What is President Obama's Role in Black History?

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President Barack ObamaAs I’ve run around the country giving Black History Month speeches, I’ve been thinking a great deal about where we are and where we are going as a community; I’ve also been asked about President Barack Obama’s role in Black history. Since the 44th president’s existence has been entirely complex and phenomenal — all at the same time — that becomes an extremely tough question to answer.

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The first Black POTUS has always been considered the holy grail of African American achievements.  Most of us didn’t think we’d have a Black president for another 100 years.  We also didn’t consider the fact that the first Black president could have easily been a Republican (Former Secretary of State Colin Powell). Yet here we are, with some of us having more access to power than we’ve ever had before, and it’s turning into a mess.

One of the great challenges of being Black in America is that we sometimes become heavily dependent on our historical oppressors to validate our success.  We forget that the most successful African American on the plantation was not the one who made it into the big house; it was actually the one who escaped.

African Americans contributed heavily to the success of the Obama presidential campaign, but millions of white Americans had to give their stamp of approval before he was allowed into office.  So, to consider the first Black president to be the most accomplished African American in history moves us dangerously close to saying that getting approval from white America somehow makes you into a better human being.

Another thing we must be careful about is comparing Barack Obama to Martin Luther King, Jr. Not that one (a Civil Rights Activist) is better than the other (President of the United States), but in many cases, they are diametrically opposed.  No one can say what the relationship between Dr. King and President Obama would be if King were alive, but given that one of them (Dr. King) spoke endlessly about the ills of poverty, militarism and racial inequality, it’s not hard to imagine that the two might be at odds with one another.

A final area in which the Obama presidency has made its impact on Black history is through the tremendous divide that has been created in Black leadership.  The battle between Cornel West and Al Sharpton is both sad and counter-productive, as one man (West) has been marginalized by the administration and the other (Sharpton) has publicly stated that he refuses to say anything critical about the president (a promise that has never been made by any civil rights activist with access to the White House).

Both of these men have been politically neutered, as we live in a nation that refuses to listen to West and has simultaneously sought to control the voice of Sharpton.   If a man leaves his wife to date her sister, the sisters should not be fighting one another.  More plainly, Sharpton and West should be standing together, not battling one another as the White House sits without accountability for its actions.  Both men should be presenting a Black agenda to the president that is offered in exchange for their endorsements.  If the first job is to get Obama into office, then the second job should be pushing the administration to act on behalf of our community.

Obama is certainly an important part of Black history; we all know that.  But his presidency tells us more about our future than anything.  Similar to the Malcolm/Martin divide during integration, we are being invited to sit at important tables, as long as we are willing to eat the scraps.  We must be smarter now than we were 50 years ago, when we formed deep partnerships with our oppressors without stating our conditions in advance.

Black history is made, at least in part, by advances in the fight against racial inequality; so, racial inequality must be a consistent part of the national conversation to allow President Obama an opportunity to make more than a symbolic contribution to African American history.   Being a Black man in the big house is a wonderful thing, but it matters more that we get off the plantation.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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