Friday, June 6, 2008

Can a radical become President of the United States?

Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report has written a post entitled "Obama Resigns from Black Nation," taking the Democratic presidential nominee to task for resigning from Trinity United Church of Christ. Ford sees the decision as part of a pattern and proof that: "Barack Obama is true-blue to the slave holding forefathers and heroic blond mothers of the storybook U.S. of A. His intense (white) nationalist fealty to the Indian-killer and slave-whipper compels him to reject out of hand the African American version of U.S. and world history - to compulsively dismiss both the Black counter-narrative and narrators, like Rev. Wright." Ford goes on to say:

By all rights, Obama ought to just keep on steppin' out of Black America entirely, since his real problem lies with the two-edged sword of Black nationalism. The great irony of the Obama phenomenon is, his fundamental strength in the Democratic primaries - near-universal Black support - is based on an ideology that is a nightmare to white voters and to Obama, himself: Black nationalism. As cunning and cynical as Obama may be, he cannot tame the nationalist impulses of his Black supporters and thus lives in terror that they will spoil his game among white voters. Read more...

I disagree.

I have already explained that, even as a former member of Trinity United Church of Christ, I understand why Obama has to leave the church, and why I am disappointed in some of the actions of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger, two men I respect and who have a done a lot of good for the parishioners and communities they serve. But my disagreement with Ford goes beyond this issue.

His post implies that there is one way to be legitimately black in America. If you are not a black nationalist (and I am not), prepare to be voted off the island. What I read is: Barack Obama is not "black enough." And you know how I hate that shit. There are a lot of black people whose beliefs I disagree with--Condi Rice for instance--folks who are too "down" or not "down" enough for my personal tastes. For all the ways I disagree with the Secretary of State, I would never question her right to call herself a black woman. She is just a black woman who disagrees with me.

While Ford is incensed with Obama for what he views as the candidate's disavowal of black nationalism, he has no problem asking Obama to disavow part of himself. While Barack Obama self-identifies as an African American, there is no denying that he was raised by a white mother (a pretty awesome one at that) in a white family. They are as much a part of him as the African father he rarely saw and his experiences as a black man in America. How unfair to ask him to view the people who love(d) him as "Indian killers and slave whippers."

Another thing Ford's essay fails to acknowledge is that there are two sides to every successful movement: groups working within the system and groups working outside of the system. You don't get more "in the system" than being President of the United States. Those in the system--be it the boardroom or the Oval Office--make concessions to be there. This is a reality. The system does not support the radical--and I not just referring to the black and radical.

Many women embraced Hillary Clinton as a feminist icon during this election, but her rhetoric diverts sharply from that of radical feminists, many of whom take a hard line against men and their global ongoing oppression of women. Clinton would never let the word's "men and their global ongoing oppression of women" leave her mouth. Why? Because she is part of the system and is working within it to advance women's equality as well as make decisions that positively affect other people who are not women. She will make change for women through her role as a senator, by demanding, coddling, compromising--doing the delicate dance of getting what you want in the Senate. She will get things done. By contrast, radical feminists like the late Andrea Dworkin are the agitating outsiders who can say and do the incendiary things that make the public uncomfortable. They say and do the things that make other women (myself included) uncomfortable. But they get things done, too. The feminist movement needs change agents of both kinds.

The same is true of the GLBT movement. I admit to being less familiar with the fight for gay, lesbian and transgender rights, but I know this: The methods of openly-gay Congressman Rep. Barney Frank differ from those of Queer Nation, the activist group that responded to rising violence against gays and lesbians by climbing to the roof of Badlands, a Greenwich Village bar and hanging a 40-foot banner that read: "Dykes and Fags Bash Back!"

And so it is with the movement for black equality. You need the Panther and the politician to be successful. Barack Obama is a politician and I mean that with no negative intention. He has chosen to better our world from inside the system. And that is okay. The politicians who do the best for individual interests are the ones that can pepper their work with just enough radicalism to move things forward. I believe Obama knows how to do this. What's more, I think he knows how to affect change with the support of governmental leaders and everyday citizens. He knows how the system works and is accepted in it. That's why he is important.

Stop expecting Barack Obama to be a radical. Radicals don't get elected to our country's highest office. Now, in my view that is a failing of the citizenry, but it is what it is.

