Black America: From Promise to Power in the Age of Obama
Over the past three years, we have witnessed the rise of a Black man to the highest office in a country where Black people were once property, where we were defined in the Constitution as three fifths a human being, in a country of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. He is a President in a nation where Black suffering is still not only legislated but tolerated and sometimes encouraged. This means a lot for the future of humanity in the United States.
Particularly, it means a lot for the future of White Americans and for the first time in the history of American racial reconciliation, they seem to recognize that. To be honest, they seem terrified by it. Not surprising however is how woefully unprepared leadership within the Black community seems to seize the moment. Leaders of today are at the wall of Jericho and poised for the Promised Land but the proverbial walls will not come tumbling down without the faith and courage of a few good men. Where are they? Who represents the Joshua generation and what must be done?
The day before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, he delivered a soul-stirring speech. Written in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers, toward the end, it took a turn into the prophetic. He said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” This is of course his famous allusion to the Biblical story of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. Dr. King was of the Moses generation, the folks who fought hard toward a winnable peace but who will never live its manifestation.
King was allowed to see the Promised Land. Others have been allowed to see the election of a Black President but we have leaned too hard on the old guard, on the Moses Generation for their vision and courage. The freedom fighters of the Civil Rights era and those who came before cannot chart a new course for tomorrow. Just as the Hebrews of old needed leadership beyond Moses, so does a struggling Black community.
Barack Obama refers to himself as a member of the Joshua generation. Speaking in Selma, Alabama as a presidential candidate, Obama said “I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants…We’re going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens.” Disparities that exist along racial lines have always been points of weakness to the integrity of the United States.
Barack Obama is no stranger to the flaws in the American character. In just the first short year of his Presidency, it has been uncovered like a wound that refuses to heal. There it was in the shouts of Joe Wilson, in Hillary Clinton’s “conceding her loss,” the arrest of an esteemed Harvard professor on his front porch, the Vice President’s compliment of Obama’s speech and hygiene.
Every cartoon of Obama as a bullet-ridden chimp and his wife as a gun-toting militant carries within the sting of a much larger injury and for it, the President has been able to provide little to no tangible leadership. For a problem that he knows more intimately than any other President, he has been paralyzed in the vice of American racial politics. I hope, as writer Isaac Rosenfeld once stated that “no man suffers injustice without learning, vaguely but surely, what justice is” and that Obama’s firsthand knowledge of what justice is and isn’t will make him this nation’s greatest ally to the oppressed.
John Lewis, still baring the scars of his commitment said after the inauguration, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.” In that sense, Barack Obama as a public figure and a President of the United States is a goal of the Civil Rights Movement. There are still battles ahead and more water to wade but the President and other Black elected officials will not be as Joshua was for the Israelites.
As a leader elected by a diverse constituency, he is in the tradition of negotiation. Like Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson, he is called to hold a nation together that sometimes needs to be pulled apart, pulled apart where it is compromised to be made stronger. It has become increasingly apparent that Barack Obama cannot speak truth to power because he is beholden to and represents it.
While Barack Obama, as a nationally elected official must assuage tension, Dr. King advocated the creation and use of tension. The Moses generation’s delicate management of tension has brought us to this moment in American history; one where White Americans are actively dealing with a challenge to the very concept of Whiteness. The election of a Black man to the highest office has threatened that which has been secure for so long: Whiteness and its place in the American caste system. Barack Obama’s very presence in the White House represents to many White Americans what the presence of only White men, in that office, has always meant for women and minorities; insecurity.
At the end of his life, Dr. King was working toward expanding the promise that is America to its poor citizens through the Poor People’s Campaign. His eyes were fixed on the Promised Land of economic and political freedom. He began addressing the issues that still trouble the waters of our imperfect union. He was pointing a way forward for the Joshua generation. There are of course advocates within the Black community – individuals and organization with the vision and nuance of a modern political age – and I do not begrudge the President for not being among them. The mantle of advocacy on the behalf of Black Americans is not his to shoulder.
The advocates of today must recognize, as the Moses generation exemplified, that “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God.” If character is like a tree and reputation a shadow, the Black community will need men to move out of the comfort the shadows provided by the Moses[es] to become branches, extending their efforts onward.
The path of progress takes great character and through individual acts of humanity, the chasm that we must cross has been made smaller. It is incumbent upon the Joshua generation to bridge the gap that remains by going where there is injustice and eradicating it, whether the President is leading the way or, more likely, if he is not.
Donovan X. Ramsey is an Associate Researcher at the Identity Orchestration Research Lab at Morehouse College where he is currently engaged in research regarding the expression of Black male identity in contemporary politics.