Erin Aubry Kaplan’s book, “I Heart Obama”, is a vigorous narrative on the challenges and contradictions of Obama’s presidency. He was vilified like no other president mainly because of his race. This column and next week’s consist of extensive excerpts from Chapter 1 of Kaplan’s book. This chapter masterfully sets both the stage and tone for all that follows.
Obama hews to a critical Black tradition of forbearance in the face of great, almost inevitable disappointment. This is what has endeared him to us, what ensures his place in our still-unresolved history as a hero for the ages. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. has been made into a paragon of multicultural cooperation and even post-racialism over the years, I always saw and heard him as agitated, what white folks disapprovingly called “fiery.” Malcolm X and King risked all to ensure Black justice, ultimately giving their lives; Obama is not aiming for Black justice. He and his ambition came on the scene in a post-post-civil rights era in which Black justice had become not just politically passé’ but actively discouraged, even among those who still believed in it.
Obama is an oddity—technically not a Black leader, but a Black folk hero nonetheless. As president, he defies the possibility of being the first thing, but resurrects the second. It’s more than a little ironic, because when Obama came on the scene, he was certainly aware of the growing belief in post-racialism and knew that his appeal to white folks depended on it. He just as certainly knows that he is a hero to Blacks because of his blackness and unlike Clarence Thomas, he’s welcomed that. It charges him. The Black connection alone put a lie to the a historical assumptions of post-racialism: This is where Obama’s big risk lay, where his heroism took shape.
He was not clamoring for Black justice, but he was advocating for justice being done to American ideals and American promise that included, but were certainly not limited to, racial justice.
Obama is much more susceptible to failure because being president isn’t like being an athlete or an entertainer or any other kind of professional. It isn’t accomplished by talent alone, and never without the faith of the millions who expect you to represent them. A Black person has never won representation on this scale and white folks simply don’t believe that Blacks who are not entertainers or athletes can validly represent them or earn their faith; certainly Blacks can’t articulate white people’s feelings about a country that has never cared whether their Black citizens have faith in it or not. Obama as president has, therefore, asked people for the unprecedented, if not impossible—agreement from the majority of non-Black Americans that he can indeed speak for them.
Reviewing the harrowing plot points of his presidency has been very much like dissecting Joe Louis’s fights or Jack Johnson’s troubles with the law; the concern is not so much about what happened as it is about whether Obama is left standing, whether he’s actually outsmarted his enemies without them realizing it. Much about Obama’s political legacy is still forming and is still controversial, even amongst Black people, but the resonance of his symbolism as a Black man claiming a space denied to Black people for so long is indisputable. Symbolism alone makes him a hero to Blacks of all generations. Voting for Obama brought Black folks together like they haven’t been together in forty years. In the aftermath of the Movement, we lost our cohesion, our mojo, to the winds of change and to the great pressures of integration and individualism. It’s funny because Obama is at heart an integrationist who would prefer that the days of Blacks even needing group cohesion and a collective identity be numbered.
But the fact is that race is still a separate and unequal element in politics and pretty much all of American life, which is why Obama, the idealist/integrationist, is still an outlaw whose arrival on the scene had the effect of outing Black people as a people. Suddenly, we had something on which everybody had to take a position. You couldn’t sit this one out, you had to participate. Obama-watching has shaken us out of a certain stupor that bordered on despair and revived a common purpose we haven’t had in decades. Obama is a badass, a lone man living by his own rules, forging new ground; he is at the same time the very embodiment of social redemption, a believer in the true American system of democracy who espouses hope and change with a straight face. This double consciousness of virtually every notable Black leader in history did not advocate abandoning the country he considered home. Obama stands out from the pack because, as president, he attempted to take Black folks’ eternal outsider status not only to insider status, but straight to the core of American power.
Obama’s enemies see him as much worse than a bandit. They see him as a kind of cultural terrorist, blowing up the usual order of things, a man who must, therefore, be stopped at all costs; Black folks, of course, regard Obama as a benevolent insider, someone who has followed all the rules operated within society’s moral code and been rewarded for it. Obama has beat the system by conforming to it, by being an exemplar when society still insists that Black men cannot really be exemplars—for their own kind, perhaps, but not for anyone else.
Despite concerns that Obama did not carry the torch of Black justice into his presidency, as history needs him to do, Black people can’t help but admire his singular vision, applaud the force of his own individual determination get where he wanted to go. That is power we tend to doubt exist, even in talented-tenthers like Obama. Even if he ends up being the only Black person to ever empower himself to the White House, he has shown us it is possible. Obama’s rocky odyssey, thus far, may actually reseal the doors of white privilege and make it harder, not easier, for another Black person to be elected president. But the precedent will stand. That is victory enough. By simply standing in opposition, by taking out Osama bin Laden, by going through the hell of his entire presidency without breaking down or showing defeat, Obama triumphs.