Today’s column is the last of excerpts from Chapter1 of Erin Aubry Kaplan’s book, I Heart Obama. It skillfully and powerfully sets the tone for the entire book.
Author and scholar Ishmael Reed said the white supremacy Obama had to fight was diffused yet pervasive. To him, the President’s lack of a substantive Black agenda pales in comparison to the machinations of the “white government in exile” that aided and abetted Obama’s unprecedented marginalization. That is a much more serious problem then what I’ll call the Bill Cosby problem—the president’s tendency to criticize Black people for their alleged dysfunction—such as blaming racism for their problems instead of taking personal initiative. Obama said these things most famously in a 2008 Father’s Day speech at a church in Chicago, later before the Congressional Black Caucus and to graduates of Howard University. For Reed, that’s an issue that exists on another plane. He believes Obama’s main job was to remain an upright Black man in a hostile white environment. That was essential, because if he had not done that, he wouldn’t have been in a position to do anything for anybody. That is why some of us applaud when he delivers these sermons on Black responsibility, not because we entirely agree with the sentiment, but because we feel damn lucky and not a little proud to have a Black president up there saying anything.
Most of us also understand that Obama’s sort of criticism is not the same barely coated racial damnation delivered by the likes of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr. and even Bill Clinton. Our battle-scarred folk hero is telling us what we should do to get into the game. I also believe Obama was sending a coded message of his own that he was, in some ways, powerless to undo a deeply racialized belief system in America that holds that Black people are always to blame for their predicament. As president, he himself was victimized by this belief. So what he said from the pulpit was that as Black folks, we have to be realistic about the situation and practical. Nobody from far-leftists to liberals and arch- conservatives like Clarence Thomas, think that Black people should do otherwise.
In the introduction to his 2010 book, The Making of African America, historian Ira Berlin declares that with the election of a Black to the presidency, “ African American life was totally transformed.” Presumably, he means Obama fits into Berlin’s view of Black history in America not as a linear story but as a series of transformations. I do agree with Berlin that Blacks have a collective consciousness and tend to see themselves as individuals who experience life as a group. The book’s theme is how Black immigrants have remade Black American life over the last fifty-years or so, how they generally have shaped and transformed African American life. Black immigrants do, and do not, fit the slavery-to-freedom narrative of Black America; there has always been some concern among native-born Black Americans that the immigrant narrative will always obscure what has already been obscured by a country that prefers almost any narrative to the one about the people victimized by its homegrown tradition of slavery. The slavery to freedom narrative is not over and Obama knows it. He is part of the narrative. He is still on that freedom journey, like all of us.
Barack’s optimism is a reminder of how Blacks always carry the burden of American optimism precisely because they have been so badly treated and so dimly viewed. Our optimism is not so much a burden as a kind of obligation—why did we suffer so long if not for the right to tell the country what it needs to do to save its own soul?
The opposition to action that Obama faced was as unprecedented as his election to the White House. As a Black man, he should have carried a certain consciousness into the office about the plight of people of color and about the oppressed, in general. But as far as advancing democracy, nobody I know is naïve enough to think that is Obama’s job.
Obama knows American history. He knows what it means, though he was careful
not to show his feelings about it. Yet this is what Black people wanted so desperately for him to do: vindicate us by finally putting history and its damned mythos in its place. But he didn’t do it—remember, he is that insider Black folk hero who allies himself with the system rather than against it. Whatever racial issues he had politically, he appeared to be easy in his own skin. “Obama is proud of his race—he never disassociated from Black”, said an ardent supporter…”He embraces Black women—he got his mom-in-law in the White House. All that speaks to the kind of man he is.”
As for Obama’s legacy, the ardent supporter, echoing the view of countless Blacks, and others, said, “The best thing he can do is to literally keep himself together:
With all the back-biting from other people, all he can really be is himself.”
In an era of retrogressive racism and widespread fragmentation among Black folks, to be Black and yourself—especially while being president—is more than an accomplishment. It is more than heartening symbolism. It is the very essence of heroism.