I was twenty years old when President Obama proved victorious in the 2008 election. A Howard University student at the time, I recall our now president affirming his presidency at the 2007 convocation. The events leading up to his victory proved as eventful as the day itself. The hope that led the Obama campaign spilled over into the masses—notably the black community. I had a linguistic class the morning of the election and was the only student who did not deem the day an unofficial holiday. However, Obama’s journey to the white house was not seductive to all. In fact, I recall a professor vehemently encouraging us not to “drink the Koolaid, ” a tip casually disregarded by most.
Although I had this professor towards the end of my time at Howard, his words encompass the greatest lesson my undergraduate education afforded me. Simply put, Howard illustrated the danger in following the crowd. A university largely doused in factions, much of what composed “cool” produced following behavior that not only plagued many students for four years but for a lifetime. This dynamic led me to regard President Obama with a “skepticism” to which his presidency would prove worthy.
The night of the election I attended an Usher concert at Constitution Hall. As I made my way back to campus, a young European male spots me on Georgia Avenue, places my face between his palms, kisses both of my cheeks then smiles. Shocked — I nodded and kept walking. The scene that surrounded me in this moment under the moonlit sky was just as euphoric. Screams, cries, chants and shouts engulfed Northwest Washington DC, although I am sure this sentiment mirrored that of countless black communities throughout the United States. We had a black president. We had hope. Yet, we had yet again cast our faith in another extrinsic force. A symbolic presence, President Obama performed in the systemic pattern that encourages blacks to believe in anything but themselves. To believe in President Obama is not to believe in black excellence, but to believe in the western world that permits his achievement.
The hope aligned with President Obama is, of course, nothing new. Slaves had hope in the form of religion. Following slavery’s abolishment, this form of hope manifested in a variety of forms, allowing blacks to continually seek a Jesus-like figure. These figures function to deflect self-determination onto an external force. Furthermore, while critical, I do like President Obama because he is designed for my liking. However, I like him in the same way that I like Beyonce and Olivia Pope. I adore them and guiltily concede to the power in their allure, all the while cognizant that they are bad for black culture. Now when I say “bad,” I do not reference Obama, Beyonce or Olivia Pope as individually bad. Images like President Obama, Beyonce and Olivia Pope function to manipulate black ideology by personifying presumed values deemed to reflect black ideology while symbolically working to control and exploit blacks through these values. For example, Michael Jordan produced a goldmine for Nike as the face of Jordans. Often referenced as the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan personifies black athletic ability as a gateway to a lavish life. Yet purchasing Jordans does little for the demographic that purchases them but allow them to covet western ideas of status. President Obama functions similarly. A well-spoken, handsome, Harvard graduate epitomizes the height of black possibility. This motivated blacks to vote in record numbers and to relish in his victory so vehemently that President Obama escaped all accountability.
Nevertheless, I digress. President Obama presided over a country whose founding documents blatantly excluded his ancestors and whose founding principles denounced the union that produced him. Ivy- league educated yet grounded, President Obama embodied American optimism. In many ways, President Obama personified a Pinnochio-like presence or a fantasy brought to life. However, while many enjoyed the magic imbued by a black President—the Obama reign revealed the systemic depth of racism.
My president may have been black, but my collective brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins remained at risk. Nevertheless, having a black president proved a traumatizing yet enlightening experience. It is nothing less than traumatizing to serially watch black bodies, both young and old slain—their murderers set free without as much as a slap on the wrist. Yes, this certainly occurred countless times throughout history—however witnessing a black face turn the other cheek but a make a speech where strategically plays both sides, yet does not attend the funerals of those who look more like him than those who benefit from the system he protects— is much more terrorizing than any horror movie. President Obama proved that it does not matter who steers the ship, somehow blacks always end up in steerage or tossed off entirely.
It was a defining moment for me this summer after the heroic actions of Micah Johnson (and Gavin Long). Namely, when President Obama attended the funerals of the slain police officers, not Johnson. This act would seem less obvious had President Obama attended services for any of the black bodies murdered by police. Police join the academy fully cognizant that the line of duty may cost them their lives. Thus, to attend an officer’s funeral for doing what he or she signed up to do is of lesser value than attending a service for an average civilian murdered in pursuit of quotidian activities — or the civilian driven to take what the government should readily give. Frustrated with the cavalier disregard allotted to black bodies, Johnson acted in the spirit of ancestors Nat Turner—rebelling as an effort to seize what western society avidly denied for far too long. Thus, for President Obama to attend the funerals of the police officers is similar to him attending the services for the slave masters and overseers killed in Nat Turner’s rebellion.
Yet, I find myself protective of him. It is hard for me to believe that there is any pleasure in essentially performing the white man’s dirty work. From assassinating Osama Bin Ladin, deporting the most immigrants, to the surge of black casualties at the hand at the police— I sometimes believe that President Obama’s gray hairs reflect his own disappointment. Moreover, while there is no excuse for his behavior, I do believe there is understanding.
This understanding does not function as the forgiveness necessary to render President Obama’s passivity as merely an oversight. It does, however, unveil that black bodies who govern white spaces can never act in the interest of blacks—for to do so would be counterproductive. America was founded on racism, thus anyone who governs this country inevitably succumbs to the racist demands of the job. Namely, black disenfranchisement remains an American requirement. Furthermore, a black leader of a white majority will only foment this very dynamic.
So while many regard President Obama as a blessing, I opt to remember President Obama as a lesson. My black president may not have taught me racism but he did me one better— he showed me racism. His every move faced criticism. The majority worked overtime to ensure that his “flaws” were magnified. President Obama remains the only president held to each and every one of his promises. Yet, they went low and he went high— but this high did not pacify the burdens of his people. In closing, President Obama may have allotted the black collective hope, but simply put his presidency proved that hope is simply not enough.