In 1971, Diana Ross and Bill Cosby were featured in a prime-time television special. It was a big deal then. Black people starring in TV specials weren't common, although Ross and Cosby (along with the Jackson Five) were among the nonthreatening blacks that white people could deal with in such circumstances. Hey, you gotta start somewhere.
One of their skits featured Ross and Cosby as schoolyard friends singing a duet called "Love Story" — with a goofy chorus of "You and me, baby," that repeated over and over. The song was about their fantasy of life together. When the subject turned to their future son and Ross sang that "Someday he may be president," Cosby harrumphed and gave her a stern look, as if to say, girl, in case you didn't notice, we're black. Ross took the hint and added the line, "If things loosen up."
Things may just have loosened up.
If the upcoming election goes the way polls indicate, Barack Obama will indeed be the first African-American president of the United States. And he literally is the child of an African and an American. Go figure.
The idea of a black president has been around for a long time. The earliest pop culture image of such a phenomenon that I'm aware of came in 1933, when a 7-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. performed in the title role of the 21-minute short film Rufus Jones for President.
By today's standards many blacks would find the shenanigans of Davis and others in the racist fantasy of a movie embarrassing. There's a sign at a polling spot that reads "two pork chops every time you vote," a sign on the coat room in Congress — where many blacks have ridden Rufus Jones' coattails to office — says, "Check your razors." There are plenty of chickens, watermelon and dice, and the cute little Davis Jr. tap dances and sings his way through the political process.
There's a whole lot of Sambo in that film. Yet, even through the mugging and foolishness, the immense talent of Davis, and Ethel Waters, shines through.
Truth be told, the 2006 movie Idiocracy, which features former NFL player Terry Alan Crews as president should be considered just as embarrassing, and Crews has no immense talent to shine through all the crap — nor the excuse of being 7 when he took the role. Idiocracy is the tale of a future America where the collective IQ is so low that people have elected the muscle-bound former porn star and wrestling champion president. His antics with a monster trike-bike and buxom bimbos are just as Sambo-like as those in Rufus Jones.
What makes it less racially offensive is that everybody in America is equally stupid. The movie's hero, who arrives from the past in a time machine, is declared the smartest man in the world and immediately given a cabinet post. The point is that, whether good or bad, the idea of a black president has resided in the American imagination for a long time.
James Earl Jones played a much more dignified character in 1972's The Man. In sync with the reality alluded to by Cosby and Ross just the year before, the black president of The Man takes office through a bizarre set of coincidences that bring the fourth person in line to the top.
More recently, the camera has taken a warmer view of the idea. Morgan Freeman, who has also been cast in the role of God, led the United States during the crisis of a meteor bearing down on Earth in 1998's Deep Impact.
And don't forget that the cuddly and soothing Dennis Haysbert, who appears in many an Allstate commercial, played a senator who became president in early seasons of the TV show 24. Of course, in the early episodes the senator who ran for president had to be protected from an assassination plot.
Attempted assassination had its place in 2003's Head of State starring Chris Rock. The people's choice for the Democratic nomination had to die in order for Rock's character, a neighborhood alderman thrust into the national spotlight, to be in the position to run for the presidency. The hip-hoppin' Rock manages to win with a campaign of in-your-face honesty from the ghetto to defeat both the opposition and the ill-laid plans of his handlers. In the last scene, the newly elected president steps into the open and what sounds like a gunshot rings out. The comedy's black president will be dodging bullets for the next four years.
Whatever the dangers presented, Hollywood has had its fling with the idea of a black guy in the Oval Office. Outside of Hollywood, in real campaigns, the candidates fight it out in the media arena. And it's obvious that the camera loves Obama more than it loves McCain. Not that they should depend on looking good on television more than presenting ideas to the electorate, but it doesn't hurt. Obama is camera-friendly and Web-savvy, and he's managed to transcend race enough to throw open the doors of possibility.
It's the rest of us who have to get used to it. Neither I nor my friends saw it coming. At best we saw him as a vice presidential candidate. Even the politically plugged-in Rep. John Conyers spoke openly of a Clinton-Obama ticket early on.
Truth be told, the only African-American I've believed could win the presidency in recent years was Gen. Colin Powell. He turned down the opportunity to run for the office. And despite his longtime position at the inner circle of Republican politics, on Sunday, Powell, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Bush's first secretary of state, endorsed Obama.
I wasn't that surprised. Ever since Powell damaged his own credibility at the United Nations by presenting the Bush lies as excuses to go to war in Iraq, he has distanced himself from that creepy crowd.
The far-right-wing blogosphere went nuts after Powell made his endorsement. They generally accused Powell of making his choice based on race. However, he discussed the reasons for his decision and said that if it was about race he could have made his endorsement long ago.
Actually, several influential conservative commentators have said they will vote for Obama, including Christopher Buckley, son of William F. Buckley Jr., a founder of the modern conservative movement. But now the right as a monolith of political power in the United States seems to be falling apart, regardless of McCain's plucking Sarah Palin out of one of its more radical outposts.
If Obama wins, it won't be an idea in a movie. The perils of war, economic turmoil and ecological problems are massive and very real. Any president will have to be extraordinary to just get things going in another direction. Solutions will require basic changes in the way many of us think about these issues. Obama represents a commitment to new thinking; McCain can't even send an e-mail.
Obama's candidacy happened because he had the audacity to actually believe he could do it. That was the first step to freeing all of our minds. Any of us doing anything of consequence starts with the idea that you can do it. If people take that to heart things really will have loosened up.
Still it does have the feel of a movie script: Kenyan villager moves to America and his son becomes president. Wow! There just may be a movie in that.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org