RAFIQ HAD DONE HIS best to spruce the place up. There was a new sign above the entrance, and the door had been propped open to let in the spring light. The floors were freshly scrubbed, the furniture rearranged. Rafiq wore a black suit and a black leather tie; his leather kufu was polished to a high gloss. For several minutes, he fussed over a long folding table set up on one side of the room, instructing a couple of his men on how to arrange the cookies and punch, fidgeting with the picture of Harold that hung from the wall.
“That look straight to you?” he asked me.
“It’s straight, Rafiq.”
The mayor was coming to cut the ribbon for the new MET intake center opening in Roseland. It was considered a great coup, and for weeks Rafiq had begged to have the activities start at his building. He wasn’t the only one. The alderman had said he’d be happy to host a briefing with the mayor at his office. The state senator, an old ward heeler who’d made the mistake of backing one of the white candidates in the last mayoral election, had promised to help us get money for any project we wanted if we just got him on the program. Even Reverend Smalls had called, suggesting that we’d be helping ourselves by letting him introduce his “good friend Harold.” Whenever I walked into the DCP office, my secretary would hand me the latest batch of messages.
“You’ve sure become popular, Barack,” she would say before the phone started ringing again.
I looked now at the crowd that had gathered inside Rafiq’s warehouse, mostly politicians and hangerson, all of them taking peeks out the door every few minutes while plainclothes policemen spoke into their walkie-talkies and surveyed the scene. Wading my way across the room, I found Will and Angela and pulled them aside.
“You guys ready?” They nodded.
“Remember,” I said, “try to get Harold to commit to come to our rally in the fall. Do it while his scheduler is around. Tell him about all the work we’re doing out here, and why-”
At that moment, a murmur ran through the crowd, then a sudden stillness. A large motorcade pulled up, a limousine door opened, and from behind a phalanx of policemen I saw the Man himself. He wore a plain blue suit and a rumpled trench coat; his gray hair looked a little frazzled, and he was shorter than I had expected. Still, his presence was undeniable, his smile that of a man at the height of his powers.
Immediately, the crowd began chanting-“Ha-rold! Ha-rold!”-and the mayor made a small pirouette, his hand held up in acknowledgment. With Ms. Alvarez and the plainclothes cops leading the way, he began making his way through the throng. Past the senator and the alderman. Past Rafiq and me. Past Reverend Smalls’s outstretched hand. Until he finally came to a stop directly in front of Angela.
“Ms. Rider.” He took her hand, and made a slight bow. “It’s a pleasure. I’ve heard excellent things about your work.”
Angela looked like she was going to pass out. The mayor asked if she would introduce him to her associates, and she began to laugh and flutter about before gathering enough composure to take him down the row of leaders. They all stood at attention like a line of scouts, each one wearing the same helpless grin. When the review was over, the mayor offered Angela his arm, and together they walked toward the door, the crowd pressing behind them.
“Honey, can you believe this?” Shirley whispered to Mona.
The ceremony lasted about fifteen minutes. Police had closed off two blocks of Michigan Avenue, and a small stage had been set up in front of the storefront where the MET center would soon open. Angela introduced all the church members who’d worked on the project, as well as the politicians in attendance; Will gave a brief speech about DCP. The mayor congratulated us on our civic involvement, while the senator, Reverend Smalls, and the alderman jockeyed for position behind him, smiling widely for the photographers they’d hired. The ribbon was cut, and that was it. As the limousine sped away to the next event, the crowd dispersed almost instantly, leaving just a few of us standing in the litter-blown road.
I walked over to Angela, who was busy talking to Shirley and Mona. “When I heard him say ‘Ms.
Rider,’” she was saying, “I swear I just about died.”
Shirley shook her head. “Girl, don’t I know it.”
“We got the pictures to prove it,” Mona said, holding up her Instamatic camera.
I tried to break in. “Did we get a date for the rally?”
“So then he tells me that I look too young to have a fourteen-year-old daughter. Can you imagine?” “Did he agree to come to our rally?” I repeated.
The three of them looked at me impatiently. “What rally?”
I threw up my hands and started stomping down the street. As I reached my car, I heard Will coming up from behind.
“Where you off to in such a hurry?” he said.
“I don’t know. Somewhere.” I tried to light a cigarette, but the wind kept blowing out the match. I cursed, tossing the matches to the ground, and turned to Will. “You wanna know something, Will?”
