I’m black yall,
I’m black yall.
And I’m blacker than black.
I’m black yall.
- Dead Mike, from the movie CB4
Our president, along with the First Lady, has been taking some heat (what’s new) over the past few weeks. First, there was the April 14, 2013 piece in The Philadelphia Tribune by Reverend Kevin Johnson. Entitled “A President for Everyone, except Black People,” the article takes issue with the president over what Johnson characterizes as the president’s apparent lack of concern for black Americans and the issues that they confront in their daily lives. Johnson, one of the original forces which helped to engender the political rise of Barack Obama on the national scene, recently became disenchanted with the president and his administration’s policy sometime during the planning stages of the president’s re-election strategy. According to Johnson,
in 2012, two prominent Philadelphia lawyers convened a meeting between White House senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, and a cross-section of Philadelphia’s African-American leadership. The purpose of the meeting was to candidly discuss the president’s re-election strategy and policies toward African-Americans.
The meeting was initially cordial until I mustered the courage to ask Jarrett a question I have heard repeatedly in the African-American community, “Over the past four years, what has President Obama done to help Black people?” (Johnson)
About a month after the Johnson article, the Obamas – yes both Michelle and Barack – were taken to task by Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic for their seeming condescension to black communities, particularly during this spring’s commencement addresses to newly graduated African American college and university students. In his May 20, 2013 offering, Coates argues that while “perhaps [African Americans] cannot practically receive targeted policy…they have earned something more than targeted scorn” (Coates). Coates is not necessarily off the point here. Addressing the graduating class at Bowie State University, the First Lady reminded the students that “instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, [too many of our young people are] fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper” (qtd. in Coates). Additionally, in a gathering of students who have more than likely read books, and evidently read them well, all of their lives, Mrs. Obama goes on to say: “And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that” (qtd. in Coates).
For his part, Mr. Obama – who is “not the president of black America [but] the president of all America” – has played the role of admonisher-in-chief, at least according to Coates (qtd. in Coates). Addressing the graduating class at Morehouse College – one of iconic, historically black colleges in the United States, where the focus on education has always been at a premium – President Obama reminded the graduates of the following:
We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you've learned over the last four years is that there's no longer any room for excuses.
We've got no time for excuses-- not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured -- and overcame. (qtd. in Coates)
I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that “there's no longer room for any excuses” -- as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of “all America,” but he also is singularly the scold of "black America. (Coates)
At any rate, Jonathan Capehart, Washington Post columnist, author and sometime MSNBC television personality, took issue with the positions held by both Johnson and Coates. In his May 21, 2013 article, “Obama Can’t Win with Some Black Critics,” Capehart chastises Johnson for his claim that Obama “ignores the concerns of black people”; Coates, for his claim that the Obamas “talk down to them” (“Obama Can’t Win”). Moreover, Capehart asserts that Johnson and Coates are simply “incredibly short-sighted” in their criticisms of President Obama (“Obama Can’t Win”). He goes on to remind us that he alerted us to the actions of Obama some time ago and that we should have paid attention. In an article written in response to the myriad of books about President Obama, Capehart states,
By searching for [marquee] moments, Harris and others appear not to care about the myriad actions Obama has undertaken that affect the lives of all Americans, yes, but also of African Americans more directly. And I certainly don’t advocate for Obama to burst into the East Room clad in Kente cloth and brandishing a definable “black agenda” or whatever else so many blacks seem to want from him to prove that he cares. (“Stop Waiting”)
that’s what’s missing from most African American critiques of Obama: an appreciation for Republican resistance to his agenda. To expect the president to introduce an explicit and definable “black agenda” in a Congress filled with people who believe him to be a socialist destroying the country while illegitimately occupying the Oval Office is seriously naive. (“Obama Can’t Win”)
What I find interesting in Capehart’s article is the fact that he does not really refute what Johnson and Coates have to say; he simply believes that there are explanations for the first African American president’s apparent treatment of African Americans. While he lists a number of accomplishments that the president successfully saw through during his first term – increases in funding for HBCUs, the passage of Obamacare (and that ish is barely being implemented), the Fair Sentencing Act, and banking regulations – very few of those policies were or are aimed at the demographic (s) which have levied complaints against Mr. Obama. What about the citizens who are not enrolled in the undergraduate university, who do not sell crack, who do not have healthcare facilities in their areas and who rent? That sounds like a great number of the people that I know. Many of them claim that they would simply like to hear some sincerity, some intimate understanding, regarding their plight from the first African American president. I digress.
My biggest issue with the president and his administration is: he has turned out to be like most politicians in power. He is no different. Just darker. I am beginning to become very disturbed by the way in which this administration uses race. So, Johnson’s question is very important: “What is it about our community that we continue to support candidates nationally and locally just because their skin has been “kissed by nature’s sun?” Have we been supporting Obama simply because his skin has a darker hue than usual? It seems we have. For the most part, Barack Obama has very little in common with many of the people who may refer to themselves as black. Do your own test. What do you and Obama have in common? I believe that if people who feel themselves deserted by President Obama ask themselves this question, then they will realize that the president did not desert them. They were never on the same team in the first place. And this is not your typical American race rant. There are different types of black Americans. Sometimes, the only thing that they have in common is a shared, relatively speaking, melanin level.
