As Barack Obama winds down his time in the White House, everybody’s thinking about his politics and his legacy.
Me? I’m thinking about my granddaddy, Matthew Seabrook.
And about Shaft.
That’s right. I’m talking about John Shaft, Hollywood’s steel-fisted 1970s TV detective, the afro-sporting personification of “blaxploitation”-era cool.
Boy, did Granddaddy love him some Shaft. Specifically, he loved to watch Shaft fight. Most specifically of all, he loved to watch Shaft fight white guys.
We always scooted away from him when that happened. The way he’d twitch and bob and weave, you’d think the TV punches were flying right into the living room. The nearest kid got a leg thwacked or arm squeezed way too hard.
“Watch that boy!” he’d shout, referring to Shaft. “Watch ’em now!”
I didn’t understand back then why Shaft meant so much him. It was just a TV show. But he grew up in segregated South Carolina, deprived of public schooling. We had to read his mail to him. You couldn’t fool him counting money, though. He ran moonshine, a nightclub, logging trucks, even old school buses ferrying seasonal pickers out to the big tomato farms.
He never spoke of the indignities he suffered at the hands of white men. But I glimpsed it in his habit of addressing them as “Cap’m” when doing business.
Granddaddy was a proud and willful man, highly respected among his peers. But in the world he inherited, white men were not his peers. They were untouchable. So while we watched Shaft for mindless fun, he watched it to see a black man pummeling white supremacy with TV-scripted right hooks.
Grandaddy died in 1986. Much has changed, but being black in America still means carrying around other people’s mental baggage. It still means enduring arrogant or ignorant presumptions about what you are or aren’t before you even open your mouth.
Granddaddy’s ceaseless striving at his business ventures was an expression of his hopefulness. Given his segregated youth, even Shaft beating up white guys was a manifestation of hope.
Shaft was his glimpse of the world to come – the even playing field of his dreams. I think of Obama in the same way. I’m not saying Obama did everything perfectly, and I’m certainly not saying his rise marked the end of racism. Donald Trump’s victory slammed the lid on that crazy notion.
I’m saying that for me, the mere fact that Obama’s two terms came to pass has been a revelation, a tantalizing glimpse of what America might be when we finally rinse the last faded stains of white supremacy out of our national fabric.
Obama wasn’t the political equivalent of the glowering, hard-swinging John Shaft. He didn’t beat the Republicans into submission. But he won, he served, and he exits scandal-free and personally popular. He is living, breathing American history.
Grandaddy would have been proud of this first black president.
I am, too.
Eric: 704-358-5145; firstname.lastname@example.org.