The Black President

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 3, 1968)

“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.  I promise you, we as a people will get there.” – Barack Obama (November 4, 2008)

Over the last few weeks and months I surprised myself at how hopeful I was that Barack Obama would be elected president.  I gave up on United States electoral politics in high school.  I voted for John Kerry in 2004 but that was more of a lesser-of-two-evils vote than it was a reflection of any excitement that I had about Kerry.  In fact, I barely voted that year.  I didn’t see any fundamental difference between the Democratic and the Republican parties but thought that a Democrat in Bush’s place might make a small difference.  At the very least, I thought of Iraq and reasoned that if Gore had been in office on Sept 11, tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans would have still been alive.  So that’s why I voted in 2004.  Afterwards I felt sick, guilty, and disappointed that I had chosen to participate and legitimize this system.  I would have made the same decision again, but that didn’t keep me from being disappointed in myself.

So, as I said, I was surprised at my level of hopefulness over that last few weeks.  And it was definitely hope; not optimism.  Obama has sparked an incredible amount of both over the last 2 years, but the optimism of an Obama presidency has failed to infect me like it has so many others.  For one, he’s one man.  The United States government is a large apparatus with thousands of human parts.  It is extremely difficult for one in isolation to have much of an effect on anything (although Cheney and his small group of insiders may have proved the exception to this rule).  As we were all told in elementary school, there are checks and balances in this system that make sure that one person or group of people do not exert a disproportionate amount of power.  But the problem with checks and balances is that they have a way of keeping things the same; of slowing down progress.  This is one of the reasons why any significant progress for black people in this country has come about as a result of forces influencing the government from the outside.  It took a civil war to end slavery and it took a mass movement, complete with demonstrations, riots, and martyrs, to establish legal equality between blacks and whites.  Politicians operate within a narrowly defined set of parameters.  They rarely take the initiative to step outside of those parameters.  When they do, it is a reactive action; either responding to or being aggressively pushed by a popular mandate.

Secondly, Obama is vague.  I don’t expect specifics from a politician during a campaign, but a great deal of optimism (that I feel is unwarranted) has come about as a result of his vagueness.  He talks about change but this change is largely undefined.  I don’t think that this is accidental.  By constantly repeating “change,” he taps into people’s dissatisfaction with Bush, the economy, governmental operations in general, their lives.  Most people want some kind of change in their lives or in larger society but the diversity of our opinions and ideas limit the common ground that we may share or on which a politician could build a platform.  By leaving his message undefined, Obama allows his audience to use their imagination and define his message for themselves.

Thirdly, when Obama is specific his plans often leave me worried or just lukewarm. Obama is a moderate.  I certainly prefer his political positions to that of a Bush or a McCain, but I can’t say that I am particularly aligned with his views.  Specifically, his plan for healthcare reform, while it is an improvement, leaves much to be desired.  While corporate HMOs may have to make some adjustments to Obama’ policies, it looks like it will largely continue to be business as usual.  More troubling is his vow to intensify the war in Afghanistan.  Michael Moore said it well: “I have Gorbachev’s phone number; I could give it to him. He could call Gorbachev and ask him how that worked out for the Soviet Union. I don’t have Genghis Khan’s phone number or anybody else in the last thousand-plus years who have tried to invade that part of the world, conquer it, control it. Doesn’t usually work out.”  But beyond whether or not a war in Afghanistan is winnable or not is the issue that Obama could seem so gung-ho about any war with a country that really isn’t much of a threat.

So I have not felt optimistic about what the future may hold in an Obama presidency.  But I have felt hopeful.  It hit me when I was riding the El a few weeks ago.  I wasn’t around to listen to the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight in 1938, but I somehow understood how black people must have felt when Louis pounded the great Nazi hope into the ground.  We did it.  I was feeling that good ol’ race pride where even if you don’t necessarily agree with what someone is trying to do, you’re proud that they’re able to do it.  My hope was a hope that black man (and not just any black man, one that I would actually vote for, not an Alan Keyes) could do it.  And he did.  He did it.  But now that he’s done it, I feel an eerily familiar emptiness.

It started last night as the results were just starting to come in.  A CNN analyst described Obama as a mixture between JFK (a comparison that I’ve heard quite often) and Martin Luther King (one that, surprisingly, I haven’t heard very much, if at all).  Then I started hearing the screaming outside; the fireworks.  My cell phone started ringing; getting calls and text messages from excited friends and family members who wanted to share the moment.  One friend, in North Philly, told me that instead of fireworks he heard celebratory gun shots.  I didn’t know how to respond to people’s excitement.  I was glad that he won too but I wasn’t excited.  I didn’t want to kill their buzz.  I told them I’d call them back.  Jesse Jackson wept as he waited for Obama to deliver his speech.  Once finally on stage, Obama seemed to consciously tap into the aura surrounding him when he evoked (jacked?) MLK during his victory speech.  Last night, John Lewis proclaimed that, while Obama’s “election is not the promised land, it is a major down payment on the promised land.”  And this morning one of’s top stories states that “Obama’s victory caps [the] struggles of previous generations.”

I have a fear that Barack Obama is being cast as the heir or reincarnation of Martin Luther King and that his presidency signals the end of the struggle that has been going on for the last 500 years.  Black people have been waiting for “the next Martin” for a long time.  When we have that conversation we seem to forget that even Martin wasn’t always Martin; he was a man who took action and became the Martin that we read about and revere.  When we have that conversation we say that it is okay for us to sit around waiting instead of acknowledging that if “the next Martin” ever does reveal him or herself, it will be through action; action that we are equally capable of taking.  I am afraid that now people will say, “Thank God that Martin is back; he’ll run the show; he’ll take care of us; he’ll solve our problems.”  It seems like people, black and white, are expecting happily ever after to be right around the corner.

All of this being said, I’m glad that Obama won.  I’m glad that Bush is on his way out, I’m glad that McCain won’t be taking his place, and I believe that Obama will be much better than many of his predecessors.  I guess I feel somewhat stuck.

If I had to compare Obama to any historical figure it would not be JFK or MLK but another man who is best known by his initials: FDR.  FDR was elected at the height of the Great Depression and when the Communist Party was the strongest that it had ever been in the U.S.  Depending on who you talk to you’ll get some very different takes on his New Deal.  One faction will talk about how great it was; how FDR’s provisions allowed the working class to keep its head above water and eventually turned the country around.  Others describe the New Deal as the worst thing that could have happened because it lessened the tensions that the Communist Party had been exploiting without actually overturning or restructuring the fundamentals of the system.  It gave capitalism room to recover, adapt, and move forward.  It seems like Obama will have a similar effect.  He will improve living conditions for many of the U.S. citizens who desperately need help but we will also lose much of the anger (and with it, energy) that has been directed against Bush.  I don’t see Obama making fundamental changes, but I do see people becoming more satisfied, complacent, pacified.

So call it pessimism if you want.  I guess that’s fair.  If McCain had won I probably would have felt compelled to write an even more cynical comment.  But more so than that reveals my cynicism, I think it reveals the narrow spectrum of choice that we have been left with in this country.

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