Restoring Blackness: Obama’s Commentary on Trayvon Martin

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Trayvon Martin case in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2013.      REUTERS/Larry Downing  (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Trayvon Martin case in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS)

I began to pen this less than one hour after the press conference occurred.

Apparently the president of the United States, Barack Obama appeared at a regular press briefing held by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, and fielded one question surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin and the verdict in the George Zimmerman case and took his talking points and spoke at length for about 20 minutes.

Obama spoke about the courage that it took for Trayvon’s parents to withstand and endure the death of their son and the subsequent trial.  Obama seemed to go into lawyer mode and gave the standard corollary about this is how the system works, and their was no impartiality on the jurors or the judge so on and so forth.  But Obama turned a corner when he said “Let me put some context to this,” and what ensued in the next twenty minutes was nothing short of historic.  Historic on the level that Melissa Harris Perry compared this press conference to the presidential statement the John F. Kennedy gave following the images of “Bull” Connor releasing fire hoses and attack dogs on teenage and young adult protesters in Kelly Park in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

The line that will ring out in history was Obama saying “when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.”  For one of the few times in Obama’s presidency did we see his race intersect immediately with the political and social climate of the day and do so poignantly!

Obama has sent out dog whistles to the black community from the moment he announced his candidacy and has at times let his blackness as we see it shine through like a diamond in the rough, but aside from his Philadelphia speech prior to his tenure as president, we haven’t experienced him comment so directly and so keenly on race and stand smack dab at that crossroads.  The comment about if he had a son, and identified Trayvon as a typical average black teenager caused enough firestorm and some on the right felt he should not have commented at all.  However today, not only did Obama reiterate his sentiments, but surpassed familial identification of Trayvon Martin, but said 35 years ago it could have been him.

And he’s right.

young-obama-smokingDespite the privileges he did have growing up in Hawai’i, going to school in the South Pacific, and even getting an Ivy League education, if Obama was walking down the street, alone or even with other males of color, he would be a perfect candidate for racial profiling solely based on the color of his skin.  Perhaps its this lived experienced of those having skin with this much melanin will never offer enough proximate truths so that those who are not as melanin infused will ever be able to understand exactly where we are coming from and why we say what we say and why we think what we think.

Obama spoke of his own racial profiling experiences all of which I’m sure every black man listening over the age of 12 has suffered at one point or another.  From a white woman clutching her purse in an elevator, or crossing the street entirely from you or shifting the purse to the other arm, looking straight forward and never making eye contact, to hearing car doors suddenly click shut because you’re walking toward them to most certainly being followed by a store security because you fit the indiscriminate profile of being young, black and male at the same time.  This plight of black maleness removes us from being men but reduced to our genitalia and criminalized because of our gender.

And Obama still kept talking.

Rather than take the opportunity to speak about black on black crime in the context of pushing black male responsibility, he spoke to the systematic woes that plague our society and used his personal experiences to illuminate the contextual prism in which many in the black community responded to the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman.  Obama had no problem posing what if Trayvon Martin had been white that the outcome and aftermath would be different.

And Obama still wasn’t finished.

What Obama did in the close of his remarks in his last talking point was something remarkable, and it was even more remarkable coming from the President, and from the president who decided to be is black today: Obama restored the humanity and the blackness of African American men today.

I’ll be honest, my immediate knee jerk reactions after the verdict was read were nothing short of loss. I’ll admit I had some emotional stake in this case unlike the countless other news stories I hear, but I actually shed a real tear the first time I heard the 911 tape in the spring of last year when the protests were mounting calling for Zimmerman’s arrest.  It was this visceral moment that not only do we have the problem in our own community with black men killing other black men, but a white man (we weren’t aware of Zimmerman’s mixed race background) can kill a black kid, from what appears to be from racial profiling, and not even be arrested?  So, yes I shed a tear.

To hear Zimmerman go free was yet again another blow to my me ness, my blackness, my maleness and my manhood: that yet again, this country does not value the life of a young black male.  Than Obama said the following:

We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys.  And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about.  There are a lot of kids out there who need help, who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement.  And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them, and values them, and is willing to invest in them.

…for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out, how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that — and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.  You know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was, obviously, a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

Obama has gotten flak his entire presidency and even before his presidency for his approach to bringing up race as it relates to his position of power.  Obama received major criticism for skipping Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union in 2008 as he was running for office, and we can recall that Obama didn’t attend NAACP events that other presidential candidates attended.  Even just last year Mitt Romney spoke at the national NAACP convention, and the Obama camp cited a scheduling conflict as to why he skipped.  Rarely if ever has this president spoken plainly on race (in his defense nor have most in the past either), his cabinet isn’t the epitome of racial diversity and above all, we haven’t seen legislation nor policies pushed from the White House that were clear nods to the African American community.

