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From the Ideal to the Real: A Daughter of the South Reflects on Obama’s First Year

“What a difference a year makes.” 

And when it comes to President Barack Obama, never has this truism been more, well, true.

This time last year, I was euphoric —to the point of numbness. When I received official word that Barack Hussein Obama was elected 44th president of the United

States, I was beside myself.  As I lay alone in bed, I was glued to the television watching talking heads pontificating on the weight of the moment.

I could not have moved had I wanted to.  I think I spoke to a couple of close friends, but I don’t recall much of what was said.  Really, I didn’t want to talk.  I just wanted to soak up the moment.  A few days later, I poured out my heart in “A Daughter of the South Reflects on Obama.”

Leading up to that night, I had poured my heart and soul into the campaign. I was one of millions of unpaid volunteers for Team Obama.  Not to mention, writing thousands of words in support of our beloved Barack. I was a precinct captain. I knocked on doors. People hung up on me as I called homes in neighborhoods where the Confederate Flag can still be seen hanging from some porches. I helped organize our campus get-out-the-vote-effort. I had even worked at the polls on that cold, rainy day in Ettrick, Va.

So to go from that high point to this crestfallen state is nothing less than devastating. Don’t get me wrong, I am still proud that a Black man climbed the highest mountain in the global body politic — and I’m especially proud of the active role I played in it. 

But as I have observed Obama during the months since his inauguration, I have begun to feel like a naïve “sucker emcee.” What has prompted my profound disappointment? Let me count the ways.

First and foremost, his refusal or inability to draw a line in the sand is infuriating. I mean, what does he stand for? What is non-negotiable? And with regard to health care reform, why is he hell-bent on pleasing a lone Republican senator from the state of Maine? And don’t even mention the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. 

Is this the “change” that Americans voted for in record numbers a year ago this week?  I would say no, but some say I am being too hard on Obama.

Beyond this, though, I often reflect on what his rise really means for Black people.  (In fact, I am guest editor for a special issue of the Journal of Black Studies — slated for release in January — that addresses this question. I’ll keep you posted on the release.)

And I know, as my readers are quick to point out when I am critical of The One, that Obama is not just the president of Black America. I get that. But, I’m just saying: Shouldn’t we expect something from him in return for our massive support for him, as do all of his other constituencies. And shouldn’t we aggressively push for policies that address our agenda.

And make no mistake, it will take a full-court press from Black Americans to prod Obama to move to usher in policies designed to right some of the historic wrongs leveled against us. Obama has acknowledged that his constituents must “make” him enact policies that address the needs of their communities. 

And certainly — as pointed out in my article “It is High Time for a Black Woman on the High Court,” written on the occasion of Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to be the first Latina to sit on the Supreme Court—African-Americans will have to mount a concerted effort to have the president promote anything even remotely perceived as a “Black” issue, as did the Latino judicial lobby in the run-up to Sotomayor’s historic nomination.

In the face of this apparent reticence, many African-Americans, although proud of Obama’s success, are becoming increasingly disillusioned and disappointed with his policies, or lack thereof, designed to address issues confronting the Black community. Even much of Obama’s rhetoric about (and directed to) Black people has been problematic. 

For example, when Obama visited Ghana, as the world watched, he took the opportunity during his first presidential trip to Africa to lecture the Africans about the importance of democratic governance and taking responsibility for their own national future. Not that there’s anything wrong with this assertion, in and of itself. 

The problem is Obama, the son of a Kenyan national, failed to acknowledge the devastating legacy of centuries of colonialism, neo-colonialism and other ongoing European, Asian and Arab hegemonic practices aimed at the shameless exploitation of mineral-rich Africa. 

Even before Obama’s historic address before the Ghanaian parliament in July, there was also the occasion of the United Nations World Conference against Racism (WCAR), commonly referred to as Durban II, held in Geneva, Switzerland in April. Australia, Italy, Canada, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Israel and a few other nations also boycotted the gathering. 

To the amazement and chagrin of many global Black activists who saw no viable excuse for America’s first Black president to forgo sending an emissary to a global conference against, of all things racism, Obama’s America was not represented at the historic conference.  At the time, in the essay “Obama Decision to Boycott World Racism Conference is Regrettable,” this writer pointed out the clear contradiction of the Obama Administration’s stated reasons for avoiding Durban II: 1) concerns about anticipated speeches critical of the state of Israel; 2) ironically their worry that “free speech” would be a casualty if Islamic nations are successful at curtailing critique of Islam. After all free speech should not be selective, should it not?

Another major disappointment was Obama’s failure to publicly acknowledge the 30th anniversary of Black Music Month with a White House ceremony in June, as former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did before him. Especially since that same month, he hosted a widely publicized presidential ceremony commemorating Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Pride Month.

To his credit, though, as pointed out in the article “Black Music Month at 30: A Cultural Retrospective,” Obama did quietly issue a proclamation exhorting “African American Appreciation Month.” Of course, this is commendable, but to single-handedly limit the celebration to American Black music is to ignore the vast, rich contributions of the rest of the African Diaspora. 

By contrast, during Hispanic Heritage Month, at “Fiesta Latina” the Associated Press reports that “the White House became ‘La Casa Blanca’… celebrating Hispanic musical heritage with a South Lawn concert and such guests as Gloria Estefan, George Lopez, the Bachata music group Aventura, Jose Feliciano and more.” 

No doubt the White House would point to the “Jazz Studio,” featuring the First Family of Jazz, the New Orleans Marsalis clan held during June.  The thing is the event was not billed in such a way to highlight Black Music Month.

Some may not grasp the significance of this presidential oversight, but — from Bessie Smith, Louie Armstrong and Charlie Parker, to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Mahalia Jackson and the Sounds of Blackness, to Michael Jackson, India.Arie, and Anthony Hamilton, to Public Enemy, The Roots and Common, to Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, and Miriam Makeba— musical expression is the soundtrack of and at the core of Black world culture.

Still, when all is said and done, though most African-Americans continue to take pride in Obama’s political rise, with regard to matters of race, many Black critical thinkers are left to scratch their collective heads at his consistent avoidance of public discussions of all things Black, other than to critique, as he did when he delivered his sermonic NAACP address

There is, of course, the notable exception of Obama’s questionable entry into the racial fray during the national drama surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in his Cambridge, Mass. home. Obama quickly clarified his assertion that the policeman “acted stupidly”— in response to a question during a press conference— and soon everyone, including police officer Jim Crowley, was invited for a round of beers at the White House.  

But, as is always the case, only time will tell the full story of the tenure of Obama and his commitment to improving the life chances of African-Americans (and I know, all Americans). 

What has already become clear is that racism is alive and well in the age of Obama.  In my next installment, I will explore the myriad instances of overt racism against the first family in year one of the Age of Obama.

Dr. Pamela Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.





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