When Michelle says “when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can't be bothered,” who exactly is the our to which she is referring? All of the young people I know are literally killing themselves to get an education. It cannot be the graduates at Bowie State because their dedication to education would be self-evident. And, suggesting that an educated black man is trying to act white went out of style a long time ago. But, it does underscore the idea that race is a performative act. Like it or not, long standing historical and cultural norms have been accepted and established in America regarding the performance of blackness, and whiteness for that matter. Among African Americans – black Americans – there is no shared and agreed upon understanding of blackness, or criteria by which blackness is defined. Never has been. So when Mrs. Obama says our children, I ask again: to whom is she referring. And then she goes on to say that the children want to be ballers and rappers, not business leaders or teachers or lawyers. First of all, has anyone asked these people why they want to be ballers and rappers? Ballers, usually businessmen who have created enough wealth to create a world of their own where attempts can be more readily facilitated to mitigate the impact of societal influences on them and those that they love, are ingrained in the American mythos. How the hell do you all think we developed the nickname the 49ers? Those people were not heading west to attend the university. They were seeking wealth. Yes, like just about everyone who has ever immigrated to America. And rappers. Did not your husband Mrs. Obama employ Jay-Z in his efforts at election and re-election? Remember, “My President is Black?” And some rappers are some of the nation’s most gifted businessmen; I m not always very pleased with the nature and scope of their businesses, but nonetheless they are businessmen. Perhaps it is the autonomy and sense of freedom from society’s every reflecting mirror that these young people seek in their pursuits of becoming a baller or a businessman. Perhaps it is the escape from having to go to work everyday among many who have no cultural or generational or… or… understanding of them. I think that if the First Lady inquired a bit more as to the reasoning behind such fantasies, then perhaps she could concentrate more on motivating the children to accomplish their dreams. Anyone can be a rapper, just like anyone can be a businessman or a lawyer. To be a great rapper or lawyer or businessman or baller requires hard work, effort, luck, dedication and the functional education of the chosen field. This is the case when attempting to make any dream come true!
While Capehart wants to suggest that the Obamas, or at least the president, speak to black audiences from the perspective of peers and not from on high, the reality is just the opposite. Barack Obama is the President of the United States; he is, more than likely, not anyone’s peer reading this blog. He’s not anyone’s homie; he is the president. Act like it! Some of Obama’s detractors seemingly want him to act like a black man who has become president (whatever that means). Now, the rift with some American demographics seems to rest on one’s criteria for blackness. They want him to be their peer because his skin appears black. I hate to tell them that the president probably does not have a lot in common with them. The representation of some conception of blackness may be more important to them than the president. The symbolic capital associated with some conception of blackness may be more important to them that to the president. For example, Capehart would suggest that the president does not have to wear Kente cloth to prove that he cares about some black agenda. I don’t think anyone is asking him to wear Kente cloth; the creation of some jobs would be nice though. But, we might want to reconsider wearing the Kente cloth at our graduation ceremonies to symbolize our connection with some lost African past then. I mean, the man spoke to graduates with Kente cloth draped around their necks (you Stanford African American Graduation Ceremony participants remember this, don’t ya?). Barack Obama has internalized a middle-class patriarchal masculinity, which seems to have a bit of an Episcopalian tint to it. A tint that suggests that middle-class African Americans do not represent blackness like, let’s say, some lower-class Baptist African Americans. Those African Americans who shout (Rev. Wright comes to mind) and love Popeye’s and who feel as though they have yet to be touched by the policies of the Obama administration do not share many cultural and social similarities with the guy who grew up in Hawaii (did you see the prom pictures?). And there is nothing wrong with that. But when people assume that he stands with their inmost thoughts and feelings just because he has a skin tone similar to theirs, people assume at their own risks. I know he was branded (everything’s a brand these days) as the first black president; but we never asked what he considered black to mean. We always thought he would pull us in a backroom and tell us his real feelings and inmost thoughts as a black man and as president (you know, like most members of the professional managerial class do. One of my friends just reminded me of how Condi Rice gathered us black students together to tell us things that she would not dare say in front of some of her Republican allies). Never happened. Probably never will.
It would be nice if some black men could simply use the sight of a seemingly black American in the oval office as a method of somehow instilling pride in themselves and the African American community. It would also be nice if black men, whom, upon reaching some zenith of success in their chosen fields, would represent themselves as black men. Whenever we get the opportunity to take on a role with high visibility and importance, we stop (for some reason) referring to ourselves as black men, but simply men. Barack Obama, Robert Griffin III, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan. These are just a few men who do not represent themselves as the best black president or best black quarterback or the best black golfer or the best black basketball player, but the best president, quarterback, golfer and basketball player, respectively. So when little black boys, who are dangerously overdetermined, look to great images and spokespersons of their race for inspiration, they have none; or, better stated: the best is never reserved for them. At least, they have none who seem proud and happy to be black. What they seem to have are heroes and role models who cannot run away from blackness fast enough. I mean what is Tiger, kablasian or something like that? And, Beyoncé? In one of her latest commercials for a multinational beauty aid corporation, she is Native American, French and African American. Are not mutts of that pedigree overdetermined as black in America? I jest. I jest.
Maybe President Obama and the First Lady have some responsibility to connect with African Americans and blacks regarding their inmost thoughts and feelings, and maybe they don’t. Maybe they do connect with the inmost thoughts and feelings of some Americans and if you feel otherwise, then you just happen to be SOL, because they are not talking to you or for you. Wait for the next African American president. Maybe you will get lucky. But this I know: the University of Illinois elected its first black president in the 1880s; they have not had another since, if memory serves me correctly. Members of a disgruntled African American and black demographic (s) who are not pleased with the first black president’s performance may have to add that to their long list of grievances and disappointments as part of the American citizenry. To the gods!
Capehart, Jonathan. “Obama Can’t Win with Some Black Critics.”
- “Stop Waiting for and Start Paying Attention to Our First Black President.”
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America.”
Hughes, Langston. “I, Too, Sing America.”
Johnson, Rev. Kevin. “A President for Everyone, except Black People.”