WORDS: VERNON JORDAN, III
I met one of the loves of my life the night Barack Hussein Obama was re-elected into the seat of the President – the highest office in these United States.
That night, in November of 2012, a Black man won against white moderates, conservatives, and anyone claiming they were most qualified for the job. Parading with his family, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, Malia Ann, and Natasha “Sasha”, who had already stolen our hearts during the 2008 campaign and Presidential election, President Obama was a force of joy for many African Americans, non-American Black people residing here in the states, Black people with homes abroad, in the wider Diaspora, and the continent of Africa itself. I was fresh out of high school, a first-semester freshman at Muhlenberg College and President Obama was thus the first President I had ever voted for; did I even have a choice in the matter?
I felt instant pride whenever I thought of him. You could say I even campaigned: I bought stickers and pins marked Forward, hung the “we’ve got his back” poster on my side of the dorm room, always wore my “44TH / OBAMA” shirt to the gym to spite my white classmates, and when it came time to vote, finally, I adorned that oval “I VOTED” sticker on my motherfucking face. Naturally, I argued with racist Facebook comment after Facebook comment, too — all in the name of President Obama. I stayed up long enough into the morning to witness both final speeches by Obama and Romney and was doing so while on the phone with one of my best friends, a Black woman who then was studying at Clark Atlanta University. When I got back to my room, all was quiet. My roommate, a polite enough Italian kind of white boy and Romney voter, was asleep. A “Romney/Ryan” poster guarding his bedpost, an old historic patriotic “don’t tread on me” snake poster hanging right next to him.The morning after, he said to me, “Congrats, man.” I said, with assurance and calm, “Thank you.” We had vowed not to talk about politics in our room, so that brief exchange was the most we talked on the matter. It was all so swift – Obama won, so I won. With a fire so many people expected to die out and be beaten, Obama’s victory in the 2012 re-election felt like an act of revenge. Now, my classmates who had so fervently been possessed by their arguments against welfare and affirmative action policies, for instance, would have to face that the leader of this country was a Black somebody. They might see “thugs” in Obama, me in Obama, and thus a “thug” in me; but they would see I’d won, and dared to be great.
Many of my associations with Obama can be said to be positive, but this positivity, this greatness, was not one that lasted long, however – and maybe I am lucky my bubble burst so early. That next semester I would take a course called Black Political Thought. I remember reading a speech given by Obama, then reading a counter piece by Dr. Cornel West (among other class readings about Liberalism, Black Nationalism, Black Conservatism, Pan-Africanism, and so on and so on) and realizing that maybe Obama could not be the answer to Martin’s dream, that Martin certainly did not “walk so Obama could fly”. Obama too deeply believed in America’s capacity for rightness, righteousness, and the American Dream. I learned Obama followed a strictly Liberal course of action – the belief in individual freedoms, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness via the United States – always with a side of hope, or change. During Obama’s initial campaign, Will.i.am and a number of celebrities and artists came together to record the song “Yes We Can”, which was another famous rhetorical slogan coined by President Obama. I was a Freshman in high school when President Obama first took office, and learned this song in the school’s choir, singing it joyously whenever I could and reveling in the sound of “Si se puede” rolling from my lips. So, I didn’t know it then, but I was quite prepared to understand Liberalism and American Democracy, as I was born into it – and how many times before Obama had I sang it? Read it? Hero-ed and romanticized it? I was bluntly met with the facts that in the name of a Liberal Democracy we would drop bombs on poorer, Browner, and less Western nations; and even less prepared to see Obama as not merely a puppet, but Commander-in-Chief of this violent vessel called the United States.
