The Lincoln Connection

There's a lot to think about in Adam's post below. I think his invocation of Lincoln is especially powerful--Battle Cry Of Freedom caused me to back off of a lot of my rather simplistic impressions of Lincoln. Likewise, I've done my best to give Obama lee-way to be exactly what he is--a politician. The fact is that idealism and the business of politics often don't work well together. That said, for a writer like me, there is as much risk of falling into a trap of petty criticism as there is of simply excusing some of Obama's more erroneous stances as "politics."

I will stick with what I know. There's an argument that his invocation of black homophobia, is good for gay rights, and ultimately doesn't hurt black people much. There's an argument that his pose as the Host of Soul Train while wagging the moral finger, and then his pose as president of All America when asked about policy questions is, in fact, good for black America. (Please bear with me on the clumsiness of that sentence. I'm still working out my thinking.) Booker T. Washington would often go before white patrons, invoke the alleged cultural inferiority of blacks, and then proceed to make darkie jokes about the very people he claimed to be trying to help. As Adam says, Lincoln was not above peppering his speech with niggers.

But what can we say? Tuskeegee stands proud and strong, to this day. Once they were in the field, Lincoln stood for black soldiers, to the point of sacrificing the lives of Union POWs, in the name of their dignity. His assassination has haunted the country ever since. Obama is a truly, truly gifted politician. Who knows what he may ultimately do? And should the lives of black people be better when he leaves office than when he stepped in (as I suspect they will), should gay Americans enjoy more rights when he leaves office than when he stepped in (as I suspect they will) than what do the critiques of a couple minor-league bloggers really matter?

I think it's worth going back to Lincoln and the Civil War. One of my favorite stories about the formation of the USCT is reported in A Nation Under Our Feet. A black slave escapes his master's Virginia plantation, flees for Union lines, and insists on being signed up to fight. This is within the first year of the war, and so the slave is infomed by a Union general that the War Between The States, is "a white man's war." The slave looks at the general and says, "It will be a black man's war before it's done." The slave leaves the camp, becomes a sailor and goes to Cuba and England. He returns to the States a few years later and finds that, indeed, it has become a black man's war. He enlists in the 55th Mass. and is promptly sent down South to fulfill his prophecy.

That slave's vision was a radical one. At the onset of the Civil War, the notion that the war was about slavery, and the idea of fielding black troops were radical ideas, dismissed by "serious" politicians, and pragmatists. And not without reason--both sides really believed that it would be a short war. The idea that it would become a remaking of the national citizenry, and that it would ultimately require the black troops, was a notion embraced only by slaves and silly radicals who deigned to speak on their behalf.

Politicians are essential. But they're caught up in the grinding work, if they're good politicians, of building consensus and keeping shit moving. The politician is practicing the art of the possible. People like me are trying to expand the very nature of the possible. Baraka Obama was catapulted to the U.S. presidency by his stance on the Iraq War. It's often noted that he took pains to distinguish himself from the usual anti-war crowd. But the fact is that it was that crowd which organized the rally where he made his famous speech. They expanded the possible.

I can't speak for other bloggers, but my work here is principally about coaxing people, indeed coaxing myself, toward respecting humanity. The black homophobia boogieman is anathema to that work, not simply because it is a lie, but because it is rooted in an ugly history of loading the sins of this country on to the backs of its least popular minority. Black America has historically functioned as this country's moral sewer. Indeed, there is a direct line from temperance reformers in the late 19th century blaming their failures on the ill-conceived votes of ignorant niggers, to drug reformers in the early 20th century and the notion of the "cocaine-crazed Negro brain," to Reagan's invocation of shiftless welfare queens, right up through the idea that 7 percent of California's population is the real reason we don't have gay marriage.

Progressive and conservative America has a long ugly, history of insisting that the problems of the majority, are mainly the problems of the minority. My work in "expanding the possible," is concerned with destroying the politics of black pathology. To the extent that Obama participates in that tradition, I have to speak up. It does not mean that I'm pushing a third party. It just means that I think he's wrong.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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