I know your image of me
Is what I hope to be
I’ve treated you unkindly
But darlin’ can’t you see
These lyrics are from the classic, A Song for You. Though originally written and recorded in 1970 by Leon Russell, a white rocker-singer-songwriter, these lyrics were ushered into the American songbook by soul music icon, Donny Hathaway. His immaculate phrasing, perfect pitch, and full-throated vocals transform a lovesick elegy into an ode to America’s contradictions and promise. The United States has always said of itself that it was “a city on the hill”—a “light among nations”. Lady Liberty extended her eternal lamp and called out to the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses “yearning to breathe free”; for they would surely find succor to their righteous thirst in the United States.
In the Gilded Age, the quest for greater freedom and fortune would be mythologized in Horatio Alger’s novels. Dreams of “rags-to-riches” abounded among recent immigrants and American popular imagination. Yet, its racial history begs to differ. Slavery, Jim Crow, and other disparities illuminated a nightmarish reality for too many inhabitants of the world’s first multi-racial democracy. Racial minorities held the United States accountable to its creeds. After a civil war and civil rights movement—both of which are blood soaked—the nation got a little closer to its image of itself. Burdened with race and discrimination African Americans would become the moral conscience of the nation. Their protest would condemn and conjure the democratic project into being. As the nation collectively remembers its past, it does so with pride and thanksgiving. One can almost hear Donny Hathaway crooning at the piano.
You taught me precious secrets
Of the truth with holding nothing
You came out in front and I was hiding
But now I’m so much better
In 1964, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stopped over in London, en route to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and gave a series of lectures and interviews. King arrived in London on Dec. 5th—the day before his public nemesis, the fire and brimstone prophet, Malcolm X was set to return to the United States. Mr. X had been on a six-day speaking tour throughout Great Britain, which was punctuated with a nationally televised debate at Oxford University. Malcolm X—known for characterizing King and the nonviolent civil rights movement as “weak and cowardly”—was asked to comment on King’s arrival in London. In an uncharacteristically gracious manner, Mr. X told a London Muslim student group, “I’ll say nothing against him.”
BBC broadcaster Robert McKenize sat down with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to discuss the plight of the “American Negro”. A professor of politics and sociology, McKenize was an accomplished psephologist—one who does statistical analysis of elections. In the course of the interview, the Canadian born journalist summons a prediction made by American political royalty. In a dark three piece suit, with hands folded in professorial tone, McKenize recounts and queries. “Robert Kennedy, when he was Attorney General, said that he could image the possibility of a Negro President in United States within perhaps 40 years. Do you think this is at all realistic?”
Without a missing a beat, King, a jet lagged American Jeremiah, rejoined and upped the ante, “Let me say first that I think it is necessary to make it clear that there are Negroes who are presently, qualified to be President of the United States. There are many who are qualified in terms of integrity, in terms of vision, in terms of leadership ability. But what we do know that there are certain problems and prejudices and mores in our society that make it difficult now. However, I am very optimistic about the future. Frankly, I have seen certain changes in the United States over the last two years that have surprised me. I have seen levels of compliance with the civil rights’ bill and changes that have been most surprising. So on the basis of this, I think we may be able to get a Negro president in less than 40 years. I would think that this could come in 25 years or less.”
During the 2008 campaign, Obama and his advisors walked a racial tightrope—suspended between two poles: black sympathy and white anxiety. In a word, candidate Obama could never come across as an angry black man while solidifying his African American base. And for the most part he accomplished that with deft skill, until sermons of his firebrand pastor, Jeremiah Wright surfaced. After name-checking the great fallen empires: Russia, Japan, Great Britain, he laid into the United States for her social sins against blacks and Native Americans, Wright blasted “Goddamn America” which was looped over and over again on cable news. His black nationalist sermon caused such a stir that Obama was forced to confront the very issue that he sought to overcome—race.
On March 18, 2008, then Senator Obama mounted one of the most sacred pulpits in American civic religion—Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His race speech titled, “A More Perfect Union” walked the racial tightrope with dexterity. He launched his talk from the predictable place that he was delivering his remarks. Noting that tragicomic history of American democracy, Obama condemned Wright’s sermon and pointed out his maternal grandmother’s racist epithets. After regulating Wright’s anger to a bygone era and exploring the white anxiety, Obama points out toward a larger consideration—economic insecurity
“Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed;” In this section of the speech, Obama attempted to address the mounting anger of whites in the face of economic decline. The anger was fueled by talk show hosts, like Glenn Beck and would eventually produce the Tea Party, whose gatherings were often populated with racist depiction of Obama. Having delivered what many commentators held as one of the greatest speeches given by a politician on race, Obama would go on to win Iowa and clinch the nomination.