Part of this role-playing President involves massive crowd control over the civilian population, an always ready indoctrination on the ideals of Liberalism — especially in face of violence and dissent. For me, the rupture of this contradiction occurred after the death of young Trayvon Martin: for this happened under the Obama administration with little done to protect and honor and defend the life of Trayvon, who this week would be 22 years old; the ruptures of this contradiction occurred when I realized countless bombs were being dropped on Palestine, with financial assistance from the U.S. and the Obama administration; and the happy lie of Democracy cracked. It’s one thing to learn about Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, the strategies of COINTELPRO which ripped radical activists and groups from our communities, for instance, and learn dissent for your country; it’s a peculiar place to be as a young Black American and not see the conditions for your people on the ground change when the leader of the free world looks like he could maybe be your uncle; and it’s another thing to begin to completely disagree with Liberal Democracy as it’s been enacted altogether — it sobers you. I remember wanting to vomit when I heard Christopher Dorner would be chased by drones on U.S. soil because that didn’t sound like Freedom to me. I recalled a passage from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where civilians are awakened by the State and compelled to watch the manhunt of the book burner, Montag, as it’s cycled live into the news:
“Police Alert. Wanted: Fugitive in city. Has committed murder and crimes against the State. Name: Guy Montag. Occupation: Fireman. Last seen . . .” He ran steadily for six blocks, in the alley, and then the alley opened out on to a wide empty thoroughfare ten lanes wide. It seemed like a boatless river frozen there in the raw light of the high white arc-lamps; you could drown trying to cross it, he felt; it was too wide, it was too open. It was a vast stage without scenery, inviting him to run across, easily seen in the blazing illumination, easily caught, easily shot down. The Seashell hummed in his ear. “… watch for a man running … watch for the running man . . . watch for a man alone, on foot . . . watch…”
Like the civilians in the book, in this case, all I could do was watch CNN for updates, watch Hope lean into Terror. President Barack Obama gracefully walked into a seat that inherits and propagates terrorism in the name of the country and State. He is a fine, swaggered out suit – in the tradition of American presidential suits – become war general.
Were we silly to think Obama would be a beacon and example of liberation against global white supremacy and anti-blackness? No. But we were certainly fooled. We were distracted — great imagery can do that — and it’s no surprise that in a campaign so formidably led by college youth, grassroots organizing on the part of, it seemed, the whole country, we might feel a kind of euphoric haze not common here: for a moment we could feel together, feel a touch of another person, and feel recognized in the presence of Barack Obama. Obama slick and likable as he is, rolling Al Green and the ever-scary national anthem off one tongue, smiling so gently, laughing — and making us laugh! Obama, slick and likable, perfect in his denouncing of absent Black fathers, drugs displayed on corners, (not to mention the least dangerous shit ever, sagging pants) without an analysis of how the united states have contributed to these phenomena.
He is the perfect ingredient for White supremacy: son to an educated Kenyan and continental African man & an American white woman. His story is a massive, international epic, where the son who belongs nowhere becomes King of the Democratic land to overlook all lands. His narrative is a full circle project, in a strange way; the perfect person to run the American machine is a dude come from a formerly colonized African country – the dark continent meets the brightest. I think about this often. I think about what America might look like when it is ready for a descendant of enslaved African Americans to take the role President – if it will be, ever.
There is no utopia to be found being Black here in the United States – not in total, anyway – but I would be a liar if I said pictures and small moments from the eight years of President Barack, First Lady Michelle (everyone’s favourite Obama) and famed children Sasha and Malia Obama, the First Black First Family of the United States, did not provide momentary joys, pride, relief, and pleasure. I want to thank Barack Obama for that. I want to thank President Obama for teaching me, quite plainly, never to trust politicians; but to trust my 22 year old self, my Black and queer communities, and the strategies of Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Assata Shakur, and so many more who came into the world before me.
I am trying to find now the proper space for hope in my life – too much makes any person blind, and Andre 3000 said, “lean a little bit closer see / roses really smell like “boo boo oo”. I am trying to face forward, but not without complete regard for the past and its echoes, its livelihood, in the present. I am reckoning with the bodies broken and lost – memories equally contorted. I am looking a dangerous, frightening, and fucked up world in the eye, whenever I walk the streets of this country, whenever I dream of leaving this country for another. This is called being a young Black Millennial after and in the age of Obama.