Obama: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Pt. 1
Following watching Cornel West’s scathing criticism of Barack Obama’s use of Martin Luther King’s bible during his inaugration ceremony, Black Feminists rl and Annabel discuss his presidency. This is the first in a series of posts that chart the discussion on our thread. Stay tuned!
I don’t think we need either West or Smiley, or even the mythology of MLK, to understand the failures of Obama. (I think that if we are to comment on the choreography of the event, there’s much more to point to. Like, am I missing something or are the only people of color on stage 2 Af-Am men? Seriously? It’s not just about the missing women. But if Latinos are the new, growing constituency, the ones that “won the election for Obama”, shouldn’t they have some representation? Of course, As-Am would be lucky if they even got a tokenizing place, and Native Americans are always ghosts – present without presence. But that is US race politics for you…)
I don’t often admit this, but I volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008 for about a month before the election. I did it because (1) I didn’t think McCain was an option; and (2) I didn’t believe (or didn’t want to believe) that the person who wrote “Dreams from my Father” could be a complete fraud. If I was not completely convinced of what I was doing before, the process of actually volunteering did convince me. I used to canvass mainly with high school kids and retired folk, primarily of colour. It is through them that I was convinced that even the symbolism of Obama’s candidacy (and potential victory) was something meaningful, something worth fighting for. And that is why I used to get upset with my leftist white friends, because their indifference or hostility to his candidacy totally missed this point.
This inauguration day, though, I was on the verge of tears all day (I didn’t care to watch any of it) because of the loss of all that. The true loss/failure of Obama’s presidency is that while black and brown kids (cis-boys, at least) will grow up thinking that they can be president someday, they will never learn (not through Obama at least) that it is possible, or imperative, to be a different kind of president.
Amongst ourselves (i.e. BF-UK), we use the term ‘black’ as a political description, not a racial category. I am not convinced that Obama fits that description – and if he does, its only perhaps through a historical legacy. When he sheds tears for the death of U.S. kids and refuses to address dead kids elsewhere. When he speaks about the love for his daughters and his fierce vow to protect them – but cannot speak similarly of Gaza. When he waxes eloquent about DREAMERS while simultaneously deporting, “in the interim”, undocumented parents… I can’t be bothered to defend him anymore. (I’m not even going to touch upon the economic failings.) Yes, the American populace gets only what they ask for. But that was not MLK’s legacy – that is not the legacy of any anti-racist or decolonial movement – that is a legacy of struggle. And, as much as it hurts to say it, Obama has no right or claim, politically or symbolically, to that legacy – only circumstantially, maybe, in that he has benefitted from it. And so, I’m not sure why we should cede that to him either.
I don’t give a damn that he can bust a move; or looks cute playing around with little kids. I can’t stand such “humanising” performances any more. Yes, so he’s a “nice guy”, he’s human. But why the heck should we expect less from him or any other “leader”? And just because we may get less, doesn’t mean we need to settle.
I’d be more than overjoyed if I were, eventually, made to eat my words. But I won’t be holding my breath.
This is a great. I don’t agree particularly, and have spoken before about how I reject the notion that Obama should be “better” because he is Black. I object enormously to that and the implication that he isn’t black enough because he behaves like any other US president (or national leader, none of them are perfect) or that he somehow has to represent everyone blah blah. Of COURSE he was elected on a mythology- they all are. This time round he courted groups other than African Americans -notably LGBT – for votes and they were duly rewarded with some words in his speech…. I suppose my ultimate point is that I don’t want him to have to be better because he his Black and never expected that. Why do we have to prove ourselves in this way? I wanted him to be the SAME and treated equally -not achieved- and behave equally. Anything more than that is a bonus but not to be expected because of his race. No.
I generally agree with you that, just because of his race, we should not necessarily expect him to be different. So, yes, what I referred to as his failures are the failures of that office (of the US president) in general. But the point I was trying to make is that
Obama has undoubtedly been trying to recall a particular history, and position himself within in. And, given his record, I don’t think that he should be ceded that place – just as we would refuse that place to any other white president, left or right.
That said, I think that the reality is that Obama is being judged differently because he is black. I think a lot of people, who otherwise might not be so, are silenced precisely because of the power of the symbolism of his blackness. This is why I refuse to engage in any visuals of him – because I too find myself moved, and that hurts. Because the possibility to be moved by his blackness comes at the cost of an erasure, even if momentary, of the humanity of people of colour, immigrants, poor folk, in the US and elsewhere.
And finally, while I have learnt (the hard way) not to expect otherwise, I do judge people who identify with subjugated groups differently. Because, to the extent that “remembering one’s roots” can, and should, mean something, it is about recalling and being accountable to what made one’s existence today possible as such. It is an accountability to the history that made you possible, and your place in the presentness of that history in making it possible for those with you and those that come after.
And, yes, it is a tall and unfair order. But if we expect critical existence from white men, white feminists, etc., I don’t see why we shouldn’t expect it from us and ours.
I understand, and agree that we should critically examine his presidency like any other. We’re not going to agree about his position in history or any claims he may have, so I’ll park that for another time.
Can you explain a bit more about your second paragraph, where you talk about the symbolism of his blackness. I’m struggling to understand how that erases the humanity of black folk, poor folk. He can’t be personally responsible for a symbolism he didn’t create, you know? So shouldn’t be held accountable…
On this point, I you talk about remembering ones roots and being accountable to them. I would challenge this notion. Indeed, “remembering where you came from” is frequently used – in the UK, mind – to constrain and restrict social and economic mobility. I’m nervous about this. How is he, or any Black person in power, supposed to acknowledge where he has come from all the time? And why should he? We don’t ask this of white people in power. In your example, what alternative would you suggest for your family members?