Last Spring, the New York cognoscenti began jamming into various fundraisers benefiting the U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, a 42-year old charismatic African named Barack Obama.
On one sultry June night alone, invitations were flying around the City for a fundraiser in a Chelsea loft. Other invitations same night, same type of event were highly sought after, but more difficult to get. The loft party, an event coordinated by young black professionals, turned into a standing room only affair, with barely enough room for the excited crowd to open up their wallets and checkbooks to put up their money. A crowd too often jaded by political rhetoric had fallen hard for the eloquent lawyer turned state senator who was determined to become the only African American senator in Washington come January 2005.
That was one event. The other, held high above the Big Apples playground, otherwise known as Central Park, was a smaller shindig attended mostly by white New Yorkers whose pockets went deeper than deep.
Two fundraisers, two audiences, same excitement! This is Obamas not so secret weapon. His world cuts across race, class and socio-economic status: he truly can connect with everyone. More than a few of his New York contributors felt embarrassed that prior to March, they had not heard of this young former civil rights attorney.
That was the month when Obama morphed into David, defeating an array of six opponents that included two mighty Goliaths in the Illinois primary race for U.S. Senate. One fallen candidate had long ties to the Democratic Party, while another had pumped $29 million into the race. But with Obamas supporters cutting a wide swath across Illinois voters, he won 52 percent of the vote.
''I think it's fair to say that the conventional wisdom was we could not win,'' Mr. Obama told a ballroom packed with his enthusiastic supporters that election night. ''We didn't have enough money. We didn't have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name like Barack Obama could ever win a statewide race. ''Sixteen months later we are here, and Democrats from all across Illinois -- suburbs, city, downstate, upstate, black, white, Hispanic, Asian have declared: Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!''
National party leaders certainly took notice of what Chicago voters had known all along, and that all of Illinois came to know: Obama, though he is quite the polished orator, is more substance than flash. John Kerry called, as did other party honchos.
He was born in Hawaii, the product of a short-lived marriage between a Kenyan and a white American from Kansas. When he was 2, his father left the family first heading east to Harvard and then back to Africa when he worked in his native country as an economist.
When Obama was 6, his mother married an Indonesian and the family moved to Jakarta. He spent his teens with his grandparents in Hawaii. All too often, he was the only black student in his classes, but like any African abroad, he learned to cope quickly and well.
"I grew up with whites and blacks and Asians within my own family and surrounding communities. It's an enormous advantage in an America that is changing everyday in that it requires us to work together across racial, cultural, and ethnic lines," Obama said in a recent Black Enterprise interview.
"But I was affected by the problems that I think a lot of young African American teens have; they feel that they need to rebel against society as a way of proving their blackness. And often, this results in self-destructive behavior. I've written about the fact that when I was in high school, I experimented with drugs and I played a lot of sports, but didn't take my studies particularly seriously. But I was fortunate to have a foundation and values from my family that helped me to overcome some of those destructive attitudes."
Obama ended up going to Columbia University and worked as a community organizer in Harlem. Then he followed in his fathers footsteps and went to Harvard and became the first African American president of Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude. Being the Law Reviews top editor brought him a flood of publicity for the milestone achievement.
At Harvard he met his lifetime partner, a native Chicagoan, Michelle, who he married. It may have seemed like a clich for the black students to end up dating but this was a match made in heaven. They now have two daughters. His 1995 memoir ''Dreams From My Father: a Story of Race and Inheritance recently made its way back to the best seller lists.
Last summer as the Democrats congregated in Bostons FleetCenter to nominate John Kerry for President in a traditionally American celebration/coronation, Obama give the speech of his life. In a deft move by Kerry, he tapped Obama as the new face of the party. As a Kerry campaign spokesman put it succinctly: We believe he represents the future of the party. Obama seized the opportunity to once and for all put an African imprimatur on todays American politics.
"If there's a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child," he told delegates in an electrifying speech that was punctuated with applause and cheers. "If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper -- that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family . . . There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."
But of course the murmurs began that his exotic life doesnt reflect that of the average black in America and he is different like some sort of non-black black specie. Scott Malcolmson, writing in the New York Times, actually declared that Obama is not the direct product of black life in America: he is not black in the usual way. In The New Republic, Noam Scheiber wrote that Obama is not stereotypically African American.
These comments have infuriated blacks from the American heartland to the continent. But the fuss may not have many legs to stumble on: Obamas sense of his own identity couldnt be clearer. He considers himself African American. The reason that I've always been comfortable with that description is not a denial of my mother's side of the family,'' Mr. Obama told the New York Times. ''Rather, it's just a belief that the term African American is by definition a hybrid term. African Americans are a hybrid people. We're mingled with African culture and Native American culture and European culture. He added, ''If I was arrested for armed robbery and my mug shot was on the television screen, people wouldn't be debating if I was African American or not. I'd be a black man going to jail. Now if that's true when bad things are happening, there's no reason why I shouldn't be proud of being a black man when good things are happening, too.''
At press time Obama had a 51-percent lead in the polls over his opponent, conservative black Republican Alan Keyes. He is all but certain to be headed to Washington by January. But dont expect him to take office and become spokesman for all things black. "His constituency is the people of Illinois. They elected him and it is them he will be responsible to. [He's not being elected to be] the representative of all black people. He's being elected to be the Democratic senator to represent the people of Illinois. That is his only mandate," Vernon Jordan, an early donor to the Obama war chest said.
In the Illinois State Senate, Obama pressed to overhaul the states death penalty system, to add more health care services for the poor, to expand early childhood education programs, to improve the state's system of juvenile justice and to create a state earned-income tax credit. Obamas candidacy has led to talk all around the country that he will end up being Americas first black president. For now he is simply The AFRicans breakout African of 2004.