16-17 Segment 2: What African Americans Think of the First Black President

16-17 President Obama


Synopsis: President Obama’s term in office is almost over, and everyone has an opinion on how he’s done as our Commander in Chief. African Americans have their own opinions and they’re not always as glowing as you might think. We talk to an African American journalist and author about what Black Americans think about the president as a leader, a symbol, and as a man as he finishes his tenure as our first African American president.

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Guests: Erin Aubry Kaplan, journalist and author of the book, I (heart) Obama.

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African Americans’ Thoughts on President Obama

Marty Peterson: As Barack Obama finishes his last year in the White House, many Americans are thinking about how he performed as our 44th president. Among these are African Americans who are deciding if he lived up to their expectations during his two terms in office. African-American author Erin Aubry Kaplan was asked by her publisher to find out what Obama’s presidency and the man himself means to Black Americans. So Kaplan went out to the neighborhoods, churches and other institutions to talk to them and find out just what they think of the first Black president of the United States. The result is her book, I (heart) Obama. Kaplan says she looked at several aspects of Obama’s presidency, including its historical significance, leadership and, just as important, its symbolism.

Erin Aubry Kaplan: Of course what he’s done as president is important, but I really think for a lot of people that’s a separate conversation. The fact that he took that journey, that he made the effort and that he succeeded in becoming president against impossible odds because, of course I just didn’t think it could happen in my lifetime and neither did a lot of other people I know, but he did that, and that was the struggle. That was a big part of his symbolism. And I guess in the end, you know presidents, they’re figureheads. They, of course, are politicians, but they really do stand for something and I think he will definitely resonate as the first Black president who not only made the journey there, made it to the mountaintop, I guess, to the White House, but he negotiated that space. He had to figure out how to be a Black president where there had never been one before. And that was what was so exciting and so nerve-wracking to a lot of people.

Peterson: Kaplan says that African Americans learned from his rise to the White House that you can reach for the top as a Black person and succeed in the United States. And she says that he did it like an entrepreneur would start his own company.

Kaplan: Someone in the book describes becoming president; it’s like having a start-up business. And so, you have to set it up and figure out a strategy and also have a lot of faith that it’s going to succeed. And he did that. He was sort of his own idea. He did not come out of a movement for racial justice, as did a lot of other Black leaders – Martin Luther King, etc. – he kind of succeeded on his own idea of being president. And that is also a first, you know, this dynamic. And that’s what also made his success really extraordinary – it started with him. He figured, hey, I can do this. And not a lot of people believed him for a long time, including a lot of Black people. We thought, oh, that’s nice. It’s a nice gesture, but he cannot possibly be elected. We were wrong.

Peterson: Kaplan says that she, herself, wasn’t a believer when Obama started on his road to the White House. It was his charisma, his ability to connect with people – Black, Asian, Latino and White – that she says won over voters in 2008.

Kaplan: There was this common energy, excitement that I had never felt before in politics and it just made me, more than briefly, a believer in this idea that we’ve always had that we all are one people, and even though we come from many backgrounds, we can come together. I felt that very distinctly and I never felt that before, and Obama was the catalyst for that. Comfortable talking in front of any group without losing who he is; without becoming something or someone different. He can kind of pivot and speak to anybody and make them feel important. We hear a lot that Bill Clinton had this quality, but Obama’s is very kind of special because, frankly, we don’t assume that a Black person can speak to everybody. That’s another thing I talk about in the book, to have a Black figure really representing all Americans feels really radical because we have a history of doing exactly the opposite. We have a history of telling Black folks that you only represent yourself, you cannot possibly speak for other people, for White people especially. And here he is doing that and doing it very well.

Peterson: Kaplan says that African Americans wanted the president not just to speak to all people, but to speak for them. She says that he succeeded in doing so, but not as much as many would have liked.

Kaplan: When he did begin to speak for us, when he did talk about his connection to Trayvon Martin and other things, it was exciting. I thought, “Finally, it’s coming out of his mouth. He is legitimizing our feelings,” and that made me kind of fall in love with him again. He is speaking for me. Some people said he backed up too much, or he could have said more, he could have been stronger, but the fact that he got up and actually said something like, “I could have been Trayvon Martin. He could have been my son,” that as very moving to me, just him finally getting the courage to affirm himself and therefore affirming all of us. It was very exciting. It was something I had never heard before.

