Feminist and black womanist reflection have long held that one’s personal experience always has political and universal implications. In light of this claim, the womanist lens that guides my approach to The Obama Question is especially intrigued by Gary Dorrien’s attempt to debunk and redirect racially politicized assumptions that undergird some progressive and leftist perspectives.
The Obama Question calls into question the reasonableness of progressive expectations of Barack Hussein Obama’s first four years as president of the United States. Moreover, Dorrien’s argument addresses progressives who not only supported Obama’s political platform in and of itself, but also recognized the significance of his conciliatory politics that promised “a change we can believe in” in relationship to his identity as a man of African descent in America—a politics that changed the normative vision of the American presidency for this nation.
To be sure, many progressives voted on political platform alone. However, even in an era where the myth of colorblindness is most comfortable (and a myth), there were those who were also propelled toward Obama’s politics precisely because of the moral potential that America’s election of an African American to the Office of President withheld for a nation that had been established upon an ethic of white supremacy—an ethic that undergirded the extermination of indigenous people, the development of the transatlantic slave trade, the expansion of legal chattel enslavement, and the terror of Jim Crow segregation. Indeed, for many it seemed that this moment could serve as a shortcut to America’s redemption from its historic transgressions of racism, cultural triumphalism, and greed. But, according to Gary Dorrien, America’s snail-paced economic recovery, the acrimonious insurgence of class warfare, and Obama’s general failure to deliver “in full” on the change we all believed in has left many formerly enthused progressives, now disenchanted and doubtful about his presidential viability for a second term, in spite of his substantial first-term accomplishments.
Given the challenging state of affairs that President Obama inherited from the Bush administration, it is interesting to note that in times of social, political, and economic unrest people of African descent have historically been circumscribed by caricatures of black women and men as sacralized saviors, on the one hand, and demonized beasts, on the other: caricatures that are altogether untrue. For example, the image of the Black Mammy, as opposed to a lascivious Jezebel or an emasculating Sapphire, which surfaced during the period of Reconstruction, caricatured black women as the self-effacing saviors of white families, who would sacrifice their very lives for the well-being of white men, women, and children. Mammy was so revered for her supernatural ability to make things better for the arbiters of the status quo that, although plans for building a monument in her honor on the Washington Mall never materialized, her face is memorialized in the aisles of grocery stores throughout the nation today as “Aunt Jemima.”
Similarly, and more recently, at the apex of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Martin Luther King Jr. was posthumously and inaccurately caricatured as a self-effacing dreamer who, at the call of sacrificial love, submitted to the bite of police dogs and the sting of firehouses in order to persuade white America to a higher moral ground. This dreamer King, not the one who protested the Vietnam War or died with the intent of standing arm in arm with sanitation workers in Memphis, is the one memorialized on postage stamps. The image of the public black body as a self-effacing salve for societal challenges, making what is wrong with the world right, is a comfortable and familiar one. However, Gary Dorrien admits that although Obama is in many ways the bearer of great possibilities and promise for making America better tomorrow than it is today, he will not exalt every valley, and every mountain will not be made low during his administration.
Instead, The Obama Question rightly identifies President Obama’s temperamental and political predisposition to acting in “the role of mediating reconciler.” This claim eerily echoes the thought of W.E.B Du Bois, who also contemplated the perils and possibilities of “twoness,” or the paradox of being on both sides at the same time. This paradox of double-consciousness has been asserted as the foremost existential crisis of black American identity. It is “a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness” that haunts “an American, a Negro.” Double-consciousness is the daily experience of negotiating “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.” It is a deeply personal crisis, yet a deeply prophetic critique, all at once. It has never translated to political prowess in the context of the American presidency.
The wedding of the sensation of double-consciousness and the office of commander-in-chief is a new phenomenon which defies the historical one-sidedness of American exceptionalism, where God blesses America and no one else. For the first time in history, what had formerly been the private affair of African America has gone public in an American president of African descent. His embodiment of presidential power unfamiliarly rebels against imperialistic designs that conquer at all costs. Instead, it is replaced with an organic ethic of reconciliation and mediation, which can and does, as Obama’s first four years in office have demonstrated, threaten its own demise. Strangely yet, this both/and character that has seemingly proven unhelpful to the Obama administration has consistently radiated an abiding hope that has encouraged an intergenerational claim to the prerogative of “yes, we can” that also transgresses the boundaries of race, gender, class, and sexuality.
To be sure, the transformational promise that initially characterized Obama’s presidential campaign has been critically impaired by Obama’s urge to consistently play on both sides, to the point of yielding to social evil and its accompanying economy of misery at times. Dorrien further argues that Obama’s preoccupation with partisan reconciliation, combined with his failure to disengage from American indices of unbridled capitalist acquisition, triumphalism, exceptionalism, and militarism, typify him as less concerned with the flesh and blood realities of America’s least wanted and most vulnerable, and more preoccupied with appeasing the egos and values of the arbiters of the status quo.
The disappointments of his first term notwithstanding, Obama’s achievement in stabilizing an economy-gone-wild, in addition to his historic investments in employment, education, infrastructure, clean energy, housing, and scientific research, expose him as a figure of singular promise and essentially progressive vision in American politics. The fact of the matter is that Obama cannot and will not approximate the promise of a transformed American society by himself… but why are we so surprised by this now? No president ever could. With the high hopes of encouraging America to move from what it is to what it ought to be, Gary Dorrien rightly privileges the import and significance of coalition building and the people’s struggle as the incarnation of justice on the ground floor, and as the impetus for pressing the promise of the Obama years toward a lived practicality in the years to come. Indeed, we are the change we have been waiting for.
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