This is an essay I wrote around this time last year. President Obama was trying to get a health care reform package passed and the resistance emerging from some quarters of the country was vituperative and crazy. Ruby Sales and I were having periodic conversations about the situation and she urged me to put down some of my thoughts.
The essay is about our president’s hesitance to respond in forthright ways to racism and what the legacy of African American life/culture/struggle might offer to him (and to the nation) as support. It includes my musings about what my mother, Rosemarie, would make of all of this. On the eve of these mid-term elections, I am sharing the reflection again. Much of it still pertains.
African American Struggle-Based Wisdom and the Presidency of Barack Obama
There is a wisdom about navigating a Black life in the United States of America that is transferred by osmosis. We, the younger generations, absorb expertise and gather glimpses by being in the presence of those who have lived, and negotiated their own lives, longer. From the time we are small, we listen to their stories and their laughter and we look up into their faces when they are crying. We see where they hide their pains. And how they turn fury into music. How they hug each other; set a hand gentle on a shoulder, on a back; how they share a raft when trauma rises above the floodplain. We work at their sides and sit at their kitchen tables and lay next to them in their beds when they are sick. We watch them shape strength from some blood memory and lift a repository of power out of a song.
I watched my mother do this. Many times. She carried herself with an extraordinary dignity and beauty, with an intelligence that called the world exactly by its true and shifting names, and claimed mothering as a profound spiritual-political vocation. What she knew, because she had learned it from her own mother, is that there is an alchemy in the African American spirit that is able to “change” things.
It is at times a subtle energy. Working at various levels. Quiet. Underground. You won’t recognize it at first. You will think it is nothing. Unimportant. Powerless. Female.
In recent weeks, as opposition to President Barack Obama and his administration’s health care proposals have developed an increasingly feverish, apoplectic, and unabashedly racist tenor, I have thought about my elder relatives – my mother, my cousin Charles, my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Most of whom are now on the other side, but who still serve as a source of support and guidance for those of us remaining. And I wonder, where, in the midst of the onslaught and outrageousness of the Republican/Fox News dyad, does President Obama go for counsel?
What does he draw on? Where is his strength anchored?
What has always impressed me about so many of the older African Americans I have known, especially those with roots in the south, is how much ancestral wisdom they carry in their bodies. And how they pass it on. Sharing even in the gestures of their hands, their sideways glances, the set of their feet against pavement and soil. There are some things they know, because they learned them in the footsteps of the ones who were here before them; going back to those 18th and 19th century Africans who got off the boats, looked around and knew their descendants would need a special medicine to make it through this wilderness and live.
There are things you will pass through in your Black journey in this country that no one will believe unless they pass through them too. And there are ways to keep your balance against the blusters of injustice large and small. We teach each other these things. Watching, listening, feeling for the moss on the north side of the trees.
On numerous occasions, during the presidential campaign and since, Barack Obama seemed not to have the benefit of African American struggle-based wisdom, even though he used the linguistic tropes and tones of that struggle to powerful and strategic effect.
He seemed then, and now, to desperately need older Black advisors who could help him navigate the very tendentious terrain of his historic administration. (Yet at times he also appeared to summarily/publicly distance himself from the counselors he did have.)
Now, whether he knows it or not, the president requires guidance from people who recognize implicitly the importance of addressing racism rather than letting its viciousness stand and fester. But he is cut off – and surrounded instead by a cohort of cabinet members, most of whom are of little assistance because their own vision is not sufficiently clear. Does he know how to call on the larger community – and its powerful resources of culture and spirit – for help? What is the advice from Michelle and the extended Robinson clan? Can they offer it? Can he hear it?
As my concern for Obama’s well-being grows amid an equal concern for the maturation and well-being of our nation as a whole, I have asked myself (as I do for all important questions in my life) What would my Mama say about all of this?
My mother has been gone five years, and I have often wondered what her thoughts would be about this first, Black Commander in Chief of the United States of America, who seems committed to enacting some meaningful reforms, but is making many policy decisions about war and other things that run counter to her very Christian and humanistic political convictions. What wisdom would my mother offer to help Obama respond to the attacks against him and steer the nation in the direction of greater justice and inclusion and well-being for all of us?
She, who would be 79 if she were still alive, would, I believe, say about the president what she said about young people in distress in the failing and abandoned cities of our country, “He is our child. And he needs to know that we will protect him.”
What does she mean by that? What kind of protection is she talking about?
Barack Obama, like many in his age group, is a child of the Freedom Movement. The opportunities availed to him, his perspective on the world, and the choices he made as he followed the path from Honolulu to the White House were facilitated by the struggles of older African Americans and their allies who literally changed the world. He is their child.
But he may not know their power. He may not understand how deep into the center of the earth runs their bloodline. Nor may he realize what a blessing their sacrifice has been to the nation, historically, constantly urging the country toward a richer and more meaningful democracy. He may see a third rail where there is in fact a holy grail.
And what does my Mama mean when she says, “He needs to know that we will protect him?”
African American wisdom and struggle is nothing to be ashamed of or avoided, nor is it the exclusive province of Black people. It is in fact the mother lode of real democracy in the nation and has benefited everyone who lives here. If our president can find the strength to step out and speak with compassion and honesty about the work we must do to really become family to each other in this country, to become compatriots, to make sure that we’re all cared for as well as challenged, and to end our imperialist wars; he will find himself surrounded by millions who want that reality for the United States, who voted for him because he represented it to them, and who will protect him with their support.
