Post-Racial America Road Trip
Four years ago, when Barack Obama was first elected president of the United States, I was beginning my career as a freelance photojournalist in Chicago, photographing national politics, the financial crisis, and other social issues across the Midwest region of the United States. Four years later, Obama won reelection and so four years later, I returned to the American road, this time traversing the American South to discover if one part of the promise of Obama’s presidency, that of a post-racial America is upon us, and to witness whether the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is alive in our time.
American identity is never frozen; the moment we begin to define it is when it exists only in our minds and memories, an entity incompatible with the slow and perpetual changes constantly occurring. Racial progress is like any American progress, something we can speak of only in increments. It is not so long and buried in our past the days when black men were considered to be three-fifths of a person (to say nothing of the low value placed on the lives of black women) and slavery ended, valuing human lives spent in shackles doing forced labor at the worth of forty acres and a mule. It is no coincidence that one bail bond advertisement by the order window of a restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee advertised with the slogan “free at last!”
Are we, if we believe we are only, in the words of Phil Ochs, “as free as the padlocked prison door,” and “only as rich as the poorest of the land”? In the Mississippi Delta, the native soil of the most American of music, the blues, from which jazz and rock and roll later evolved, the social problems plaguing the broader American landscape – the endemic poverty, racism and its consequences: the lack of access to good schools and health care – come to the fore. The color lines are everywhere, though, and not only in the South; but they are also dissolving. Sheikh Ossama Bahloul, the imam at the controversial Murfreesboro Islamic Center where Muslim-hating protesters attracted the attention of the international media and an arsonists made an attempt once, understood those who opposed him to be “sweet and innocent”. Becoming American is more possible than anything else, he said. And besides, the constitution is clear, he said. And so his center stands.