Before Wolf Blitzer could even fix his mouth good enough to declare Barack Obama as the next President-elect of the United States, my homeboys and I had already hit the front door. We ran fast as hell through Castleberry’s parking lot. It ain’t matter that none of us had fully processed what was going on, because the only thing that mattered was that we were moving, quickly, towards history. Flying, in fact, down Northside Drive—three grown-ass niggas in the front of the car; five in the back—believing nothing could stop us.
As soon as Wilkins parked on campus, we threw open our doors and raced across Century Lawn, its wide expanse of green hurtling us towards the place we felt we were destined to be. From afar, the Freedom Bell appeared to stand firm against the advancing cold front, its weathered pole stretching deep into the ground’s packed red clay. Up close, though, once we’d jumped off the grass and onto the cobbled pathway, we could see its large bronze dome rock slightly in the wind, and the sheer magnitude of it all gave us pause. At Morehouse, you see, the Freedom Bell serves as a tangible example of not only how we made it over, but that we made it over. Throughout the school’s history, it has been used to alert the student body of both impending Ku Klux Klan attacks and moments of jubilation. The administration oversaw its ringing after President Obama delivered the college’s 2013 commencement address. Five years before that, me and my crew tolled it.
On November 4, 2008, we rang the hell out of that bell, because our president was black. And we were free. We were free, you hear me?
Until we weren’t.
Barack Obama was the first person I ever voted for. I was eighteen when I cast my ballot in 2008, and though that was almost eight years ago, I still carry around the voter registration card I used that day. Back then, I believed in Obama. I believed in change. I believed in the possibility of a “brighter tomorrow.” But never did I think – I mean, not once did I actually think – about what a brighter tomorrow would actually look like, the type of work getting to that point would actually entail. Instead, for Barack, for Michelle, for Sasha and Malia, I adopted what my old A.M.E. pastor required each member of his flock to have and what I promised myself I would never have: stupid faith. Blind faith. The type of faith you never question.
Now, it’s about time I admit that the faith I placed in Obama led me exactly where I always thought that type of faith would. Nowhere.
If I’m real about it, I would acknowledge that one of President Obama’s main objectives has never been to target and alleviate the suffering of black people, but to, in fact, publicly identify that suffering, bandage it, and then tell those people that what they experienced wasn’t as bad as they thought it was. Take, for instance, what he said during his Morehouse 2013 commencement speech:
[I]n today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned. Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too. tweet
Over the years, I, like many others, listened to what Obama said, but never heard him. Though his words have always been pointed and clear, I, rather dangerously, bent them into things I wanted to hear. When he told me, at my alma mater, that “whatever [I’ve] gone through . . . pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured,” I believed him. I did not allow myself to think critically about his statement, for to think critically about his statement was to question him, and to question him was to doubt him: his purpose, his goal, his mission. I didn’t want to doubt him, my first black president. Plenty other folk, however, felt it necessary to do so.
In his book Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, Mychal Denzel Smith responds to many of the statements Obama made at Morehouse this way: “We make a grave mistake every time we invoke the history of oppression to diminish the reality of racism’s present. Progress is real, but the narrative of progress seduces us into inaction. If we believe, simply, that it gets better, there is no incentive to do the work to ensure that it does.” Perspectives like this one woke me up, and when I got that first glimpse of light, I couldn’t turn away. Everything started to make sense.
Back in 2012, for instance, Obama told Black Enterprise, “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.” At the time, I didn’t find fault with his statement. Of course he wasn’t my president alone. Of course he was the entire country’s president. It wasn’t until I went back and thought critically about his statement that I was able to recognize how clear-sighted Ta-Nehisi Coates’s critique of Obama’s comment was. In an article for The Atlantic, Coates wrote that “the Obama administration’s policy record toward black people” reveals that Obama’s primary, secondary, and third concern is not the state of black America, but the state of America. It took me a minute to fully understand, then accept, how true that shit is.
Though Obama has been in office for eight years, black America still faces widening wealth disparities, disproportionate rates of incarceration, persistent gaps in the distribution of educational resources, state-sanctioned murders, a city with undrinkable water, cities with too little water to drink. I, for one, know I’d be lying if I say that, when I voted for him, I didn’t expect him to work hard at amplifying the voices of the people in these marginalized communities, but he hasn’t. Instead, he’s spent most of his energy fighting for, protecting, and praising a country that’s doing the same old shit a different way. Just look at America: its 2015 fiscal year had a military budget of $495 billion dollars; its Supreme Court has, as Justice Sotomayor puts it, decided to allow “the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants – even if you are doing nothing wrong,”; its Congress remains gridlocked on issues like gun control even after witnessing, in two years, an attack at a prayer service that killed nine people, an attack at a nightclub that killed 49 people, and a series of random attacks on streets throughout the nation that killed 462 people.