Instead of studiously avoiding any discussion of the attacks against him as racist, the president would benefit the nation (and his legacy) much more by outwardly recognizing the persistence of extreme racial disparities in most sectors of the nation’s life and help us understand that our best efforts at substantive change will always be choked and thwarted unless we can build lasting mechanisms for racial, gender and economic justice. The health care debates (or shouting matches) are a good example of this. It’s as if the right-wing extremists are saying “if Black people and Brown people (immigrants) are going to get some of this I don’t want anybody to have it.” Of course, the extremists are not a majority – although they get vastly disproportionate publicity. What they don’t understand is that, historically, whenever Black people and our allies have fought for, and won, rights and “benefits” of any kind, they have almost without exception profitedeverybody.
Here are just a few examples:
- After slavery was abolished and during Reconstruction, some states inthe South, urged by African American legislators, ratified newconstitutions that made public education a civil right for all. Across the region, schools established by the Freedmen’s Bureau and religious and civic organizations on behalf of ex-slaves became the basis for public education systems where none had existed before. These benefited everyone. (Although, once Jim Crow laws were solidly in place, African Americans suffered decided disadvantages in education as well as all other civic institutions.)
- The 1965 Immigration Act dramatically changed the method by which immigrants were admitted to the United States, removing restrictive quotas that privileged European immigrants and penalized people from Asia, Africa and Latin America. This change in US immigration policy, a corrective against previous discriminatory laws, was a direct result of the African American Freedom Movement (Civil Rights movement). Because of that movement, the country developed a deeper recognition of the contradictions between its rhetoric and its realities, and expressed a willingness to rectify some entrenched injustices with political and legal changes. The 1965 act had a significant role in the expansion of racial diversity in our nation.
- During the Black Power/Black Consciousness movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, African Americans fought for the recognition of their histories and experiences in the curricula of colleges and universities, demanding and creating Black Studies departments that became the prototypes for modern activist-scholarship programs. The Black Studies model (characterized by a commitment to community engagement and social justice) was recognized and emulated by Women’s Studies, Peace Studies, Asian American, Native American, Latino and combined Ethnic Studies departments in universities all over the nation.
There is, in fact, in our country, a subconscious understanding of this role that the African American struggle has played in expanding our democracy. It’s not something discussed with any regularity by pundits or in newspapers. Although it should be. And it’s not even taught consistently in American History or Political Science courses in our high schools and colleges. Although it should be. But we feel it, as a nation. Actually, the whole world feels it. And this struggle, this unwavering prophetic voice – not only of individuals, but of a people’s experience – is replete in African American culture. This is partly why Black music (from blues to soul to jazz to hip hop) is beloved and embraced all over the globe – especially by people who are suffering on the “underside of modernity” as my mentor, Charles Long, would say.
There is that something… that alchemy… that subtle power that is not guns, that is not tanks, that is not imperialism, that is not fear… It is a struggle- based ludic/prophetic power – an unrestrainable insistence on joy, a cleaving to the human in the midst of the traumatic, combined with a capacity to “see” and speak that comes from being at the bottom, underneath it all. And it is a connection to ancestral strength, to Spirit.
In spite of centuries of attempts to strike fear of Blackness into the heart of the nation – in films, in books, in policing and imprisonment, in politics, in religion, in language – there is in fact, the opposite. There is a deep subconscious love and admiration of Black people in this country – which is why so many voted for Barack Obama when they had the chance. They heard something, saw something, felt something of that moral direction, that long train of struggle, that small-d democratic authority, in his presence and they wanted to claim it, finally, as a national resource of leadership for the country.
The president should not be afraid to acknowledge his place on that long train coming. I believe he too understands something of its alchemical power; which is why he incorporates so much of the language and style into his own expository manner. Indeed, it’s partly why his mother encouraged him toward Black writers and African American history. And it’s perhaps (just perhaps) partly why he married Michelle.
My grandmother, Mama Freeney, used to say, “If you really love Black people, you love everybody.”
But I suspect it is a challenge for Pres. Obama (and certainly for many of his current advisors) to fully understand the inclusiveness of African American spirit and struggle and the ability of our movements to work substantive social changes in the midst of the constrictions of traditional political power. He may believe that “if you change too much too fast the walls will come tumbling down.” Or, he may accept the political and economic assumptions that brought us the current, continuing recession and double wars. In any case, I would encourage him to try new advisors.
So, protection is also about helping him understand. And some of the understanding happens by osmosis. Being in the realm of people’s energy, looking into their faces and watching their gestures when they speak and don’t speak.
There are many of all races in the nation who are grateful and expectant about Barack Obama’s presidency. Many who want to help keep our nation on the track of greater democracy, not less; greater civic engagement, not less; greater humanity, not less.
What my mother would likely propose is a council of elders (wise Latinas, African mothers, former peanut-farming presidents from Georgia, old guard organizers from SNCC and AIM and the UFW…) and youth, our beloved youth, from the abandoned and distressed cities. We can wait for our president to call us together, or we can call ourselves, on his, and our own, behalf.
Long train coming….
get on board.