Some forty years after assassins’ bullets silenced two American prophets and after two hundred or more cities burned in riotous grief, King’s prophecy would come to pass. Deploying King’s dream and drawl, Barack Obama—possessing Malcolm X’s coloration, handsome stature, and intoxicating charm–became the first African American president of the United States. His election was met with jubilation through the world. At 11pm on November 4, 2008, African American boys and girls poured onto Malcolm X Street in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, dancing and singing, “We won! We won!” Images of people celebrating in cities and villages throughout the world were broadcasted on every television channel.
BET correspondent Jeff Johnson commented, “We have not seen this kind of global outpouring since the release of Nelson Mandela.” That night an estimated crowd of 240,000 gathered in Grant Park in then President-elect’s hometown of Chicago, IL. Once the election was called for Obama, even Fox News paused to acknowledge the historic occasion. A somber Brett Hume turned to Juan Williams to get his thoughts on the election outcome.
As producer of the definitive civil rights documentary series, Eyes on the Prize, Juan Williams located the ground breaking election in its historical context, “It is stunning…When I think of it from a historical point of view and you go back and you think of people, you know, going back to the fact, you know, that black people did not have the right to vote in this country. And it was only black men until 1870…And of course it did not mean much going forward until 1965 and the Voting Rights Act. And that point, Lyndon Johnson said that the Democratic Party had lost the South, forever. There was no possibility, really, of full enfranchisement that would say that black people could somehow be the leader of the United States of America.” With burgeoning emotion, Juan Williams continued his thick description of the epic occasion, “This is truly an incredible moment of American history.”
A choked up Williams cemented his reflection with this characterization, “I cannot think of another country in the world where you have a significant minority that was once so maligned and so oppressed finally have one of its sons rise to this level…I do not care about how you feel about him, politically, at some level you have to say this is America at its grandest—the potential, the possibility. And what it says for our children, black and white, the image of Barack Obama and those little girls in the Rose Garden in the years to come, I think is just stunning.”
During his victory speech President-elect Obama walked the nation through its history of racial strife with tender elegance. Referencing King’s “Mountaintop” speech, Obama declared, “tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America…The road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even in one term — but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”
Having survived a divisive and bloody campaign—an electoral civil war—Obama called upon his presidential hero to heal the wounds of fractious electorate, “As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
A 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper cast her vote in that election. Obama took time to bear witness to the historic nature of her voting. “She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky, when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey, both weeping, stood in the frigid weather as the nation’s first black president dashed any doubts about American exceptionalism, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
The next morning on a crowded A train to Manhattan, a seemingly disturbed thirty-something black woman rocked back and forth and shook her head. She blurted out to commuter crowd, “I am not crazy. I am just ecstatic. I can tell my baby he can be anything he wants to be!” The multi-racial crowd erupted in applause. Obama’s election was a watershed moment in American democracy. The white supremacist gaze in the United States demonized black bodies, subjected their intelligence and interrogated their national allegiance. Barack Obama’s winning campaign called into question these deep-seated notions that shaped U.S. public policy and perceptions.
Moreover, black folks, if not all Americans, take great pride in the presence of three generations of African Americans in the White House. The real image of a beautiful black family beaming into the homes of all Americans has a deep impact on the psyche of the nation, and a denigrated people. The likes of which has not been seen since the venerable Cosby Show of the 1980s.
Hence, the Obama presidency is an electoral and existential victory; the way in which all American people make meaning for themselves as a nation. There are two widely accepted, if not competing, narratives about Obama’s ascension. First, there is the election itself. While it is true that his presence in the White House is because of his intelligence, effective fundraising apparatus and sophisticated campaign machinery, the red carpets at the inaugural balls were soaked in the blood of martyrs.
The presidency of Barack Obama is a by-product of African Americans’ 400 years of struggle for access to the democratic project called America. The President has often located himself in that tradition and trajectory. He has strategically trafficked in the prophetic rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and employed the homiletic rhythms of the black preacher. As with his victory speech, he has used these cultural signifiers in a way that is titillating to the national consciousness—linguistically and literally embodying all American’s quest for a more democratic society.