Of course Obama doesn’t have the authority to single-handedly change the way America functions. That power rests in the people. But what Obama does have is the platform. Right now, and for the past eight years, his position has afforded him the opportunity to be a change agent in one of the most radical and influential ways, to lead a movement that dismantles America’s most immoral policy decisions and begins the work of replacing them with decisions that are more equitable, just, and right. Instead of using his position to vocalize and mobilize this type of movement, as I hoped he would back in 2008, he has used it to sugarcoat painful realities, to stand before the nation and spew out the same dry-ass rhetoric: “America is better. The world is better. And, stick with me now, race relations are better since I graduated.”
What all of this reminds me of is one of Malcolm X’s most searing analogies: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made, and [America hasn’t] even begun to pull the knife out much less try and heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
One of the few things that separates Obama from his predecessors is this: He has no problem admitting that the knife is there. He’ll even pull it out six inches. The thing I don’t like about him is this: after he pulls the knife out six inches, he tells you, in the most congenial and charismatic way possible, to stop whining.
Well, that’s one of his go-to responses. The other, I feel, is a bit more damaging—he blames you.
On July 12, 2016, Obama flew to Dallas, Texas for an Interfaith Memorial Service held in honor of the five police officers who died at the hands of a lone gunman during a nonviolent Black Lives Matter protest. My mind reeled when I learned of his decision. How far did he fly to get to Sanford? How many meetings were cut short for Michael Brown? How long did it take for him to appear in Texas when Sandra Bland died, Illinois when Rekia Boyd died, New York when Eric Garner died, Florida when Jordan Davis died? Perhaps it is unrealistic to ask the President of the United States to do more than hold a press conference after a citizen of his country is murdered by a police officer, but is it unrealistic to ask him to do more at least one time, to make the nation recognize our issues at least one time? I mean, if it takes five or more fatalities for a sitting president to make a trip, if all he needs is five, I got five. This nation got five. Hell, we got five on five on five on five. The only thing we don’t got is him, and it’s him we—it’s him I—had hoped for.
Instead of getting the type of assistance and protection we thought Obama would provide, many blacks got a president who delivers what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “targeted scorn.” As a black man living in America, I didn’t get a president at all. I got my own personal scolder.
At the Interfaith Memorial Service, for instance, Obama said this:
[S]o much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves. As a society we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs. We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book – and then we tell the police, “you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.” We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs, and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience. Don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when, periodically, the tensions boil over. We know those things to be true. They’ve been true for a long time. We know it. Police, you know it. Protesters, you know it. You know how dangerous some of the communities where these police officers serve are, and you pretend as if there’s no context. These things we know to be true. And if we cannot even talk about these things – if we cannot talk honestly and openly . . . then we will never break this dangerous cycle. tweet
I wanted to break my damn computer. I mean, here it was, one of the first times I truly heard what he was saying, and I couldn’t understand what was coming out of his mouth. Wasn’t nobody sitting around asking police officers to be social workers and parents and teachers and drug counselors. Wasn’t nobody asking officers to be Superman or Wonder Woman. Protesters were and are asking officers to be professionals who have sworn to protect and serve the citizens that pay them. Protesters were and are asking officers to practice restraint when working with black and brown people, to understand that raised hands mean surrender, and to destabilize a situation before executing a citizen. How could Obama not be able to tell the difference? How could he not see and fight for the truth?
The answer, I now realize, is a simple one. Obama doesn’t believe that speaking truth to power — at least to the power of the American government — is his job. His job is to protect and support the interests of the American government, even when the interests of the American government are immoral and unjust.
In the wee hours of November 9, 2016, Wolf Blitzer had to, once again, fix his mouth to say something he probably never thought he would say: Donald Trump is America’s next President-elect. As has been the case for the last eight years, Obama was provided the unique opportunity to lead the progressive and liberal-minded people of this nation in a fight against some of the darkest rhetoric, ideology, and action we’ve witnessed in quite some time.
Rather than use his platform to speak truth to the power of the American government, he said, “Now, everybody is sad when their side loses an election. But the day after, we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country.”
Back in the day, I would’ve put money on the fact that, if nobody else could or if nobody else would, Obama would set the record straight. If ever we found ourselves in a crisis, it would be Obama who would stand up to power and help the world understand what was really at stake. Well, we’re in a crisis right now, and he hasn’t. Perhaps it’s time to admit that he won’t.
**Editor’s Note: This essay is the very first in our “Letters to Obama” series, a collection of five essays from young black writers on President Barack Obama’s legacy, and his significance for a group of young people for whom his presence was a formative factor in politics and culture. Let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.