I went back and watched the entire video of their appearance on Tavis's show, and then thought some on it. There is a tendency to react to this sort of thing out of anger, and I kinda was angry when I first started watching. But the more I listened, the more I calmed down, as I saw what really seemed to be at work. I didn't hear a single policy disagreement in the entire interview. Not one. What I did hear was a general complaint that Obama isn't claiming his blackness--historically or politically. That sort of talk makes me cringe, if only because it's so open to interpretation and can easily slide into a sort of lazy equivalence between lefty politics and blackness. Barack Obama could have stood up and quoted Boooker T. Washington or George Schuyler and yet, I don't think that's what his critics are talking about.
The specific charge seems to be essentially that Obama--for political reasons--neglected to mention Martin Luther King by name ("the preacher from Georgia" being demeaning"), that he didn't mention Katrina, that he was--in Malveaux's words--"white-washing" his speech so as not to offend good white folk. Hmmm. I took the "preacher from Georgia" riff as poetic use of understatement. MLK's significance is such these days that, in America, he is the air, the symbol of purity that ideologues of all stripes reach for to launder their cause. But, hey, I love poetry, and I'm an Obama fan, so maybe I see too much. That said, it seems to me that an attempt at white-wash which mentions "the preacher from Georgia" and references the March on Washington, is a sorry effort indeed. Are we to believe that Obama's folks, think that white voters--fresh off a week of having history drummed into them--are going to somehow miss these references? If this is the Obama campaign's idea of hoodwinking white folks, they should all be fired.
I got clear when I heard Malveaux salute Clinton for referencing Harriet Tubman. The beef isn't about policy. It's not about what an Obama administration would do for black people. It's not even about Obama's blackness, per se. It's about the "black freedom struggle"--the struggle that West and Malveaux see themselves as a part of--taking credit. Look, I say the following as the son of Black Panther, as a dude who learned critical thinking from the posthumous words of Malcolm X, who idolizes James Baldwin. None of that was as important to me as family. If not for my father, I'd have no idea what "the black freedom struggle" was. If not for my mother, I would have likely dropped out school in tenth grade. Barack Obama is black man who received his essential human values from three white people.
In that he isn't the first. The great Frederick Douglass learned to read from his white slave-mistress. Booker T. Washington--father of organic black conservativism--was a biracial black man. Malcolm X, in some ways inheritor of that same legacy, was a multiracial black man. But Barack is living in another time, and is the progeny of more courageous people. Bear with me if I'm lapsing into either/or, I don't mean to. But this jingoist idea that the exclusive black tradition deserves primary credit for Obama's place in history feels simplistic.
Half of that evening was spent praising King and the Civil Rights movement. King's kids spoke. John Lewis spoke, and Obama spent the last five minutes of his speech connecting his struggle with the Civil Rights struggle of the past. It was cool to see that. But Barack Obama was there to do his best to convince people to vote for him in November. I don't know what other criteria there really could be for judging his speech. The last thing I want to catch this dude doing, is the Electric Slide before the inauguration. Something else also--this keeps happening with a specific group of black people. I'd hate to think that they were conflating themselves and their events with black people and "black interests" at large. Did Obama's absence from the State of The Black Union say something about black people? Or did it say something about the event itself?
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