“We’re trifling. That’s what we are. Trifling. Here we are, with a chance to show the mayor that we’re real players in the city, a group he needs to take seriously. So what do we do? We act like a bunch of starstruck children, that’s what. Standing around, cheesing and grinning, worrying about whether we got a picture taken with him-”
“You mean you didn’t get yourself a picture?” Will smiled cheerfully and held up a Polaroid shot, then put a hand on my shoulder. “You mind if I tell you something, Barack? You need to lighten up a little bit. What you call trifling was the most fun Angela and them have had all year. Ten years from now, they’ll still be bragging about it. It made ’em feel important. And you made it happen. So what if they forgot to invite
Harold to a rally? We can always call him back.”
I climbed into my car and rolled down the window. “Forget it, Will. I’m just frustrated.” “Yeah, I can see that. But you should be asking yourself why you so frustrated.” “Why do you think?”
Will shrugged. “I think you’re just trying to do a good job. But I also think you ain’t never satisfied. You want everything to happen fast. Like you got something to prove out here.”
“I’m not trying to prove anything, Will.” I started the car and began to pull away, but not fast enough to avoid hearing Will’s parting words.
“You don’t have to prove nothing to us, Barack. We love you, man. Jesus loves you!”
Almost a year had passed since my arrival in Chicago, and our labor had finally begun to bear fruit. Will’s and Mary’s street corner group had grown to fifty strong; they organized neighborhood cleanups, sponsored career days for area youth, won agreements from the alderman to improve sanitation services. Farther north, Mrs. Crenshaw and Mrs. Stevens had pressed the Park District into overhauling run-down parks and playlots; work there had already begun. Streets had been repaired, sewers rooted, crime-watch programs instituted. And now the new job intake center, where once only an empty storefront had been.
As the organization’s stock had grown, so had my own. I began receiving invitations to sit on panels and conduct workshops; local politicians knew my name, even if they still couldn’t pronounce it. As far as our leadership was concerned, I could do little wrong. “You should have seen him when he first got here,” I’d overhear Shirley tell a new leader one day. “He was just a boy. I swear, you look at him now, you’d think he was a different person.” She spoke like a proud parent: I’d become a sort of surrogate prodigal son.
The appreciation of those you worked with, concrete improvements in the neighborhood, things you could hang a price tag on. It should have been enough. And yet what Will had said was true. I wasn’t satisfied.
Maybe it was connected to Auma’s visit and the news she had brought of the Old Man. Where once I’d felt the need to live up to his expectations, I now felt as if I had to make up for all his mistakes. Only the nature of those mistakes still wasn’t clear in my mind; I still couldn’t read the signposts that might warn me away from the wrong turns he’d taken. Because of that confusion, because my image of him remained so contradictory-sometimes one thing, sometimes another, but never the two things at once-I would find myself, at random moments in the day, feeling as if I was living out a preordained script, as if I were following him into error, a captive to his tragedy.
Then there were my problems with Marty. We had officially separated our respective efforts that spring; since then he’d been spending most of his time with the suburban churches, where it turned out that parishioners, black and white, were less concerned about jobs than they were about the same pattern of white flight and dropping property values that had swept through the South Side a decade before.
These were difficult issues, rife with the racialism and delicacy that Marty found so distasteful. So he had decided to move on. He had hired another organizer to do most of the day-to-day work in the suburbs and was now busy starting a new organization in Gary, a city where the economy had long ago collapsedwhere things were so bad, Marty said, that no one would care about the color of an organizer. One day, he asked me to come with him.
“This is a bad training situation for you,” he explained. “The South Side’s too big. Too many distractions. It’s not your fault. I should have known better.”
“I can’t just leave, Marty. I just got here.”
He looked at me with infinite patience. “Listen, Barack, your loyalty is admirable. But right now you need to worry about your own development. Stay here and you’re bound to fail. You’ll give up organizing before you gave it a real shot.”
