Op-Ed: ‘Punch 9 for Harold Washington’ – But Only If You’re Not Serious About Black Political Progress (watch)

I [recently] took my family to see “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” an epic story of American politics, race, and triumph against all odds. The documentary chronicles the captivating rise, surprising reign, and enduring legacy of Chicago’s first Black Mayor, Harold Washington. My 13-year-old daughter, complained from [the moment] the idea was conceived until the lights dimmed in the theater. My 17-year-old son, has a little more experience and understands that in matters of family and Black consciousness, daddy is going to win. Ultimately, he decided to protest in silence and begrudgingly came along. I’m not sure what I expected from this film, but what I got was validation that my understanding of not only Chicago politics, but also Chicago’s racism was accurate.

In hindsight, April 29,1983 may have been the first time systemic racism and I were introduced. “Systemic” is the key word here because even though I was only seven years old, I’d already been called a nigger by a White adult. Of course, I couldn’t articulate the nuances of life in a city rooted in oppression and injustice, intent on maintaining a racial caste system, but I did understand that Harold Washington was a change agent. 

Seemingly everyone knew. It was rare to see my community rally behind any collective [thought], so when Harold Washington was elected mayor, even my seven-year-old self could understand the significance of the moment. The Bears had yet to win a Superbowl, and Michael Jordan was still at North Carolina. Washington’s election was the first time I’d witnessed a public event draw people to the streets to celebrate collectively. 

Washington was a savior, the dark knight coming to rescue the downtrodden Black community from the harsh embrace of its Bridgeport dictators. That was the perspective of a young Black boy, ignorant to the politics of the moment. “Punch 9 for Harold” informed that now forty-five-year-old man of how insane and redundant 1983 was. 

In Chicago, Mayoral elections are decided during the primaries. Chicago is a Democratic City; before seeing “Punch 9 for Harold,” I couldn’t think of one Republican candidate for mayor that made a splash in any election in my 26-year voting history. The chances of a Republican winning any seat at any level of government within the city boundaries were almost laughable. 

Harold Washington campaigned on the promise of inclusion and bridging the gap of opportunity for all abandoned by the racist system of nepotism. 

Thirty-nine years after the Washington administration, Chicago again has an African American mayor. And although currently there is a Black majority in the city council, disparities persist.

Mayor Washington did – like most Black politicians – campaign on a promise of inclusion. Unfortunately, the idea of inclusivity has made its way from campaign language into the vernacular of the commoner. … We deserve [more than casual]  attention to rectify the harm that America levied on our ancestors. 

Politics is a war on paper. At its core, it’s tribal. Yet, our fear or inability to define our collective tribe is marred in the celebration of images like the white-washed version of Dr. King or the truth of President Obama, per my new understanding of Harold Washington. 

I went into “Punch 9 for Harold” with one perspective. A perspective that forced me to make my children attend the screening with me. … I left with a very different perspective. I left feeling bamboozled. I left feeling like Harold Washington ushered in a concept of inclusivity at the expense of those who championed him most, an idea later employed by Barack Obama. 

Washington ushered in an idea that Barack Obama later popularized, a version of politics that I view as a rendition of Black Face. In several scenes of the film, you’d see some random black voter address Washington directly and [declare] how proud they were and what they ultimately expected of his opportunity to govern. Like clockwork, he responded to constituents with the same manufactured response, “Well, I’m planning on being the mayor of all of Chicago.” A statement Barack repeated some 20-plus years later. The Black voting masses used this statement to challenge Rev Wright, Tavis Smiley, and Cornel West when all acknowledged the limitations or challenges of a Barack presidency. 

While Harold held hands and sang we are the world Alderman Burke and Vrdolyak created oppositional responses to his every action based solely on race. In the third year of his first term, Washington made Burke his vice mayor. Obama mirrored that move strategically when he selected Joe Biden as his running mate. … Although historically, Joe Biden was no friend of the Black community, after Obama’s presidency, the same man dared to question Black people’s blackness if they questioned voting for him. 

Race matters! It mattered then, and it matters now! If those elected to represent us see our needs as impediments to their opportunities or leadership ability, we will always fall short. How would his legacy be viewed if Harold Washington had not passed away in office? Who would champion it? Who would challenge it? How would those dissenting ideas have shaped black politics today? 

I [urge] everyone to see the film, but watch the movie with an open mind [regarding Mayor Washington], and pay particular attention to those ancillary characters in the film that still hold positions of power in Chicago city government. You tell me if those ideas of inclusivity were genuine or strategic?

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