I found it hard to watch most coverage of the Obama Administration throughout 2009 because it just hit too close to home. I and many other black men would privately talk about how frustrating it was to watch this black man get pilloried in the press by fellow members of Congress and even those within his own party for almost every little infraction.
In fact, whether or not you actually voted for Obama, there are many African Americans out there, especially men, who see the way in which he is criticized and see eerie parallels to their own professional lives.
Obama deserves a great deal of criticism for failing to limit or curtail Bush’s shredding of the Constitution through wire-tapping and other civil liberties violations, and also for his poor negotiation skills with the Republican Party. However, most of what he seems to get criticized for seems to have a racialized tinge to them, or are draped in notions of culture and image.
What African-American executive or worker doesn’t know the frustrations of being asked to act black by their white colleagues — in whatever stereotypical way they deem reasonable — while knowing full well that if they did act accordingly their standing as an employee would drop lower than Obama’s poll numbers?
To top it off, of course, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West is running around the country making Obama out to be a sell-out everywhere they can and now the Congressional Black Caucus is doing the same. The funny thing is that while Obama is constantly criticized for not being “black enough” or failing to properly embrace a “black agenda,” it seems pretty clear to me in a quiet way that the man is fully aware of his own racial place in history and the burdens that go with it.
Without much fanfare last month, Obama had the Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With” installed in the main hallway leading into the Oval Office. The painting, which depicts Ruby Bridges being escorted into a segregated school in the 1960s is powerful not just for the moment in time it depicts, but also due to the fact that in the painting the young girl walks in front of a wall where the word “NIGGER” is scrawled.
Every day that Obama walks to his office he’s going to see that picture: A black person being escorted into a dangerous and hostile place where they are breaking a racial barrier and hence saddled with the responsibility of not just surviving but excelling. The fact that Obama wants to walk by that photo and that word every morning says that this man is acutely aware of his blackness, and he clearly had no problem saying so to Mrs. Bridges.
In the next week Obama will give the biggest speech of his presidency when he presents a post-Labor Day jobs plan. For once, I feel sorry for him. This black man looks tired, worn and beaten down by the unrealistic and unfair expectations placed upon him.
He was supposed to be the magical Negro who’d fix everyone’s problems in three years. He was supposed to absolve the sins of Bush without breaking a sweat, all while looking cool in the process. But fair or not, he knows that whether he’s bi-racial, black man, presidential or nigger he’s got a job to do, and he’ll do it.
Let’s just hope that the questions about whether he understands he’s doing this job in the skin that he’s in might finally get a rest, at least within our community.