I think one of the most important things an Obama presidency will do for black America is "normalize" us in the eyes of the rest of the country. This has occurred to me recently, while watching the Obama family in candid moments: Michelle giving Barack a fist pound on the night he won the Democratic nomination, him lovingly patting her on the behind, his daughters with their black-girl hair (the twists and braids and such). Mainstream America rarely sees black America this way: familial, loving, romantic, beautiful and human. We are perpetually "other" in their eyes. Having a black family as our nation's First Family will not only change the way the mainstream views blacks, but also the way many blacks view themselves.

Oh, believe me, I expect more from Barack Obama than just that--as a woman, an African American, a member of the middle class, a Midwesterner: I have specific issues that I want to see addressed by an Obama administration. And I will hold him accountable for those issues. But I understand that as President of all Americans, he has more issues to address than just mine. It is my job, and that of every citizen, to make sure that my issues stay on the table--not just nationally, but locally. We need to be as excited about our local councilwoman as we are about Barack Obama. And I am also relying on ACTIVISTS to keep Barack Obama and folks working in the system on the right path, to call out injustices, and to remind docile citizens of the things they'd rather forget--that is what activists do. That is why they are important.

Throughout the historic race for 2008 Democratic primary that pitted a woman against a black man, too many people seemed to view Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as the answer to black people and women's problems respectively. The narrative seemed to go that if Clinton got the nom, everything would be different for women. That is why so many of that candidate's die-hard, Boomer, feminist supporters are so deflated and angry right now. Hillary was the answer to everything. Now that Obama has the Democratic nod, some black folks believe the Promised Land is in sight. Madness lies that way, folks.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are just two resources for the work WE must do. For the record, I think Barack Obama is a tremendous resource. Those who expect him to roll up in the White House with African garb and a fist in the air; or who believe that black folks have hit the lottery simply because someone who looks like them may lead the country; or who expect that a President of the United States will enact an agenda that uncommonly reflects race, gender, sexuality or any other part of their identity; is bound to be sorely disappointed.


Heart said...

Great thoughts, Tami, as always. You are dead on-- we have to have the radicals agitating with a take-no-prisoners attitude, demanding revolutionary change and we have to have people working within the system as well, dedicating themselves towards incremental change. And we need people working within the system and doing whatever radical agitation on the side they can get away with, and people working on the outside as radicals taking and making opportunities to get their foot in the system's door. We need all of these people and as many combinations thereof as can be imagined.

And UGH and double ugh with these demands that Obama deny one half of himself. He is located uniquely and can see things from perspectives and angles that are lost or unimaginable to most people, one of his greatest strengths, I believe.

Anonymiss said...

Great points per usual.

SheCodes said...

Amen, Tami. You should submit this to the HuffPost or something.

I am afraid that expectations have been set so unbelievably high -- and not just on the race/gender front -- that a whole lot of people are going to crash to the ground.

It simply will not be possible to have a great universal healthcare program in the US anytime in the near future. We are trillions of dollars in debt already.

If you listen to Barack carefully, we aren't getting out of Iraq anytime soon, etc.

People see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.

MacDaddy said...

Great insights. A number of male friends are infected with the "black enough" virus. The guy's a centrist politician for Christ sake!...
Love your perspective of Hillary and Barack as resources, for the work that WE must do. Blessings.

Jill said...

Outstanding post, Tami. Thank you as always for taking the time.

NOLA radfem said...

I like your idea that we need both.

I struggle CONSTANTLY with not finding candidates radical enough to suit me. I am always disappointed that no one is radical enough for me - but I also get it that nobody like me has a snowball's chance in hell of actually getting elected. I go back and forth on it...

A nice young man I met at an Obama house party last week is down here from the mid-West and on the payroll of the DNC to campaign for Mary Landrieu. We exchanged numbers, and he promptly called and asked me when I would be making some calls for Landrieu.

Now, Landrieu, you may know, is one of about five "Democrats" who can be counted on to vote with the Republicans at least half of the time, which denies Dems the real majority they need to get stuff done. She infuriates me. I call her Mary the Vichy-Democrat.

But this young man is so nice. I just like him. When I complained about Landrieu, he said he's heard that a lot from hardcore Democrats in the state. But, he said, her seat is vulnerable because of the Katrina-related population shifts and (and this one got me!) imagine how much President Obama is going to NEED that Democratic majority in Congress.

So, the kid roped me into phone bamking for Mary Lavalamp, the Vichy-Democrat, just because I liked much for sticking to my radical principles, huh?

NOLA radfem said...

