|Everything I do, I do for you.|
From the instant he became president, Obama has been a black cultural touchstone like nothing I’ve seen before. His presence has changed everything, realigned our thoughts and arguments about ourselves and our progress and our country, affirming some things and disproving others. As so many people have said to me, his symbolism has been the most influential thing about him. It’s also been the most controversial. As president, he is a black man waging a battle against the racist tendencies of the very system he was elected to lead, fighting daily to effect ideals of unity and common good that were never meant for black people at all. This is the spectacle that black folks have followed anxiously, more so than his policies, many of which have been shaped — not in a good way — by his failure to effect those ideals. The failures, the over-compromises, are Obama’s acknowledgment of defeat; that includes his almost total silence on the subject of blackness itself, which for black folks feels like the worst defeat of all. And yet we watch Obama struggle and sympathize with him, with his thwarted ambitions and his failures, because to be what he’s trying to be — black, idealistic and president — is nothing less than superhuman.
This is the battle royale we have been watching, with Barack our accidental folk-hero protagonist fighting an enemy far bigger and more insidious than anything faced by folk heroes such as John Henry, Joe Louis, or Malcolm X. Those men were pitted against a machine, against white men in a boxing ring, against the self-doubt of black people. But Barack is pitted against America itself. America and its entire monstrous history of racism that has been roused anew because he has dared to try and show the country something, dared to be black and chiefly idealistic rather than black and chiefly critical, imploring or righteously angry. For this sin of initiative and imagination he is still being punished, and we are still watching the battle unfold (years later he is still standing tall, but he seems to be losing by degrees, sinking into the ground by quarter inches) in a kind of collective agony and fury that will take many more years to put into words. So much is at stake: If Obama loses his idealism, loses what he began this whole enterprise with, then blacks will have lost, too, even those of us who never believed in the enterprise of One America in the first place. The question about what would happen if there was ever a black president is no longer rhetorical. It is being answered.
As I read this I had two thoughts.
First that as a white man, especially one who grew up in Alaska, I will never be able to fully appreciate what it must be like to deal with the things that President Obama has to deal with every day.
My second thought was that I was ashamed of the country that the election of Barack Obama revealed us to be.
It was so much easier to deny our inherent racism until we were confronted with it everyday as we have been since 2008.
All I can hope is that once President Obama leaves office that people will really start to see just how important, historic, and competent his presidency truly was, once distance and time make it clearer for us to see.
I also hope that whenever we get ready to elect the next black president, or first Hispanic president, or gay president, or Asian president, or even woman president, that the path Barack Obama blazed with his two bloody hands will make it that much easier for them to do their jobs.