Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How will historians view Obamas' fist bump?

By DeWayne Wickham

Many people will remember June 3, 2008 as the day Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Party s presidential nomination. It was a year ago Wednesday that Obama won enough delegates to become the first black to lead a major party s presidential ticket.

In his speech to supporters in St. Paul, Obama said of his win and the looming general election campaign against Republican John McCain: Tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another. That was an unparalleled time in the 219-year history of the American presidency. But the most revealing moment came before Obama spoke a word.

As he walked on stage with his wife, Michelle, to give his victory speech, the crowd cheered wildly. The couple embraced warmly, and then as his wife pulled away to leave the stage she smiled and extended a clenched fist toward her husband. He responded by making a fist and tapping it softly against hers.

That dap – most media reports called it a fist bump – became a major news event. The Washington Post called it “the fist bump heard ‘round the world.” E. D. Hill, a Fox News Channel commentator, asked cynically whether the gesture might have been a “terrorist fist jab.” Time magazine rushed to press with “A Brief History of the Fist Bump,” the origins of which it said were “murky.”

A dap is actually a greeting of respect that is thought to have been created in the 1970s by the Black Panther Party or Fred Carter, a black player with the NBA’s old Baltimore Bullets. But its origin is far less important than the willingness of the Obamas to openly perform this once-uniquely black greeting before a TV audience of millions of Americans of all races. That was a better indication of where this nation was headed than that day’s election results.

Their dap was a dividing line between the politics of old and the new politics that Obama s campaign represented. It was seen by many as an act of affection that humanized the would-be first couple in a way that no words could ever do. It symbolized Obama s ability to transcend race for some, while at the same time manifesting it for others. His very public fist bump that night showed that Obama was confident he had achieved this duality.

During his 16-month campaign, Obama masterfully molded himself into an Omni-American, a term used by cultural critic Albert Murray to describe an American who identifies with all of their ancestors.

Some people may have seen evidence of this in the backing Obama got from across the political spectrum.

“When was the last time American was led by someone who truly thinks of his country’s citizens as ‘we,’ not ‘they,?’ ” left-leaning Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison asked rhetorically in the endorsement letter she sent the Democratic candidate. “Obama is what the historical moment seems to be calling for,” Christopher Buckley, the Republican political satirist and son of conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote of Obama in The Daily Beast.

For many historians, June 3, 2008, will be remembered simply as the day Obama became the Democratic presidential nominee. But for those who view that day more closely, they will see the execution – and acceptance – of that dap as proof of a love affair between Obama and the American electorate that propelled him into the White House.

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