By Matthew Bruce
There is symbolism. And then there is substance.
The Obama presidency has been every bit as symbolic as we imagined. A black man at the head of the country, standing strongly and boldly looking forward as the American flag hangs stoically behind him showed us that we too could touch the sky. Other images of him shooting hoops, shaking hands with Kendrick Lamar, dapping up other black men and kissing black women on the cheek, dancing on the Ellen show, singing Al Green and even saying “folks wanna pop off” showed us that our culture can foster greatness. A smiling family complete with a strong, beautiful, and intelligent black mother and two equally strong, beautiful, and intelligent black daughters showed us that black love could flourish.
Yet the Obama presidency has been especially complex for Black America. Because although his presence in the oval office calmed our fears that we would never be able to reach our full potential in this country, our ability to achieve remained as stifled as ever.
Yes a black man stood strong in front of that flag; however there were times where he stood behind the podium and reprimanded us in times of pain. Yes he showed us that his roots were indeed black; but it seemed that when it mattered most he had forgotten that – or worse – ignored it. Yes his family was beautiful and strong and intelligent; but he never condemned policies which tore apart our own black families –most specifically his administration’s stance on the classification of marijuana and other drug offenses.
Despite all of this for some reason it is hard for us to criticize him. In part because we have come back to the sober reality that the white house is exactly that: the WHITE house, and that as brilliant and pro-black he used to be he could not dismantle a white patriarchal hegemonic oligarchy in 8 years. In part, because we could plainly see that an infuriated republican party did everything it could to paralyze Obama’s ability to push forward even the smallest of initiatives. And in part because we saw that he was attacked, opposed and underappreciated because of the color of his skin. We saw racist cartoons of him and his wife. We heard him called the “Food Stamp President”, a Muslim; and called “articulate”. We even heard people suggest that he was not American; some going as far as to call him the anti-Christ. This racism brought him closer to us in our hearts because in a strange way we connected with his suffering, and bonded in our fierce defense of him.
Not only did we defend him, but we did everything in our power to elect him. We galvanized on Facebook, bought t-shirts, attended rallies, filled the neighborhood with “hope” signs, and stood in line for hours at the polls. We believed.
One of my greatest childhood memories is when my mom lied to get me out of school on October 31st, 2008 so that I could attend Obama’s last campaign stop in Iowa at what is now the sculpture garden in Downtown Des Moines. I was 12 years old and it was the first time in my life that I physically felt hope. I cannot even compare the feeling of that event to any other event in my life. The air was heavy with a true belief that our lives would change forever. Vendors sold hope shirts, hope buttons, hope hats, hope mugs, and hope watches, all with his smiling face on them. I never imagined that so many people could occupy Des Moines at one time; I couldn’t see where the crowd ended in any direction. I remember climbing onto the bars of the side of a rafter that held spectators about 100 yards from then, Senator Obama so that I could see him. Every few minutes I would look back and smile at my mother and she would return my smile with tears in her eyes. I don’t know if I have ever seen her so happy. When he got elected we all cried, called family, and talked about true change.
It is for this exact reason that we felt a sobering sense of half-emptiness when we listened to his last State of the Union. It was a microcosm of what it felt like for us to watch his eight year presidency. He was so elegant, so strong, and so right about so many things. Yet, when it came time for him to defend us the same way he defended the Affordable Care Act, the environment, Muslims, gay marriage, gun control advocates, teachers, and immigrants we were left ignored again. We were patient, understanding naturally that he’d have to battle republicans, although the Republican Party isn’t the true cause of our strife. We gave him a pass understanding the importance of healthcare reform to his personal life. We grew a little nervous as he advocated for other civil rights movements in the country and turned a blind eye on our own; but we get it, it’s risky for him politically to speak out on racism and poverty. We even waited until the end neared and were willing to give him a pass if he started to be vocal come his last two years, knowing that he had no elections left to worry about. In the end, even though we realized that he had to protect the Democrats running for president, we still felt a little betrayed; after all he could have said something. President Obama’s refusal to even say the word black except as to lump us in the cliché melting pot of America came with the same slight sting of betrayal with which his whole presidency has left us.
Barack Hussein Obama’s career was built on his own embrace of pro-blackness. He taught critical race theory as a professor, and his first occupation in Chicago was as a community organizer where his job was to “organize black people” (in his own words). As a state senator he was a fierce advocate for the poor and disenfranchised citizens of Chicago and in the U.S. Senate he was one of the most vocal advocates for the black citizens of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Because of this, the irony of the Obama presidency is that despite his explicitly pro-black record, he spent his time as president trying to be known as anything EXCEPT the first Black President. In fact, that’s all we wanted him to be.
And yet, it would feel wrong to end this piece without saying: President Obama, thanks anyways.
-Matthew is a Sophomore at the University of Iowa studying sociology.