Cultural Critique / Politics / The Color Line

A Final Word on President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus

President Barack Obama speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus Phoenix Awards banquet on September 24, 2011

The less and less I’ve found myself blogging over the past couple of months, when I do I try and add something new to the conversation.  Something new doesn’t necessarily mean adding something contrary or opposing to what’s already been said, but often times it is and sometimes it’s just taken that way.  But this topic, who knows how it’s really going to be received.

This past weekend, President Barack Obama spoke to the Congressional Black Caucus about various policies and initiatives all of which were tailor made for the specific crowd.  He opened up with a quote from the revered modern Civil Rights-era icon Rev. Joseph Lowery (the same man who gave the benediction at his inauguration in 2009) from a famous biblical passage of the three Hebrew boys who are at the center of the story in Daniel 3.   It was as if Obama was taking a text.  All I was waiting on was a sermon title.

In a speech (not a sermon) shortly over some 23 minutes, he closed if you will, on this call to action for the CBC to “take off [their] bedroom slippers” and put on some “marching boots.”  There was some admonishment to stop grumblin’ and complainin’ as well.  Here’s a clip below:

 

Invoking Martin Luther King and the old modern Civil Rights motif of “the Promised Land” as some ethereal and mystical utopia where humanity lives in harmony, the concept of “stop grumblin’” and “stop complanin’” is a clear enough reference to Moses and the former Hebrew slaves, making that metonymical transition into Israelites.  The story of the Israelites in the wilderness is one of them complaining to no end–complaining to the point that they wished they were back in slavery because at least Pharaoh fed them, but they believed they had been led out to the wilderness to die.  Many times Moses’ conversations with Israelite tribal god of Yahweh was focused around the people complaining to no end.

To which I say, I think President Obama’s speech was on point and to the right audience.

While I agree with Congresswoman Rep. Maxine Waters that Obama would have never said this to another demographic such as the Hispanic/Latino caucus, an LGBT political community or a Jewish community, it’s probably because those demographics aren’t the personification of a “rubber stamp.”

Granted that’s a very, very surface analysis of the situation, but I’m going somewhere with this, so journey with me.

From jump the other demographics don’t have anything of their own demographic represented in the singular personhood of the President which starts complicating this dynamic portrayed between Obama, the CBC and the black community’s subsequent reaction.  But, all of the other demographics have a working political base that’s operates on politics based within the last decade, not the last half century.

 Let’s just be honest, we don’t hear a lot about the CBC on a national level that often.

We can’t trace the hand of the work of the CBC in the last five years.  While yes the individual members may be doing meaningful work in their own districts, as a unified body they are not a force to be reckoned when it comes to being able to influence political thought in an electorate.  When the CBC is imaged by the disgraced Congressman from Harlem, Charlie Rangel or by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee or Rep. Maxine Waters (whom I both like by the way) what most in the black community see is the old guard, still stuck in a political era long gone.  For what it’s worth, it says a lot that Barack Obama ran against Rep. Bobby Rush in Illinois, lost, only to win the U.S. Senate seat and finally the Presidency.

And where is Bobby Rush?

I don’t know.  When I voted in 2010, I thought that was one of the most depressing ballots I casted.  I honestly couldn’t point to something Bobby Rush had meaningfully done for our district in all my life–at least nothing beyond the status quo.

It also needs to be said that complaining does not equal meaningful discussion.  I’m not against talk if it’s talk that’s moving us forward, pushing our minds, pulling us toward challenging our embedded political philosophies–but talk, for the sake of talk somewhat equals complaining.  With recent events such as the Troy Davis execution and recently hearing about possible voting rights violations in Texas, one is wondering where is the civil rights outcry?  Instead our organizations that have historically done this well such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have become reactionary rather than controlling the rhetoric and being proactive in their fight.

Granted reactionary politics, showing up a day late and a dollar short has come to categorize the nature of liberal politics in America in general in the age of neo-conservatism that we’ve seen since Bush II administration, it still doesn’t absolve one from finding refuge in the reactionary and solace in being go-along-to-get-along types.  Prior to the jobs move that the CBC launched this past summer, I would be hard pressed to think of an instance where their name was attached to an independent initiative that had national ramifications.  Truth be told, I think they were just riding the wave of anti-Obama sentiments that had been kicked off by the rather public disagreements amongst the academic Negro intellectuals namely Melissa Harris-Perry and Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, but perhaps that’s for another blog post.

Nevertheless, what I saw in Obama’s speech amounted to a coach lighting a fire under the butts of a team that might have been the underdog going into the big game.  What baffles me about the nature of being black and being political is that often times we use the exceptionalism card when we it’s to our advantage and we reject it when it forces us to look in the mirror at our own actions.  Many blacks have been complaining the whole summer about Obama isn’t black enough. [ I think some of this was thanks to Cornel West’s observation that Obama was a “black mascot” and that Obama had a fear of “free black men” combined with a comment that “he {Obama} feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men…”]  And it reignited the same questions about ontological blackness that we’re no closer to ending than we were before we elected Obama than we were at the beginning of the 20th century when DuBois so famously remarked about the nature of the “color line.”

Given Obama’s hesitation to make appearances at decidedly black functions in the 2008 campaign season and his pitiably few appearances at decidedly black functions even now, I was just happy that it was getting significant press coverage that he was speaking at the CBC.  But the nature of being black and the nuanced relationship of politics behind just being black in this country gives many blacks the privilege, for lack of a better word, to move back and forth between exceptionalism.

Case in point, Obama’s speech with the CBC.

For what it’s worth, the CBC could have found themselves in a position to complain either way.  If Obama had given a straight laced speech, Rep. Waters might have very well ended up saying complaining that Obama didn’t connect well with the room and the larger national audience.  And the blogosphere would have lit up saying Obama wasn’t black enough.  But, since Obama did his damnedest to connect with the room and a larger black national audience, we’re essentially saying that Obama came off as too familiar with us.  Bottom line is that Obama didn’t have this tone with the other demographics because he’s not a member of the other demographics–which is what I said at the beginning of this.

When it comes to organizations that have their roots directly tied to the modern Civil Rights struggle in this country, understanding this political exceptionalism that blacks sometimes help themselves to is rather difficult.  The younger black generation recognizes it much easier.  No, this is not some roundabout way of me talking about reverse racism, but exactly what I’m calling it: political exceptionalism.

Somehow I think Obama knew this which is why he called on the people to stop grumblin’.

Beyond ALL of this, why are we fixated on one line of a 25 minute speech?  Isn’t this what we defended his former pastor about in 2008?  A handful of quotes and soundbytes out of a 40-plus year preaching career?  And why, just why are we defending the CBC’s right to participate in one of the most pedestrian and banal exercises of one’s First Amendment right–the right to complain and grumble?  Shouldn’t we at least aspire to be known as more than that?

In retrospect, Rep. Waters should have known better, that was red meat being thrown out by the mainstream media and she went for it.  For the last couple of days, that was the media cycle about Obama’s complaint about the complainers, who in turn complained about his complaining.  No one is talking about the context of his speech, but we’re discussing the very, very superficial aspects of it–who’s winning now?

If I can see this, surely the people who do this for a living can.  C’mon people, wake up.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

P.S.  Happy Birthday to Mama Uppity

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4 thoughts on “A Final Word on President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus

  1. Hey Uppity, thank you for the gift of this uppity explanation of POTUS and the CBC–it is on point and it needed to be said and you did it well.

    Onward toward the mark of a higher calling–for those of us who soldier on and who are not weary in well doing.

    Bless you on your journey…write on, keeping it uppity.

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