unthinkable no more

The Baltimore Sun

Like many Americans and citizens of the world, on the morning of Nov. 5, I awoke with a renewed sense of purpose. Having witnessed, the night before, an event that I never imagined contemplating, the election of an African-American to the office of president of the United States of America, I felt truly vindicated in the belief that if you live long enough, anything is possible.

The night before, as I sat with family and friends watching the election results come in, I resigned myself to tempering my emotions. Like all of Barack Obama's supporters, I was encouraged by the strength, poise and deftness with which he ran his campaign. I knew that he was the best person for the job. But as a black man in America, I knew from experience to not let what I wanted to happen stray too far from the reality of what I knew could happen.

Like many African-Americans of my generation, my American experience was steeped in the ideology that we were, at best, second-class citizens. I was born in Chicago during the Depression; my future seemed destined to be an anonymous existence doing whatever was necessary to survive. But luckily, through a series of events, my beloved father would move my brother Lloyd and me to Seattle, where - and I can only credit divine intervention for this - I would find music and the path to what would eventually lead to a very different and equally unimaginable future for me.

As a teen in Seattle, we didn't have Will Smiths or Michael Jordans or Oprah Winfreys to look to as role models. My role models, whom I looked to for inspiration, were the musicians who lived in and came through town on tour. Men such as Clark Terry, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Bobby Tucker, Bumps Blackwell and Ray Charles, among many others. Men who took me under their wings and not only encouraged me where music was concerned but also told me about the great, wide world that existed out there for me if I wanted it. In fact, Ray and I would always repeat the mantra, "Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me" to give us the mental fortitude to deal with the harsh, in-your-face realities of the times.

Coupled with my experience at Garfield High School - at the time and today one of the most progressive high schools in America, where multiculturalism was not only encouraged but celebrated - I had a deep sense early on that there was more to mankind's coexistence on this planet than "us and them." But I was not naive, and I did not see life through rose-colored glasses. I was more than aware of the prevalent racial attitudes of my country, and if any validation was needed, it was easily found when I was a young touring musician with Lionel Hampton. Touring across the segregated South on a bus full of musicians, with the sole white person being the bus driver because we would need him to go into restaurants to get us food; the requisite white and colored water fountains and restrooms; dance halls where the audience seating was separate, with the whites sitting in the balcony; sleeping in a funeral parlor in Newport News, Va.; driving through five towns in Texas because stopping wasn't remotely an option, only to finally arrive in Dallas to an effigy of a black man with a noose around its neck hanging from the highest church steeple in town ... the message was loud and clear.

But I knew that the gift of music that I was provided with could overcome cultural boundaries and bring people of different opinions together. And on my first trips to Europe, where audiences and fellow musicians of all hues engaged us as men of equal stature, and again as the musical director for Dizzy Gillespie's State Department Tour, my instincts proved to be correct. Our official mandate was a goodwill tour of the Middle East, Europe and South America, but in reality we were what I dubbed a "kamikaze" band that was sent into hot spots to quell civil unrest in places such as Cyprus, Beirut and Tehran, to name a few.

I like to think that we did a lot of good performing all over the world, sharing our music and culture by building bridges, and it instilled in me a sense that there are good people and bad people all around the world of every shade - and more times than not, the good people come together and outnumber the bad. The harnessing of that power of music to bring people together is one of the reasons I am so passionate about the creation of a secretary of the arts for America.

As I moved forward with my career, I paid close attention to how the world viewed America and how America viewed its citizens. I watched as a young preacher from Atlanta rose to preach peaceful civil disobedience, a Nation of Islam minister stood and proclaimed that self-reliance was the answer, and a people embraced and celebrated black pride and individualism. I watched as our country slowly evolved because of the realization that no longer would African-Americans lie down and accept oppression, no matter what kind of veil it was covered with. We continued to expect and live up to all the rights afforded us in the Constitution of our nation and worked to excel and achieve our dreams, because not to would be a step backward and that simply was not an option.

As a people, we had advanced to the highest levels of politics, business and creativity. But for all that we had accomplished and overcome as a people, there I sat on Nov. 4, watching with measured anticipation as the states were called. And then California was called, and candidate Obama became President-elect Obama. Like so many around the world, but especially African-Americans, my heart swelled with joy in a way that it had never swelled before, the exception being the births of my children. For all that our people had suffered and endured - the genocide of the Middle Passage; the torture of body and spirit and the systematic dismantling of our families under the burden of slavery; the terrorism that came with Reconstruction; and the institutionalized racism and the struggle for civil rights - a man who looked like me would now be the president of the United States of America.

And like so many of us, I wept. I wept for all of the souls, known and unknown, who sacrificed their lives to get to this moment. I wept for those who are no longer with us who, like me, could never have fathomed that this could possibly happen. But mostly I wept for my father and brother Lloyd, who I wish could have lived to see this moment.

I don't think anyone can deny that President-elect Obama's election brought a renewed sense of hope and faith in America around the world. In the weeks after his election, I received calls of exultation from 15 heads of state. Mr. Obama has a tremendous amount of work to do setting America back on the proper course, but I feel he has the spirit of cooperation from the world behind his back.

Here at home, he will, of course, have his detractors - they've already begun their campaign to discredit and tear down his presidency, and he hasn't taken office yet - but he has instilled in the American people who elected him a sense of hope for our country that we haven't seen in a long time, and with that kind of collective positivity I know that a brighter, more prosperous future lies ahead.

And while his rise to the office of the president in no way means that America still doesn't have a lot of work to do with regard to race in our country, it gives me great comfort to know that every young American boy and girl (thank you, Hillary Clinton) from here on can grow up believing that "one day I might be president" and know that it's not an unthinkable fantasy. God bless you, President-elect Obama; the hopes of the nation are with you.

Quincy Jones has earned 27 Grammy Awards over five decades as a music conductor, record producer, musical arranger, film composer and trumpeter.

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