At a North Columbia barber shop known for shearing some of the city’s most prominent civic and spiritual African-American leaders, politics is the coin of the realm these days and the prospect of re-electing President Obama is topic No. 1.
The majority of customers at Toliver’s Mane Event are African-American, and many are over 50. Owner Herbert Toliver acknowledges the political conversation tilts heavily Democratic and pro-Obama with a good dose of talk about self-reliance and faith in God. (For his few Republican customers, Toliver says he keeps the talk to church and Bible studies.)
This election cycle, the discussion is leavened, not so much by Obama’s soaring 2008 mantra of hope and change, but by restrained, cautious optimism. Perhaps, the discussion goes, voters will grant Obama four more years on the merits of his agenda.
There is, of course, the prospect of falling short, of a Jimmy Carter moment in history, but that is rarely voiced.
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“I believe President Obama is going to win re-election, but I have also prepared myself in the event that he doesn’t win re-election,” Toliver said. “Guess what? Either way, the Lord is gonna still wake me up in the morning at 4 o’clock and I’m going to be at work at 5:30.
“That’s what’s going to happen, and what I do in the course of 12 hours in the barber shop is going to make a difference in my life and in a lot of other people’s lives,” he said “To whom much is given, much is required. I’ve got to give back to the people who have given to me.”
For many of Toliver’s regulars, Obama’s 2008 election salved old psychic wounds, healed some of the hurts and indignities rooted in segregation.
“We are all on the same page,” said Toliver, 66, who routinely meets customers before the sun rises at the shop on North Main Street. “We have seen it all.”
Most never thought they would live to see an African-American president.
Customer Willie Gilbert, 65, swathed in a hot towel, remembers his white friends across the road in his rural town of Salley climbing aboard a bus while he walked to a separate school. “Like it was yesterday,” he remembers the Ku Klux Klan coming on the radio, warning white parents of the perils of integration and the need to raise their children to be lawyers, doctors and judges “just to keep the upper hand.”
He sees remnants of those old attitudes in the politics of the Tea Party, with its call to take back the country and oust Obama.
The 2008 election was a cathartic moment for more than just Gilbert.
Customer Donald Holland hadn’t expected to cry as he sat on his couch watching the election returns, witnessing the moment Obama broke the presidential color barrier.
But in that moment came a rush of emotions and memories the retired Dreher High School choral director had not contemplated for years: the restraint counseled by his parents; the taunts of the white boys on the bus as his Virginia farming community struggled toward integration; the sense, transmitted by others, that he was getting above himself as he pursued a doctorate in music education.
“You don’t talk about it,” Holland, 61, said. “But black people are concerned with white America’s perception of having a black president. It’s the things that black people see versus the things that white people see.”
Take that first presidential debate between Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Pundits characterized it as a win for former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, a potential energizer for his campaign, and suggested Obama either was unprepared or disengaged.
But that is not what Holland saw.
Holland saw a president so livid at Romney’s description of his positions on issues that, instead of lashing out, Obama took his anger inward rather than risk being perceived as the angry black man.
The racial aspect of the campaign simmers under the surface, he said, but he does not think Tuesday’s election will turn on it. After all, white voters came out in droves to help elect Obama in 2008.
“I think if he loses, it will be more of a testament to people losing faith in the process to get us out of a recession,” Holland said.
“It will be a testament to people losing faith in the political process.”
‘There’s no second-guessing’
But Bobby Donaldson, a USC history and African-American studies professor, thinks there also will be a well of sadness among black Democrats if Obama loses, particularly those of a certain age, those who remember life before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“I do think there will be profound disappointment,” said Donaldson. “If you remember the night he was elected, there was so much emotion. There was a sense that all those tears reflected that we were turning a page in history.
“Here was a moment that the nation was making a turn in a different direction. If all the people believe that his election was turning a page in history, I think there will be this anxiety that we will move backward.”
Younger African-Americans say they are ready to move past the discussions of race.
“We should all get past the color issue,” said Terrence Coleman, 37, a student-barber in Toliver’s shop. “We just need the best person in the chair.”
Christopher Toliver, Herbert Toliver’s son, who along with younger brother Michael works with his father, wishes the campaign would center on “the human race, rather than color. ” He sees signs of God’s hand in bringing together Republicans and Democrats to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy.
But there is no question he is hooked on the presidential drama, caught up in the final days of polling and figuring out the direction of the swing states.
“I keep up with it every single day,” he said. “I love politics.”
Christopher Toliver, 42, said he supports Obama, but he doesn’t see eye to eye on everything the Democrat does. “I have a problem with people who get food stamps and government assistance if they can get out and work,” he said. And, he adds, “(Obama) is going to have to do something about entitlements and the deficit.”
Christopher Toliver and customer Duane Wages both believe the election is about leveling the playing field and providing a hand up to the working class and those truly in need.
“I felt like, for once, we had a president who was in tune with the working class and the poor,” said Wages, 39, the owner of Capital Tinting and an assistant coach at Richland Northeast High School. “If I hear it right, it will be tougher (if Romney is elected). It’s in their minds, ‘Oh Lord, there’s going to be tough times.’ ”
Outside the environs of the barber shop, Donaldson, the USC professor, listens in on discussions among his students and hears a contemporary take on that same vision.
“A lot of my students who supported Obama have this sense that there is a double standard,” that voters want immediate fixes to the nation’s ills and are impatient for the president to deliver, Donaldson said. “They say if he was white, he may have gotten a pass on that, that there would be much more latitude.”
But Donaldson also doesn’t see the passion of 2008, on either side of the political spectrum, among his students. It has fallen casualty to the social media world that the students inhabit, where news is tweeted and Facebooked, and then forgotten.
Herbert Toliver, the barber shop owner, said he tries to imbue his younger customers with a sense of history but often falls short.
“They can’t feel it because they don’t have it,” he said. “And in order to feel it, you’ve got to have it in your heart and in your head.”
Corey Tucker, at 18, the youngest licensed barber in the shop, said he felt that history in 2008, when Obama’s election “kind of woke me up.” He listened to every word of Obama’s inaugural address.
Herbert Toliver preaches the gospel of God and self-discipline, and suggests individuals have the responsibility as well as the right to participate in democracy.
“God ain’t going to the polls to vote for you now,” he said. “We have to know where God starts at, and then know where we need to pick up at.”
No matter what happens Tuesday, the atmosphere at Toliver’s Mane Event “will still be calm, cool and collected,” Herbert Toliver added.
“Especially in here,” he said. “If you give it your best shot, there’s no second-guessing.”