Tami, I have an essay up at my blog that I'm REALLY excited about. It isn't my work, just a repost (with the author's permission). I think it's wonderful - made me cry - and would love to hear your thoughts. It's about white women who were for Hillary and are now threatening to vote McCain. He totally calls them out on that.

Hope you're well!

Ceci said...

"...resources for the work WE must do"

Obama himself reminds us of that in nearly every speech. He talks a lot of "we, you , us". This set him apart from Clinton, early on. Her rhetoric is much more "me, myself, I."

That's what this member of the supposed Hillary Demo (boomer, white, female) thinks, anyway.

rikyrah said...

Glen Ford is the ultimate Obama Skeptic. I don't wanna call him a ' hater', because he's consistent with his criticisms. But, he's a Skeptic..LOL

I agree with you that there are many ways to be Black.

NO radical will be elected. But, we need the Glen Fords to put the pressure.

No DuBois without Booker T.

No Martin without Malcolm.

We need the inside and outside game.

Tami said...


I agree. I like Glen Ford. He is a periodic guest on Make It Plain hosted by Mark Thompson on Sirius Radio, and I like to hear him. He's definitely a smart brother. But when I listened to him talk about this topic last week, I though he was way off base.

TLW said...

I would almost agree with your assessment but a centrist like Obama and a Black "radical" cannot work together. They are incompatible and if his current track record in dealing with "radicals" is considered, he will denounce them as being "divisive" and "destructive" for painting a bad and false picture of America and you are not allowed to "disparge" America in any way according to Obama.

Also what do you find wrong about Black nationalism" Is it the right to self-determination, being proud of ones culture, what?

Tami said...


I don't agree that a centrist and a radical cannot work together. Most people working within the system are centrists in some way. Radicals help to push those people away from the center and to the margins.

There are many things about black nationalism that I agree with and many things that I don't. In particular, I disagree with black separatism which I interpret to be part of the nationalist idealogy. I don't recall saying that anything is "wrong" with nationalism, just that I am not a black nationalist. said...

Hey Tami!

Thank you for a thoughtful and provocative post! Excellent writing!

I have come to expect this from you! (smiles)

It is absolutely true that we need an inside and outside game plan. You have made so many sound points.

I hear many black people saying that a black First Family will change the way that white America views black people...and I think that notion is a bit idealistic...

As a black person who has been in all-white settings for a large chunk of my life...academically and professionally...I noticed that in many situations...when white people encounter a black person who does not fit into their narrow definition of what black people are or their narrow definition of what black people are about, they tend to view that person (or those persons) as the "exception" to the other blacks.

I doubt that white America will see a black First Family and begin to think to themselves, "this is a typical black family"....I'm afraid not....they will think these people are the EXCEPTION...the special blacks...

When I was a child, I rolled my eyes every time our family was referred to bt whites as "the black Kennedys"! Please. They thought THAT was a compliment...

How many times were we listening to white media pundits say that Obama "transcends race"? This is merely white-speak for "he's not like what we think blacks are like!"

For those who really believe that a black First Family will change the definition of blacks in the eyes of white America...

Did the attitudes about black men change when Colin Powell was Secretary of State? when Clarence Thomas was put on the Supreme Court? when Jendayi Frazer took on the responsibility of ALL U.S. embassies on the continent of Africa? when Condi became Secretary of State and visibly became the presidents MOST TRUSTED confidante? The answer... no.

Okay...I'm now leaving my soap box! (smile) I'm out of hot air!

Thanks for letting me blow my trumpet!


Tami said...


And you, as usual, make a great point. You're right. I've been given exceptional black status more than a few times and it is hella annoying.

I still think having a black first family will help a little, but it won't be a magic bullet.

Ceci said...

"hella annoying"

Hey! Are you a midwesterner by way of No. Cal? Or has hella finally become more than a secret handshake btwn residents of Santa Cruz and Marin County? :)

Re: "the special blacks". I suppose the people that need to get out more often may think that. But honestly, I think having a black first family will help more than a little. No magic bullet, to be sure. But way more than a little.

I remember driving in my car when the radio news announced that Mondale had chosen Geraldine Farraro as his running mate. I surprised myself when my eyes filled up. The recent revelation of her character has tarnished that memory. But it did matter at the time.

This is much more than that.

Miriam said...

"..Those in the system--be it the boardroom or the Oval Office--make concessions to be there. This is a reality. "



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