In the early 1900ís heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was kicking major butt in the ring. The problem, for white folks anyway, was that Johnson, precursor to Mohammed Ali, was black. So it became that any white opponent who might have a chance to whip Johnson became known as the great white hope.
This is a snapshot of foolishness. For all the terrible things that black folk had gone through, whites felt they had to pour all their hope into any boxer who might pull off a victory. Who it was didnít matter as long as he was white. Hope is a precious thing. To be reckless or careless where we place it is to welcome sickness of heart.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick: but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life. Ė Prov. 13:12
Having our hopes fulfilled has such a life rejuvenating effect that it only makes sense that we take the time to be diligent about where and in what vessel we place those hopes. Why is it that the majority of people who win lotteries are broke again in a relatively short time? They placed their hopes in what money would do for them if they won. When they did win, their desire had come. But obviously they hadnít really taken the time to understand the true nature of that desire. Their desire was that money would erase the need for further striving; that money would fill a void they had never really understood the essence of. In reality, while money may shield one from the harsh realities of poverty, it places a whole new set of responsibilities on its possessors. It is those responsibilities that the average lottery winner was not prepared to face, which resulted in the vehicle of their hopes becoming a boat full of holes.
Yesterday, I went to Duke Trails to run. Itís not unusual to go there and find a lot of cars parked up and down the sides of streets when Duke has a football game. So I was surprised when I saw this yesterday since I knew Duke didnít have a game. The event this time was that Duke had set up a place for people to vote early, which I surmised from the many signs I saw. There were more cops directing traffic than Iíd ever seen for a football game. Wow! It was obvious that people were putting a lot of energy into voting, more than Iíve ever seen.
On leaving Duke Trails, I pulled up behind a Jeep at a red light that had a lot of stickers pasted all over the back. One of them was a picture of Barack Obama with only one word below it: HOPE. I was struck by this, particularly since it was obvious that most of the people clogging the roads to vote were Obama supporters, and most of them were white. In fact, even though any voting place is for people to vote for whoever they intend to vote for, you would have thought that this voting area was strictly for Obama votes. Quite impressive. Unless Obama makes a spectacular screw up or some unforeseen event turns the tables in a completely unexpected way, I think heíll be the next President of the United States.
In the 1930ís the effects of the depression were much worse for people living in what was known as the Dust Bowl (Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas panhandle areas). The land had been so stripped by ignorant farming methods that millions of acres of previously fertile land looked like moonscape. So much fine, lifeless topsoil now lay on the ground that storms picked it up and threw it high into the atmosphere, creating huge dark storms that looked like mountains bearing down on you that became known as black blizzards. People could not keep their homes clean and ate with layers of dirt on the table. They died, especially children and the elderly, with symptoms the same as coal miners with black lung disease. A weather change created a protracted drought so there was no water.
When hope has been deferred for a long time people begin to do things they wouldnít normally consider doing. Local Indians believed that to kill a snake angered the rain gods who would then punish the people with wet storms. Consider the effects of hope deferred; on many dust bowl farms you began to see the bodies of dead snakes stretched across barbed wire fences. Iím talking about the fences of white farmers, not Indians.
America considers itself to have been under a long drought known as the presidency of George W. Bush. Under his leadership weíve found ourselves with trillion dollar budgets, pushed deeper into unpopular wars, high gas prices and continued job losses. Bush is a more hated president than any I can remember. Heís probably a more hated man than any I can remember. He has helped create the equivalent of black blizzards for this country.
Into the vacuum created by hope deferred steps Barack Obama. On the surface it looks like a great fit. But, like lottery winners, I think thereís a lot not being considered. Americans appear to be more than ready to start stretching out snake skins or anything else they feel they need to do to cleanse themselves of the Bush stench. This is understandable, but very unwise. Just as most lottery winners never took the time to understand just what it means to have money, most Americans have never taken the time to understand just what it means to live under our system of government, or, for that matter, just what government really entails.
Obama has become the great American hope. And like the white folks who hoped in any white boxer who could whip Jack Johnson, Americans are hoping in anyone who can whip George Bush (McCain, being Republican, carries too much guilt by association). The fact that they are now willing to let this be a black man shows you just how strong this hope is.
I would not want to be in Obamaís shoes. He will have millions of people hoping in him with immature hopes not really worthy of adults. If you want to know just how smothering and unrealistic those hopes are, ask Nelson Mandela.
The hope of America was to be in a self-governing people. Instead we now have a people who look more for somebody to govern them and spare them from any of the hard work and self-discipline required of self-governing people. Where once the great American hope was to be free enough for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness it is now to be secure enough not to have to face the realities of self-determining adults. The office of President has become one of the primary vehicles of such messianic hope.
My prediction is that many hopes will be disappointed. Not because Obama is a bad or incapable man but because no man can live up to hopes not meant for him to carry. My hope is that, in the years ahead, Americans cease spreading snake skins across the barbed wire of their fantasies and come to the realization that no matter who is in public office we as individuals remain mainly responsible for the character of this country at the street and national level.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so effective because he called the conscience of this nation back to the precepts of its founding documents. He would not let America forget the great hypocrisy of founding a country on freedom and all men being created equal while it treated its black citizens exactly the opposite of the reason there was an America.
We all seem to have forgotten the reason there is an America. We want Presidents, officials, celebrities and ďexpertsĒ to run the ball on every play when the whole system of government was designed for their plays to be limited. Who will call us back, as King did, to the basic knowledge without which nothing else matters, no matter how spectacular or how much spin has been put on it?
I donít know. But if it doesnít happen, no matter who is President, there will be an inescapable price to pay.