Obama: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Pt. 2
Black Feminists Nasya and Kali continue the discussion on Barack Obama’s presidency (part 1 of the conversation can be found here). This is the second in a series of posts that chart the discussion on our thread. Stay tuned!
As a black American (of Jamaican – first generation American born – ancestry) who campaigned for Obama in 2008 and voted for him as an ex-pat in 2012, I think there’s a space to be both critical of his shortcomings and celebratory of his accomplishments.
Unlike what the conservative right might like to believe (that black folks voted for Obama because he’s ‘cool’ AND black) I’m not entranced by Obama’s smile or he fact that he can dance. I certainly appreciate his charisma. But I’m floored by the suggestion that one’s politics could be so heavily informed by a president’s, in this case a black man’s ‘swag’. I mean haven’t we struggled enough about the objectification of the black body in general? Do we have to even acknowledge such highly- racialized rhetoric?
Obama inherited a crap economy and high unemployment and despite the slow but steady increase in employment (better than anything McCain or Romney had to offer, both of whom are too far removed from working and middle-class concerns to even ‘get it’), people complain about the rate of progress in that area, forgetting that high unemployment and debt is an issue the world over. Obama promised to make healthcare more accessible to those who usually can’t afford it (primarily recent immigrants and people of color) and those who could afford it before now complain that they have to pay more, forgetting some of the benefits (especially for women! Birth control and access to abortions through your healthcare provider!) that are now roped in to what they have access too at a lower and more affordable rate for EVERYONE. More people of color, Black, Latino, Asian, etc, have access to basic healthcare in America than ever before. But he’s not doing enough for ‘black’ people?
That latter point has got to be what saddens me the most. A few black public intellectuals have said Obama has not done enough for the black community (‘what about the black agenda?’, Tavis Smiley said). But Bill Clinton (who cut welfare and food stamps, which had a drastic impact on low wage communities, period) was proudly dubbed by many black people (including two of Obama’s biggest critics, Smiley and Cornel West) as the nation’s ‘first Black President’ but Obama (who is the real first black President) is not Black enough. For real though?? And for me, the fact that Obama spoke out in support of marriage equality after years of not taking a damn stance, matters to me. It’s matters a lot to me and to thousands of his LGBTQ supporters and I think that’s also something to be acknowledged and celebrated.
As far as his foreign policy goes, I’ll admit I’m not feeling it. I don’t like that Obama had spoken against Netanyahu’s handling of Israel-Palestine affairs and yet, the Israel-American relationship is clearly expanding under his presidency. And let’s face it, his support of marriage equality was well-timed (in the midst of a low approval rating and re-election campaign). But criticizing him in regards to whether or not he is (politically) black enough is very problematic especially when it’s situated in juxtaposition to MLKs ‘dream’ which clearly did not always include women, given that many black women activists spoke about him being a sexist such that freedom fighters like Ella Baker opted to no longer work alongside him (Gwendolyn Simmons wrote a celebratory and yet critical account of MLK entitled ‘Martin Luther King, Jr. Revisited: A Black Power Feminist Pays Homage to The King’ that’s a telling read).
I think it’s fair to say that Obama needs to be mindful of the history that positioned him for success. But to say he has no right to claim, politically or symbolically, that history of struggle completely ignores his individual history (how about when he worked as an organizer in Chicago launching after school programs for black youth?), is divisive (can’t be be critical of his politics w/ out also stripping him of his right to blackness?), and dismissive (kinda reminds me of when people would tell me I’m not black enough because I listened to ‘white music’ when all the while Alice Walker and Maya Angelou were my biggest heros).
Needless to say, I remain an Obama supporter despite his many contradictions. This is mostly because I acknowledge that he’s a human being, and a politician at that. Too many people excepted him to be a savior, and that’s an unrealistic ‘dream’. I will continue be hopeful, albeit critical of Obama and Democrats / liberals in general. Just as I am hopeful and yet critical of women’s liberation and the project of feminism.
Back in 2008, I kept reminding myself that regardless of the fact that he would be a black president in the States (I still catch myself in wonder about that), he would still be an American president. Obama is not still the man who wrote Dreams from my Father. He is the man who wrote Dreams 18 years ago (if that makes sense).
As such I agree with rl’s statement 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.
For me, while it is wonderful that there is healthcare reform in the States and that he is standing up for reproductive rights, I judge him by the standards I use for any politician. Bradley Manning is being prosecuted under an Obama presidency. His addministration has embraced the use of drones as a national security strategy. Will Guantanamo ever be closed?
All of this matters to me and I cannot separate ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ policy. It is not okay to care about people ‘here’ and not care about not people ‘there.’ I tried not to expect more from him because he was black and some of his family are Kenyan etc because I knew I would be disappointed but I would have criticised George Bush for all of this and I criticise Obama for it. Needless to say, he is a lot (!) better than Bush but I do think there are some people who do not criticise Obama because of his blackness (and of course many who do criticise because of his blackness).
In terms of ‘remembering one’s roots,’ Annabel I understand what you mean about the fact that it can be used to constrain mobility but I think it is important. We do not ask this of white people in power because we do not want them to do this. The problem rather is that they (often) do remember where they come from – and perpetuate white power. It would be better if they didn’t!
I think the problem is the American presidency – can anyone who occupies that post be the transformative figure we need them to be?