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Obama lifts ceiling of dreams for black men

Raymond Lucas, a volunteer mentor to 11 African-American and Latino boys at the Cradlerock School in Columbia, Md., worked Thursday with Barrett Johnson (left) and Emmanuel Boteang. Raymond Lucas, a volunteer mentor to 11 African-American and Latino boys at the Cradlerock School in Columbia, Md., worked Thursday with Barrett Johnson (left) and Emmanuel Boteang. (Steve Ruark for The Boston Globe)
By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / November 16, 2008
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BALTIMORE - As an African-American man and Barack Obama supporter, Farajii Muhammad sensed early on that the presidential election was about to change his world - well before the first votes were cast on Election Day.

Muhammad, a community activist and radio talk-show host at Morgan State University, picked up on signs of determination he hadn't seen in previous elections. Former convicts approached him, asking how to register to vote, he said, and the elderly were praising young men for going to the polls.

"I saw black men - hustlers, who had been on the street - were standing in line, just chilling," he said. "They said, 'Man, we're going to vote!' "

Now that Obama will become the first African-American to enter the White House as president, black voters are still trying to comprehend the scope of the accomplishment, struggling to find words beyond incredible and unbelievable. His election has also triggered a determination among some to make changes in themselves and their own communities - to walk the new walk, not just talk about it.

"It made me start thinking," said Raymond Lucas, who is already a mentor to 11 African-American and Latino boys at the Cradlerock School in Columbia, Md., a suburban community about 15 miles south of Baltimore. "It made me begin to focus on what I needed to do. . . . We have to do something different than what we did before."

Lucas said Obama's win "was overwhelming," a stunning event that brought tears to his eyes and led him to reflect on his own childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut. While those dreams were set aside long ago in what Lucas called "a pre-Obama environment," he said Obama's win made him realize that he needed to help other young men nurture and pursue their dreams.

Many men like Lucas believe that Obama's example has created in some black men a new sense of personal responsibility, largely because some of the elements of the president-elect's own story - he was born to an absentee father and a single mother who at one point relied on food stamps and who also raised him with help from his grandparents - are common in the black community. The impediments are still obstacles but not excuses.

"I hear that a lot," said Lucas, a retired IBM executive and president of the Maryland chapter of 100 Black Men Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to mentoring that mentors African-American youths. "I especially hear that there are no more excuses: You can be anything you want to be, even president of the United States.

"If we don't personally do something different, then nothing changes," he said.

Dr. Philip Leaf, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence in Baltimore, said Obama's success has energized this ongoing conversation, though it is dif ficult to quantify the effect. "Not that the world is going to be perfect, but there's a sense that, 'If I worked a little bit harder, I could have gone a little bit further.' I hear that from the homeless, I hear it from ex-offenders, any place I've been."

People are talking to their children, their parents, their peers, and to themselves in this subtly different way, Leaf said. "Everyone's visions have been lifted on what's possible."

The new tone resonates particularly in places like Baltimore, which at just under 30 percent has Maryland's highest concentration of African-American residents - many the descendants of slaves and freedmen who worked the storied Inner Harbor. Though it is home to white-collar businesses, Baltimore is still, at heart, a blue-collar working port town.

The city, however, is perhaps best known as the setting for HBO's "The Wire," a gritty, critically-acclaimed crime drama that ran from June 2002 until March. While some leaders bristled at Charm City as the backdrop for ruthless African-American drug lords, crime statistics suggest that the portrayal wasn't that far from the truth.

FBI reports show that in 2007 Baltimore had 282 homicides among its 600,000 residents, one of the highest per-capita rates in the country. A majority of the victims were young black men. Authorities frequently note that African-Americans are overrepresented in Maryland's jails and prisons, and the city's street-level drug trade frequently involves young black men.

Though the city has undergone a renaissance and demolished its crime-ridden housing projects, there are still deeply-entrenched pockets of poverty that African-Americans call home, such as Annapolis Avenue, a tough street in southwest Baltimore lined with boarded-up row houses, vacant lots, empty storefronts, and dingy bodegas.

Since his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in Boston that propelled him to political stardom, Obama has made personal responsibility a recurring theme, particularly when addressing black audiences. He has repeatedly challenged African-Americans to "turn off the television" and help children study, scolded black men for abandoning their families, and implored that people must help one another - and themselves - if they want to get ahead.

During the presidential primaries, however, several African-American leaders criticized Obama's calls for personal responsibility, contending that he had adopted a "blame the victim" mentality that ignored decades of oppression, lingering racism, and government indifference. Last summer civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was captured on camera before a Fox News television interview angrily muttering that Obama was "talking down" to black people.

Yet few critics were in evidence after Obama's win, and Jackson was shown at the victory rally, tears streaming down.

One streetwise skeptic, a former prison inmate by the name of Brother Ellsworth Johnson-Bey, warned not to give Obama too much credit for mobilizing black men to do better. Bey, founder of Fraternal Order of X-Offenders, an independent, nonprofit clearinghouse to help newly released inmates rebuild their lives, noted that he and others had helped black men and themselves years before Obama became a national figure.

Bey said Obama is an influential politician, not a miracle worker, and "I'm not impressed by politics." The president-elect can do little to fundamentally change a society that "will always have the haves and the have-nots," he added, and "there will always be a certain element in the black community that won't do anything" to improve themselves or the community.

"I came from that population," said Bey, 61, a lifelong Baltimorean who was in and out of prison for violence and drug-related crimes.

Still, Obama could motivate people to "stop being spectators and start being participants. The power is in the people," Bey said.

Muhammad, the radio host and activist, made that decision early, when he and his wife created a program to help young African-American adults learn the skills needed to become successful in their chosen careers. He agrees that Obama and other black leaders need to harness the energy of those who are ready to help change the community. Otherwise the energy will be squandered. "That's the biggest challenge - getting past our own selves," he said.

"It shifts the paradigm of how people think and how far we're moving as black people, and how far we've come beyond race," he said. The change that is coming "is real. It's hard now to say, 'I can't do it,' when you have a black man who reached the presidency."

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