Obama’s Story Resonates with Bronx Students

Bill Dedman, MSNBC, Oct. 31, 2008

At Validus Preparatory Academy, a new public high school in the poorest congressional district in America, students have kept journals since the early primaries, created election art, studied opinion polls in math classes, designed brochures on the issues, read memoirs by the candidates and even delivered speeches in their stead. And after the principal dashed around to plumbing supply stores for enough PVC pipe to build a voting booth, they got a chance to punch their own electronic ballots in a national mock election for students.

Being so steeped in the presidential race, the students at this predominantly African-American and Hispanic school on Bathgate Avenue are a little on edge about the outcome. They say they are excited about the possibility that Sen. Barack Obama could become the first black person elected president of the United States. (In the mock election results so far, 88 percent of Validus students chose Obama.) But many also admit to some nervousness that it won’t happen. And even if he does win, they’re crossing their fingers that he’ll be up to the job.

“If Obama doesn’t win, it’s a big disappointment,” said Dorian Whyte, 18, who moved to New York City from Jamaica. “And I think if he does win, also, it can be a disappointment, if he doesn’t deliver.”

‘I just hope that he keeps his word’

“I just hope that he keeps his word, as he’s said, that he’s going to make a lot of good changes,” said Shaday Brown, 17, whose uncle is the noted Black Arts playwright Ben Caldwell. “I just hope he’s up to his part, just hoping he’s going to do what he says he’s going to do.”

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The students said that the Democratic candidate’s life story is not unlike theirs. Many of the students are immigrants from Africa and Latin America. Many have multiethnic ancestries. Many, maybe most, are being raised by single mothers and grandmothers. Like Obama’s family, they are putting their hope in a better education, and in the belief that minorities can get a fair chance in the United States.

These students didn’t live through the 1960s. Heck, they didn’t even live through the 1980s. More than once, when asked what role race plays in their lives, they answered, “Can you repeat the question?”

‘Race doesn’t really matter’

In some ways racial tension is muted in the South Bronx, where there are few whites. The school rolls list only one white student out of 426.

“I live in the Bronx. Race doesn’t really matter,” said Ahmed Hunt, 18, who played the part of Obama in a school program. “We can go as high, as far as we want. Bronx has some really good schools, some really good students. I go to a real great school.”

But there is racial tension at times between blacks and Hispanics in the neighborhoods, and between recent immigrants and established families. There are fights in the lunchroom, as at any school anywhere, though the spark is more likely to be a filched French fry than a racial slight.

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“If McCain wins, I’ll be crushed, because I do not want to see McCain running this country. I don’t think he’s fit enough. . . I’ll try to pick up the pieces and move on, I guess.”

There are McCain supporters at the school, 19 students out of 270 voting in the mock election, but they didn’t turn up for videotaped interviews with msnbc.com.

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