the student protests, and ended up staying with it for fifteen years. Farmers in Nebraska. Blacks in Philadelphia. Mexicans in Chicago. Now he was trying to pull urban blacks and suburban whites together around a plan to save manufacturing jobs in metropolitan Chicago. He needed somebody to work with him, he said. Somebody black.
“Most of our work is with churches,” he said. “If poor and working-class people want to build real power, they have to have some sort of institutional base. With the unions in the shape they’re in, the churches are the only game in town. That’s where the people are, and that’s where the values are, even if they’ve been buried under a lot of bullshit. Churches won’t work with you, though, just out of the goodness of their hearts. They’ll talk a good game-a sermon on Sunday, maybe, or a special offering for the homeless. But if push comes to shove, they won’t really move unless you can show them how it’ll help them pay their heating bill.”