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Hope or hype: Harlem prepares for Decision ’08

Residents of America’s first black cultural capital discuss what this historic election means to them, how it’s caused the community to be more politically engaged ... and why being black doesn’t necessarily mean being a Barack Obama supporter.
/ Source: TODAY staff

It’s one evening late last week, and four men are sitting at the corner of the bar at Londel’s Supper Club in central Harlem, transfixed on its flat-screen TV. The bartender has stopped mixing drinks, her eyes glued to the tube.

As patrons watch a recap of campaign events on the evening news, the bar is quiet but for plates rattling in the kitchen and jazz playing in the background.

Then someone shouts, “There’s no way McCain will win,” and the patrons — who are all black, as is the bartender — are off, onto a raucous discussion of all things political, from Joe Biden to Joe the Plumber. On some issues they disagree, but one thing is clear: They are all Barack Obama supporters.

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.”

Chet Whye, director of Harlem for Obama, works out of an office at 133rd Street and 8th Avenue, his desk invisible under a mass of paper and files. He says his office has registered more than 3,000 people to vote since September 13.

“This election means something big for this community,” he said. Pointing to a life-size cardboard cutout of Obama in the window, Whye added, “We’ve had a lot grown men come by and they look at that image of Sen. Obama. If they stand there and look at it for more than a minute, we’ll see tears come down.”

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?”

The significance of Harlem
The neighborhood of Harlem extends from 110th Street to 158th Street, at the top of the island of Manhattan. To its north are Washington Heights and the Bronx; to the south, Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Central Park. Between 1920 and 1930, black Americans migrated here from the South, searching for jobs and opportunity, until more than 70 percent of the population was black.

Those demographics helped usher in the Harlem Renaissance, when poets like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay and novelists like Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright made the community the nexus of African-American culture. The Apollo Theater on 125th Street, one of few New York venues that allowed African-American performers and patrons, launched the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and many others, still remains a Harlem landmark.

“Harlem created a vibrant culture that it shared with the world, not just New Yorkers,” said Keith Mayes, associate professor of African American Studies at the University of Minnesota. “People still see it as having the roots of the first black mecca, being the home of black arts and culture.”

By 1950, 98 percent of Harlemites were black. Through the next three decades, New York City suffered an economic decline, and the black community struggled. Infested with drugs and violence, Harlem became a symbol of urban decay.

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.”

The event planner and publicist blasts people for voting for Obama based on race, but also says that her support for McCain grew stronger when he chose Sarah Palin for vice president — because she’s a woman.

“Young black women should think twice — the Democrats didn’t choose a woman, and Palin and McCain balance each other out well.”

Khalil Figueroa, 38, a Latino and co-owner of Fig’s Barber Shop, gets heckled by patrons and barbers when he says that he will vote for McCain, and proudly asserts that he voted for George W. Bush in the last election.

“It’s a national security issue, and McCain is going to protect the country,” he said. “I’m not leaving my kids on a train, and have the train blow up because Obama wants to run around shaking hands.”

But acupuncturist Andre C. Jones, who is black, was a lifelong Republican and a McCain supporter, yet says he will be voting for Obama.

“I don’t agree with Sarah Palin as a choice for vice president; she certainly doesn’t have the qualifications,” Jones said, adding that Obama’s oratorical charisma, intelligence and message of hope helped sway him.

Inspiring youth
That message has even affected Harlemites too young to vote yet, attracting their attention to politics, at least for the moment. Parents say they have been watching election coverage with their children, and for many, it’s the first time they have really discussed politics at home.

“I’m gonna go with my mom to vote Obama,” said Monique Satterfield, who is 12 and black. “She usually doesn’t vote, but she thinks this time it’s gonna make a change, so she will. And I’m excited about it.”

Michael Perry, 47, a librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said he realized how much this election will impact the younger black generation when he was recently at a store with his 12-year-old sister.

“We were looking at magazines, and she didn’t care about Jay-Z; she didn’t care about P. Diddy. She went straight for one with Barack Obama and said, ‘There’s the next president.’

“And I was so proud.”