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Janet Langhart Cohen

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Lift Every Voice

Posted: 08/04/11 11:00 AM ET

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, black people who voted for him in overwhelming numbers were filled with intense pride, hope and a "fierce urgency of now."

After suffering through so many centuries of slavery, Jim Crow lynchings, and segregationist policies, a black man was about to enter the front door of the White House, not as a slave or servant, but as the Commander-in-Chief of our great nation.

Most Americans openly petition their elected officials to protect and promote their interests: corn in Iowa, oil in Texas, capital gains on Wall Street, salmon in Alaska, and guns, well, everywhere.

Quite reasonably, we expected that a long list of issues important to black people -- such as social and economic justice, access to a good education, adequate health care, an end to police brutality and the discriminatory prosecution and unfair incarceration of our people -- would finally be addressed by a president who many believed could personally identify and empathize with our history, struggles and aspirations.

While hopes were high, I knew that such expectations were unrealistic. Just as Icarus could not fly too close to the sun without plummeting to earth, a black president could not venture too close to the subject of race.

W.E.B. DeBois wrote that there are two warring souls in the body of every black person. For me, one soul reflects my hopes, dreams and the need to speak truth to power. The second soul counsels the need for caution, restraint, silence.

I have no doubt that President Obama feels the "twoness," of the spiritual duality that dwells in "the souls of black folk." For the moment, however, it seems that he is listening to the second soul.

I find it a supreme irony that the most powerful black man in America cannot speak to the issues of the most powerless people in the country.

I'm not unmindful of the invidious forces arrayed against the president, and the explosive impact of the tactics they employ to question his character, honor and fitness to lead the nation.

During the 2008 race for the presidency, I encountered a number of people who whispered to me that Barack Obama "scared" them. Really? Now I knew that the sight of a black man running in the neighborhood might set off a rash of 911 calls, but a black man running for the highest office in the land? It wasn't fear they felt, but the surge of racism they tried to cloak.

From the moment that Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency, extremist elements in the country initiated a campaign to discredit and delegitimize him. "He's not an American citizen! He's a Muslim, not a Christian! He's a liar! He's uppity! He's angry! He's not one of us! He's an anti-colonial Kenyan!" Aren't all Americans anti-colonial? Or did I miss the reason why we celebrate the Fourth of July? It is clear that the charges of his "otherness" are simply code words for the one epithet they dare not utter.

Regrettably, this campaign of disrespect and denigration has been successful in marginalizing issues of importance to millions of people.

But all is not lost.

Thanks to Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post, BlackVoices will provide an open forum to debate the political issues of the day. Journalists and bloggers will be free to participate not only in a national conversation, but a global one as well. Issues of inequality and intolerance cross all geographic borders and demand the attention and accountability of all leaders, be they elected or appointed.

BlackVoices presents us with an enormous opportunity and a moral obligation to speak for those who are conscious of their needs but have been denied their fair share of the American Dream.

So, lift every voice and let the conversation begin.