Peterson: Despite this, and despite his charisma and symbolism, Kaplan says that many African Americans were disappointed that the president wasn’t able to get some of his policies through, such as prison reform, jobs and issues of poverty among Blacks. She says, though, it was an uphill battle from the start and she understands that for a Black president, it was going to be even tougher.

Kaplan: I think a lot of Black people love him, as they love a family member. But, you know, you’re critical of a family member too, right? As my cousin used to say, “I love my family, but I can’t stand them.” So sometimes we embrace him as one of us, but then of course you step back and you don’t love everything he does. But the funny thing is, at the same time many of us were complaining that he didn’t address so many things that really needed to be addressed, and he could have addressed uniquely as a Black person, at the same time these same people would say, “I understand. He’s in an awful position. He’s compromised; he can’t speak about Black crises because he’s going to lose so many political points. So we chastise him at the same time we actually understood why he didn’t say anything. And so it was very complicated to say the least.

Peterson: Kaplan says that the fact that President Obama came to office during two Mid-East wars, the recession and strong political opposition didn’t help matters any either.

Kaplan: Because tensions were so high, and because of the Tea Party – and the Tea Party really got going because of Obama. Obama became the organizing principle of the Tea Party. Anti-Obamaism became really a political movement and that, I think, is very different than opposition to presidents in the past. Sure, republicans didn’t like Bill Clinton but you know they worked with him, legislation got passed. This response to Obama politically, specifically the Tea Party, is something I think historians agree has never happened before. It’s like this entire sentiment against him really became part of the party platform, and I think it still is. Cannot agree with Obama. Whatever it is he’s proposing must be opposed.

Peterson: She says it was Obama’s way to negotiate with Congress and compromise rather than try to ram legislation through that caused some of his policies to fail, such as the public option in his healthcare program. Kaplan says that many African Americans thought he would be less of a philosopher and more of a militant when it came to issues that were important to them.

Kaplan: I think they were hoping for a Huey Newton. Someone philosophical but ready to do what needs to be done by any means necessary. Yes, we wanted him more militant. I say at one point in the book one of our fantasies was that he would go into a phone booth and come out Huey Newton, and that’s who Obama really is. Because all of us, I think even the most middle class, the most successful of us, had this inner militant that’s ready to kind of leap into action when the opportunity arises, and we were hoping Obama would be that. I also compare him to Clark Kent. He can take off his mild-mannered persona and become Superman. And, you know, I’ve seen flashes of that. I have seen him, and we’ve all seen him, flash irritation or impatience. And, of course, the moment he does that in public he gets criticized.

Peterson: She says that she thinks the “militant” is the part of his persona that Obama keeps under wraps because he is very conscious of how he would be seen and judged by White Americans, and his opposition.

Kaplan: It’s this curse of what DuBois calls “the double consciousness: You always have to remember how you’re being seen by a White world. And so you have to present your best self, always. Even if you don’t feel like it, even if that’s not really who you are, it’s for survival, for the sake of survival and the sake of progress and success you have to appear as competent as possible. That, in itself, is making a political statement.

Peterson: Kaplan says that although many Black Americans would like the president to be more militant and get legislation passed in a hurry, they can appreciate his need to take the long view.

Kaplan: He’s patient, it looks like he’s in trouble, he’s in trouble and then some months later you realize he’s actually done what he said he’s going to do. He just does it step, by step, by step and we appreciate the fact he actually has a strategy. He’s not just surviving day to day like so many of us. He’s planning, he’s executing in measured, incremental steps and that is something a lot of people I talked to really admire about him. Even if they don’t agree with what he does, it’s his whole approach to what he’s doing.

Peterson: So what is President Obama’s legacy among African Americans? What will they remember him for?

Kaplan: From day one, since he got elected, his picture went right up there next to Martin Luther King’s, Malcolm X’s, Harriet Tubman, I’ve seen it all over town and I’ve seen these images in other places so immediately we put him in that pantheon of historical Black people who are very important, who will always just have a place in our history, in our psyche, more importantly in our psyche, as someone who is saying to us, “Yes, you can.” He is very, very much part of that pantheon of important Black folks. In fact, I say in the book, I have a neighbor who, for eight years, has had a picture of Obama in her window. Never comes down, it’s always there.

Peterson: Kaplan says that it’s a reminder that the president is “living Black history,” and we should honor it and not forget the strides Barack Obama has made for African Americans and the country. You can read up on what the president means to Black Americans and our nation’s history in Erin Aubry Kaplan’s book, I (heart) Obama, available in stores and online. She also invites listeners to visit her website at erinaubrykaplan.net. For more information about all of our guests log on to our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.

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