The home of African-American music beats for Obama

Wed, Sep 19, 2012, 01:00

African-Americans feel under threat and are being urged to keep their faith in Obama, writes Niamh Sweeney from New York

THE APOLLO THEATRE in the heart of Harlem has seen a lot of action over the years. Since first opening its doors in 1934, it has launched the careers of scores of black music icons, from Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Stevie Wonder to the Jackson 5 and more recently Lauryn Hill.

But more than just a theatre, the Apollo is a focal point for the local community, particularly at times of distress. Thousands flocked to the theatre on hearing new of Michael Jackson’s death, while James Brown’s body was laid out for public viewing on the stage he had performed on so many times.

On Monday night, the theatre was full to capacity again as a different black icon took to the stage. Reverend Al Sharpton, the famous civil rights campaigner, was taking part in a panel discussion on issues affecting the African American community in this presidential election. Like any other, this was an Apollo show that did not disappoint.

The predominantly local, and 98 per cent black, audience was quick to show its approval on hearing something they liked. And with not one but two Baptist ministers on the panel, the crowd was treated to several inspired orations on topics from new voter identification requirements to anti-intellectualism within the black community.

From the get-go, running through all of it was a clear theme of racial discrimination that continues to pervade US politics.

The issue of new voter ID requirements was the issue that caused most consternation among the panel. Described by the long-time New York Times journalist Jonathan Hicks as “an assault on the rights people thought they had”, new laws introduced in several states – including the key swing territory of Pennsylvania – now dictate that voters must be able to produce a state-issued photo ID with a signature, date of birth and current address on it. One-in-four black Americans do not have identification that meets all of the new requirements.

Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project went a step further than Hicks. “We are getting browner and blacker in this country,” she said, angrily. “They have to change the laws to hold us back.”

The author, academic and Baptist minister Dr Michael Eric Dyson spoke of the targeting of black people in swing states, arguing that implicit or unintentional racism is still consequential. “Intention cannot exhaust consequence, and the consequence here is dire . . . Is it racism? Of course!” he said.

But it was Sharpton who brought the house down, nailing the issue for the crowd when he said, “Let us use the same ID that we used when we voted for Reagan or Bush. Why do we need new ID now?” he asked, to wild cheering and applause.

There was inwardly focused criticism of the poor turnout among black voters in the 2010 mid-term elections that saw the Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives in Congress, and concern that a sense of complacency may depress the black vote in the forthcoming presidential election.

“This election won’t just affect the next four years,” said Sharpton. “It will affect the next 100 years. We’re talking about two to three seats on the Supreme Court. They will overturn civil rights, voter rights, women’s rights . . . I’m telling you, ’08 was historic, but ’12 is personal.”

One topic that seemed to divide people more than any other was whether President Obama had done enough to further “the black agenda” during his first term in the White House.

“It’s understandable that black people get real excited about the symbolic politics of Barack Obama,” said Dyson.

“But please don’t reduce it to [that]. Obama is a brother like us, in a serious situation, trying to do the best he can.”

Following the event, several audience members confirmed that the night’s discussion had been a good representation of the key issues facing the black community.

“Race is still an issue,” said Daneen Carroll (39). “In other countries people have a more global take. It manifests here in different ways because it’s deep-rooted in our history.”

“One of my pet peeves is how black America sees Obama,” said Derek Richards (51) from Brooklyn. “They thought he was some sort of messiah instead of realising he’s the president and he has protocols to follow. They expected him to represent the black agenda, but his whole thing is about creating balance.”