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.

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