President Obama’s Farewell speech proved predictably in tune with his presidential dynamic. In a little under an hour, President Obama delivered his farewell speech in which he assumed the multi-faceted role that dominated his presidency. Namely, President Obama rendered a series of voices—exuding a voice for everyone. In doing so, President Obama proves that a “jack of all trades” is almost always a master of none. Nevertheless, President Obama evokes a wide range of emotions during his speech, illustrating the power in his strategic symbolism.
There were a number of moments that stuck out to me throughout the speech but one moment in particular was hard to shake. There was a portion of the speech where President Obama speaks directly to demographics central during his time as president. He uses his platform to incite each demographic to consider the perspective of the other. Consider the following:
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles. America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.
This line troubled me to the extent of disrupting my sleep. In so many words, President Obama seemingly supports the coerced acquisition of indigenous soil by European thieves—suggesting that this act “strengthened” what we now call America. This sentiment also functions to suggest that the slave trade, or coerced labor, also functioned positively to “strengthen” American economics. These sentiments validate white supremacy by evoking the same arrogance embedded in the “manifest destiny” concept. Whites manifested their destiny on the backs of those darker then them—to validate this behavior is to alleviate the western world of all accountability.
As “America’s first black president” Barack Obama serves to personify that stealing the indigenous’ land and the African’s labor was a good things. Indeed it was. However, this “good” is solely extended to whites. Thus, to hear President Obama say these words, and say them with conviction troubled me because it suggests that blacks who acquire conventional success seem on the fast tract to becoming white supremacists —upholding racist ideologies as a means to process their own success. In making comments like these with such conviction it becomes obvious that President Obama may not be as polarized from president Elect Donald Trump after all.
Nevertheless, most will solely remember President’s Obama’s words to whites that urged them to consider the long-lasting effects of slavery and Jim Crow.
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.
Most will ignore the reality that American Founders only intended for the penned rights to apply exclusively to white males. Thus, the injustice we continue to see is in direct accordance with the countries’ original documents. But perhaps the most troubling portion of this comment is use of the word equal.
The world equal shows up countless times throughout history. It sounds good and seems to operate functionally. However, equality means nothing without equity. Equality pacifies both the oppressor and the oppressed but only benefits the oppressor. For example, while Brown v. Board of Education seemingly handed blacks victory, it only masked the issue. Whites continue to obtain superior education while blacks remained educationally disenfranchised and set up for failure. Schools, much like neighborhoods also remain informally segregated. Even today, most high performing schools are predominately white and most students pursuing higher education are white people. Moreover, equality did not solve racism, because it can’t. Thus, when President Obama challenges blacks to consider the problems that plague others “othered” by western systems, he oversimplifies the depth of the black struggle simultaneously ignoring that if we fixed rather than ignored racism, many of our problems would be solved.
For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.
What everyone will remember about President Obama’s farewell speech is a tearful President Obama thanking the always poised Michelle Obama. Equally as touching is a beautiful and all grown up Malia Obama silently crying as her father praised her mother in her hometown. The moment was indeed touching and I found myself crying. My reaction mirrored the reaction of countless blacks throughout the world last night. We reacted this way, because it was intended for us to do so.
The Obamas are intentionally likable and appear to love each other dearIy. However, as touching as this testament was to see last night, we as a black collective would be in much better hands if President Obama loved us, the black collective, as he loves his wife and daughters. I would argue that this moments resonates so well, because we as black collective live vicariously through this moment—silently pretending that President’s words are tearfully addressing us. It is in moments where the black collective goes from disrespected to joyfully crying– that President Obama’s symbolism proves most effective.
To this I say the President Obama was indeed correct when he said that America is exceptional. American exceptionality lies in the ability to remain stagnant yet convince most that it has changed. American exceptionality lies in the ability of blacks to leave this farewell speech with wet faces, high spirits and hands aching from applause, when our hearts should be heavy with disappointment, our minds burning with anger. America proves exceptional again and again by feeding blacks symbols that essentially do nothing for them but for us to treat them as if they did. President’s Obama’s farewell is not a farewell at all, it is a see you later. Soon enough the black collective will be afforded another symbolic presence that makes us smile away the pain, and bring us to our knees while white supremacy continues standing on our backs to further their cause.