Hope or Hype: Harlem Prepares for Decision ‘08

Vidya Rao, MSNBC, Nov. 2, 2008

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From Harlem’s bars to its barbershops, its churches to its community centers, America’s first black cultural capital is electrified with anticipation of the election, and the possibility of a person of color’s becoming president. Many Harlemites are quick to say that Democratic candidate Barack Obama has changed the face of politics, encouraging people in the community who were apathetic to become part of the process.

Others say this election is something they’ve waited for their whole lives. “I’m on cloud nine,” said 86-year-old Lettice Graham, a Harlem resident since 1947 who has voted in 17 presidential elections. “I’m just glad it happened in my lifetime, that I can have the experience to vote for a black president. I will be at the poll at 6 a.m. to beat the rush!”

Nationally, nearly 90 percent of the black vote went to Democratic presidential candidates in the past two elections. In a poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies last month, 90 percent of blacks have a favorable opinion of Barack Obama, while 22.8 percent have a favorable opinion of John McCain. Eighty-four percent said they want Obama to win the presidency.

In Harlem, where the population is 67 percent black, hopes for this historic election are high.

‘Obama, Obama, Obama!’

State Sen. Bill Perkins, who represents Harlem, was New York’s first elected official to endorse Obama for president (in May 2007). He says he’s never seen the kind of political passion among his constituents that he has in this election.

“This election is transformative,” he said. “Those who were turned off by the process are enthusiastically turned on. We just have to keep reminding them, though, that this momentum is not the victory—it’s the vote that is the victory.”

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Throughout Harlem, residents agree that community morale is up and the level of political engagement has no precedent in decades. Neighborhood vendors sell merchandise emblazoned with images of Barack and Michelle Obama: buttons, hats, T-shirts, umbrellas, shoes. Some see Obama as the personification of the American dream.

“Everywhere, every corner store, deli, barbershop, all you hear is, ‘Obama, Obama, Obama!’ “ said construction worker Karim Solomon, 30, adding that he will also vote for the Democrat.

“He isn’t Martin Luther King Jr., but he has the ability to uplift the community, and that is how many of our members feel,” said Reverend Dino Woodard of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The first black Baptist church in New York played a vital role during the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights era. “Our church has fought to end discrimination, and for those of us who were around during the Civil Rights movement, this is the ultimate milestone,” the Rev. Woodard said.

Still, some caution against characterizing the excitement about Obama as being race-based, saying that would imply he’s ahead in the polls because of his color, not his qualifications. “I have voted for many white candidates and never had a problem with it,” said John Phillips, 72, who works in pharmaceuticals and is black. “I’m voting for Obama because he’s the right man for the job; he’s a Democrat who will steer this country in the right direction.

“Nobody asks white people if they are voting for a candidate because he’s white, so why should I be asked if I’m voting for a candidate because he’s black?”

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Today the community is changing; though blacks are still in the majority, whites, Asians and Latinos are moving in. Gentrification has improved many blocks, but housing costs are rising, pushing out many black residents whose families have lived here for decades. Columbia University plans to expand through 17 acres of the area, leading many residents to feel they are losing their neighborhood.

“Harlem is in recovery,” said acclaimed poet Maya Angelou, who first visited Harlem in 1952 and has owned a house here for the past 10 years. “It is still the political hubbub and hub—whatever happens in Harlem is going to be repeated in Los Angeles and Seattle, in the black areas around the country.”

Angelou says that Harlem and other communities are desperate for change—and says Obama can make that happen.

“We’ll see how much our country has grown up on Tuesday night,” she said. “In Harlem, to have a black president, I would expect the same sort of hallelujah good times celebration as occurred in the ‘30s and ‘40s when boxer Joe Louis fought and won the title.”

Still, some are skeptical about Obama’s message of change. “I believe Mr. Obama has the intention of making things better, but he’s not the messiah,” said rapper Immortal Technique, né Felipe Coronel, 30, a Latino of Afro-Peruvian descent. “He can’t undo Bush’s policies over the past eight years.”

The political rapper, who was raised in Harlem and currently lives here, also questions how much direct effect a President Obama would have on the community. “Will Obama stop the expansion of Columbia University? Will he stop luxury buildings from taking over the area?”

Black doesn’t mean backing Obama

In fact, not all African-Americans or Harlemites support Obama, though they are by far the minority. Keisha Morrisey, 38, who has been in Harlem her whole life, says she doesn’t leave her house without wearing her campaign hat and buttons—her McCain-Palin hat and buttons.

“I’ve always been going for McCain, and I’m loyal to my party,” said the lifelong Republican. “People say to me, ‘Why not Obama?’ So because I’m black I’m supposed to vote for Obama? I say, ‘If a black man comes to my door, I’m not going to just let him in because he’s black, then ask him who he is afterwards.’ The bottom line is, I don’t know Obama.”

Morrisey, who is in the process of developing a Harlem Women Republican Club, has harsh words for her fellow Harlemites. “This Obama thing is clearly a lot of hype,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people know why they are voting for him. It’s just because he’s black.”

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