He had it all worked out in his head: how much time it would take to hire and train a replacement for me, the need to leave a respectable budget in place. As I listened to him lay out his plans, it occurred to me that he’d made no particular attachments to people or place during his three years in the area, that whatever human warmth or connection he might require came from elsewhere: from his gracious wife, from his handsome young son. In his work, it was only the idea that drove him, the idea that a closed plant symbolized but that was larger than the plant, larger than Angela or Will or the lonely priests who had agreed to work with him. That idea might take spark anywhere; for Marty, it was simply a matter of finding the right combination of circumstances, the right mix of compounds. “Marty.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
We had eventually come to an agreement: He would provide me the consultation I still desperately needed; the fee he received would help subsidize his work elsewhere. In our weekly meetings, though, he would remind me of the choice I’d made, that there was no risk in my modest accomplishments, that the men in fancy suits downtown were still calling all the shots. “Life is short, Barack,” he would say. “If you’re not trying to really change things out here, you might as well forget it.”
Ah, yes. Real change. It had seemed like such an attainable goal back in college, an extension of my personal will and my mother’s faith, like boosting my grade point average or giving up liquor: a matter of taking and assigning responsibility. Only now, after a year of organizing, nothing seemed simple. Who was responsible for a place like Altgeld? I found myself asking. There were no cigar-chomping crackers like Bull Connor out there, no club-wielding Pinkerton thugs. Just a small band of older black men and women, a group characterized less by malice or calculation than by fear and small greeds. People like Mr. Anderson, the Altgeld project manager, a balding, older man one year short of retirement. Or Mrs. Reece, a plump woman with a pincushion face who was president of the official tenant council and spent most of her time protecting the small prerogatives that came with her office: a stipend and a seat at the yearly banquet; the ability to see that her daughter got a choice apartment, her nephew a job in the CHA bureaucracy. Or Reverend Johnson, Mrs. Reece’s pastor and head of the only large church in Altgeld, who, the first and only time that we met, had stopped me the minute I mentioned the word organizing.
“CHA ain’t the problem,” the good reverend had said. “Problem is these young girls out here, engaging in all manner of fornication.”
Some tenants in Altgeld would tell me that Mr. Anderson didn’t repair the apartments of anybody who opposed Mrs. Reece and her slate of candidates during LAC elections, that Mrs. Reece was in turn controlled by Reverend Johnson, that Reverend Johnson owned a security guard service under contract with CHA. I couldn’t say that any of this was true, nor in the end did it seem to matter much. The three of them only reflected the attitudes of most of the people who worked in Altgeld: teachers, drug counselors, policemen. Some were there only for the paycheck; others sincerely wanted to help. But whatever their motives, they would all at some point confess a common weariness, a weariness that was bone-deep. They had lost whatever confidence they might have once had in their ability to reverse the deterioration they saw all around them. With that loss of confidence came a loss in the capacity for outrage. The idea of responsibility-their own, that of others-slowly eroded, replaced with gallows humor and low expectations.
In a sense, then, Will was right: I did feel that there was something to prove-to the people of Altgeld, to Marty, to my father, to myself. That what I did counted for something. That I wasn’t a fool chasing pipe dreams. Later, when I tried to explain some of this to Will, he would laugh and shake his head, preferring to attribute my grumpy attitude that day at the ribbon cutting to a case of youthful jealousy. “See, you like the young rooster, Barack,” he told me, “and Harold’s like the old rooster. Old rooster came in, and the hens gave him all the attention. Made the young rooster realize he’s got a thing or two to learn.”
Will seemed to enjoy the comparison, and I had laughed along with him. But secretly I knew he had misunderstood my ambitions. More than anything, I wanted Harold to succeed; like my real father, the mayor and his achievements seemed to mark out what was possible; his gifts, his power, measured my own hopes. And in listening to him speak to us that day, full of grace and good humor, all I had been able to think about was the constraints on that power. At the margins, Harold could make city services more equitable. Black professionals now got a bigger share of city business. We had a black school superintendent, a black police chief, a black CHA director. Harold’s presence consoled, as Will’s Jesus consoled, as Rafiq’s nationalism consoled. But beneath the radiance of Harold’s victory, in Altgeld and elsewhere, nothing seemed to change.
I wondered whether, away from the spotlight, Harold thought about those constraints. Whether, like Mr. Anderson or Mrs. Reece or any number of other black officials who now administered over inner city life, he felt as trapped as those he served, an inheritor of sad history, part of a closed system with few moving parts, a system that was losing heat every day, dropping into low-level stasis. I wondered whether he, too, felt a prisoner of fate.