Oh, well. You knew I couldn’t stay away from the Obama story for too long, didn’t you? Just finished Glenn Loury’s raw and provocative essay at the left-leaning political blog Talking Points Memo. As I said a few posts ago, I really like Loury as a scholar and commentator. I had the chance to interview him when I was with Christianity Today. He has an amazing mind and is quite forthright in his opinions. This current essay is no exception.
Loury seems to be continuing in the vein of Shelby Steele’s current book about Barack Obama, A Bound Man. Loury observes that Obama can only win enough white voters by sustaining this narrative of the “post-racial black man,” and yet he cannot win without the support of black voters who, on some level, are probably hoping that, if he wins, he will retain enough of his blackness that their perspectives will finally be understood and represented by the White House.
Yet, Loury feels somewhat ambivalent about this tightrope that Obama is attempting to walk. He’s especially conflicted about Obama’s now-legendary race speech. “I can’t get past the fact that Obama was negotiating with the American public on behalf of MY people in Philadelphia last week,” he says. “In the process, he presumed to instruct a generation of angry black men as to how they ought to construe their lives. I am not sure that Barack Obama has earned the right to do either of those things.”
He adds: “The narrative-defining moves that Obama is making now, in the heat of a political campaign and in teh service of his own ambitions, must be critically examined as to what impact they will have on the deep structures of American civic obligation, for generations to come.”
Following Obama’s Philadelphia speech, I also remarked that it was a shame that such an important speech about the reality of the racial divide in America was wasted on an ugly presidential campaign. And indeed, the speech’s message was promptly lost in a barrage of partisan spin.
But Loury goes further. At the heart of his concern is that Obama’s talk of “change” and of transcending race are disingenuous ways of diminishing the controversial but needed voices of black activists like Jackson, Sharpton, and (dare I say it) Jeremiah Wright. Loury writes:
At bottom, what is at stake here is a fight over the American historical narrative. Obama, a self-identifying black man running for the most powerful office on earth, does threaten some aspects of the conventional ‘white’ narrative. But, he also threatens the ‘black’ narrative — and powerfully so. In effect, he wants to put an end to (transcend, move beyond, overcome…) the anger, the disappointment and the subversive critique of America that arises from the painful experience of black people in this country. Yet, the forces behind his rise are NOT grassroots-black-American in origin; they are elite-white-liberal-academic in origin. If he succeeds, there will be far fewer public megaphones for the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons and Cornel Wests of this world, for sure. Many will see that as a good thing. But a great deal more may also be lost including, just to take one example, the notion that the moral legacy for today’s America of the black freedom struggle that played-out in this country during the century after emancipation from slavery – I speak here of Martin Luther King’s (and Fannie Lou Hamer’s, and W.E.B. DuBois’s, and Ida B. Wells’s and Frederick Douglass’s …) moral legacy – should find present-day expression in, among other ways, agitation on behalf of and public expression of sympathy for the dispossessed Palestinians – who are, arguably, among the ‘niggers’ of today’s world, if ever there were any. (We all know that Rev. Wright’s publicly and vociferously expressed sympathies in this regard – his condemnation of America’s support for what he called ‘state terrorism’ in the Middle East – are a central aspect of the political difficulty that Obama now finds himself having to deal with.)
Speaking for myself, and as a black American man, if forced to choose, I’d rather be “on the right side of history” about such matters, melding the historical narratives of my people with those of the ‘niggers’ in today’s world, than to make solidarity with elites who, for the sake of political expediency, would sweep such matters under the rug (or, worse.) My fear is that, should Obama succeed with his effort to renegotiate the implicit American racial contract, then the prophetic African American voice – which is occasionally strident and necessarily a dissident, outsider’s voice – could be lost to us forever.
For the record, Loury is a Clinton supporter. My beliefs and personal mission tend to bend more in the direction of that “transcending race” vision of Obama. Yet, at the same time, I recognize the value of prophetic voices, and I still believe the historic African American experience has a lot to contribute to any discussion of who we are as a society, nation, and church—and what we need to become. I don’t want to abandon the cultural uniquenesses of any race or ethnic group, for I believe God reveals something special about himself through every culture. Yet, I don’t want race and culture to become idols either.
Can Obama successfully blend his post-racial narrative with a prophetic edge that remembers our history and regularly challenges us to become a better people in spite of it? I don’t know if we’ve ever asked so much from a president. Usually, we just want him to keep the taxes low, nominate “our guy” for the Supreme Court, and veto this or that bill. If Obama wins, he’ll have to balance those expectations with the task of not being “too black” or too detached from the implications of his blackness. Such would be the lot of our first black president.