As with the campaign trail, the sitting president’s tenure has been littered with racial acrimony. The election night national unity gave way to politics of derision, fear, and conjecture. Obama’s citizenship, faith, and national allegiances were questioned on end. On the right he was a Manchurian candidate—an anti-colonial foreign-born Muslim (read Malcolm X) operative sent from aboard to turn the United States of America into a socialist dictatorship. On the left Obama was liberal messiah who had once and for all atoned for the racial sins and ushered in the post-racial era of American democracy. He, of course, governed as neither, but rather as a neo-liberal politician who encountered a recalcitrant opposition party whose stated goal was to insure that Obama was a one-term President.
According to New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, the President has surrounded himself with “smart ass white boys” from Harvard who have limited political wheelhouse when it comes to race. They are simply out of their depth. The president missed an opportunity to have a national dialogue on race, following the egregious arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates on his own front porch. Rather than initiating a national discussion about race, racial profiling and policing in communities of color with policy recommendations, the president and his advisors convened a beer summit in which the arresting office and Professor Gates had a beer together and talked.
This mishandling of race became a recurring theme in the President’s first term. After a video smear campaign and deliberate misrepresentation of her words, Shirley Sherrod, civil rights veteran and farming advocate was met with a reflexive request to resign from her post at the United Stated Department of Agriculture. Both President Obama and Fox News celebrity Bill O’Reilly apologize to Mrs. Sherrod for their mishandling of her case. Throughout the president’s first term, he has fallen off the racial tightrope and landed with feet firm on the white anxiety side.
Moreover, the politics of race have cut both ways inside and outside the White House. On the one hand, liberal commentators have demanded allegiance and not interrogation. And on the other, conservative operatives have recycled tired and true troupes. Writing in The Nation Magazine, MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry suggested that the electoral racism was at work in the president’s loss of white support in this second campaign. “The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism,” Harris Perry postulates. In the primaries and the general election the major conservative politicians want to “Take America Back” from the “Food Stamp” president. Such verbiage drips with racial resentment. And Donald Trump pledged to donate $5 million to the President’s favorite charity if the president released his college records and passport information—more birther maddness.
Nevertheless, Obama delivered the landmark Affordable Health Care Act, Lilly Ledbetter Act, and increased program funding for the nation’s poor children. Yet, Obama and his party suffered a devastating blow in the 2010 mid term elections. Riding the wave of white economic insecurity, Tea Party freshmen became the rudder of the House of Representatives. One year before the Tea Party’s electoral coup d’etat, President Obama was summoned to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. To many observers, the prize—awarded to Martin Luther King and other global peace activists— seemed to be a bit pre-mature or maybe prophetic. Latter category was not fulfilled.
After his stopover in London, Martin Luther King shared with the Nobel committee that he refused “to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.” King accepted the peace prize with “an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith” in humanity’s future. King told the assembled kings and suzerains “that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
In his Nobel Prize speech, Obama paid tribute to both King and Gandhi, but quickly pivoted toward a robust American military policy. “As a head of state” he reminded the attendees, “[I am] sworn to protect and defend my nation; I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” Noted civil rights veteran James Lawson, whom King called “the great nonviolent theoretician in the world”, was deeply troubled by Obama’s Nobel speech. “It was the first time in history that a president advocated pre-emptive war in the presence of the Nobel committee,” Lawson posited in a phone conversation last year. Obama contended before the Oslo crowd, “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” To this end, Glenn Ford, editor of the leftist Black Agenda Report has called President “the more effective of the evils”. Citing the National Defense Authorization Act, Guantanamo Bay, Drone usage in the Middle East and a bailout for bankers and not mainstreet, Ford and other black intellectuals have expressed their deep disappointment in the President Obama.
A Song for You is America’s love song to the struggle that produced President Barack Obama. Though kin to “treated unkindly” people, the first African American president is the image of what American hopes to be. Born to a white mother who was once a welfare recipient and an absent African father, Obama overcame his circumstances. He would complete his undergraduate degree at Columbia University and obtain a law degree from the real Horatio Alger’s alma mater, Harvard University. The second narrative would have simply said that a multi-racial citizen rose from poverty, graduated from Ivy League institutions and ultimately rose to take the highest office in the land. Before the Grant Park crowd, Obama proclaimed that his story was the American story; Accordingly, Obama’s election hinged upon a meritocratic individualistic moiré − a multi-racial democracy where everyone, if they work hard enough, could rise above their circumstances and achieve success. This is American exceptionalism at its core.
On election night in 2008, those two narratives were held in tension as a multi-racial and intergenerational nation celebrated its fait accompli. Regardless of the outcome next Tuesday, the election of Barack Obama remains a defining moment in American history—for better or for worse.
-Rev. Osagyefo Sekou
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