Clearly Obama is a champion of progressive factions within the Latino community, such as the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor and the signing of the Dream Act, and has come out in full support of same sex marriage, but where are comparable direct policies that would positively affect the blacks in this country the way the Dream Act would help Latino immigrants and support of same sex laws directly affects the LGBTQ community?  While acknowledging that as a country we need to do better with young black men isn’t a push for direct and correlated policy and legislation, it definitely is a step in the right direction.  It speaks volumes for this president to have said it as a sitting president.

black-male-studying-1To say what he said under the full power of the United States office of the President in and of itself is monumental.  The last time that black men in this country received such direct and pointed acknowledgement of both their humanity and their blackness was when black men were allowed the right to vote under the 15th Amendment.  The only reason I say this is because women weren’t allowed to vote, thereby the voting right the 15th amendment was granted was only extended to black men.  All other times when presidents and Congress spoke about issues surrounding race, it was most certainly inclusive as it well should have been.  But, in this moment the president, of these sometimes United States actually had no problem saying we need to value their lives.  Or better yet, my life needs to be collectively valued in this country.

What’s very interesting is that in the course of writing this, #BlackTwitter is all abuzz over the quick series of tweets that Tavis Smiley tweeted very shortly after Obama concluded his conference asking Obama to still go further and accusing him of “kicking the can down the road” when it came to doing something meaningful surrounding race and racism in this country.  I’ve seen tweets from full disavowal to even comparing Tavis to that of Clarence Thomas which is just laughable.  I’ve long since been a Tavis apologist and I make no bones about supporting and usually agreeing with the heart of the message Tavis puts out on a consistent basis.  But, I think it’s interesting that just this week, following the George Zimmerman verdict that Tavis made the comment that “America holds black men in contempt” and it was a claim that was vigorously dismissed by Bill O’Reilly and shied away from by George Stephanopoulous.

I think what not be missed in Obama’s restoring blackness is that he did so not by talking to us, or at us, but by talking about us to white America.  Usually these moments of racial call to consciousness that we saw surrounding Jeremiah Wright or his elections or him speaking in front of an all black audience, Obama usually tends to trot out his “personal responsibility” speech that leaves the audience offering the polite golf clap, but nothing that really shakes the foundations.  It’s usually a preaching to the choir because he’s usually talking to people who are working and middle class, not our brothers out on the street living out d-boy and hood dreams.

Instead, he turned away from black America by saying “I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”

He began to speak for us!

Obama hits two refrains to make sure that he’s not talking down to blacks or talking at them by saying “The African American community is also knowledgeable that…” and “Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that….”  For the first time, President Obama fully engaged in the DuBoisian concept of double consciousness, shed the specter that we live in a post-racial society and presented himself as simply Barack–a black man.

I don’t want to engage in hyperbole and say that Obama transcended anything, but I don’t want to miss the fact that what he said was him standing unashamedly as a black man.  I just hope that whites who normally shy away from this conversation, will listen to what we have to say and simply accept it as our truth.  

Reconciliation will not take place on the terms of the oppressor, but rather on the term of those who have suffered systemically because of that oppression.  Whites in this country’s privilege of not acknowledging and just plainly denying the long lasting effects of racism are rendered null and void after today.  After beginning to read Erik Rush’s black conservative treatise on race called Negrophilia and listening to flecks of conservative talk radio today after Obama’s speech, I am seeing why seeds of black nationalism and separatism can find purchase among blacks because the rhetoric from the other side constantly places the onus of repairing the wrongs of slavery, of racism and race relations on the backsides of those who have suffered the most because of it.  The failure of those white and black Americans who believe blacks need to “get over it” and accuse the likes of Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as “race baiting” are the epitome of what’s wrong with this country when discussing race: failure to acknowledge the hurt and pain from those who have suffered.

Until white Americans in power in this country decide to listen and acknowledge the hurt, the pain caused by the social inequities, the economic disparities, the legal irregularities no speech by anyone, including the president  all must be reconciled on the terms of those who have suffered because of them we will never move forward as a country.  However, we know through history that sitting around waiting for benevolent white masters to suddenly have a change of conscious is ridiculous and unrealistic; change clearly does not roll on the wheels of inevitability.  The white Americans that choose to adhere doggedly to such a narrow understanding of race, only as they see it today do more damage to race relation than Jesse Jackson and his Hymietown reference from 25 years ago.  Rather than move to the place where the oppressed and suppressed reside, the true racist attitude is expecting the marginalized to move to the center at their own expense to appease the feelings, uncomfortable emotions and trite sensibilities of those who already comfortably reside in the center.

How dare you.

Tonight, as I lay my head to pillow, I will take comfort in the fact that my president, and this president of the United States, restored my blackness after it had been called into question after the George Zimmerman verdict.  I will sleep a bit easier tonight because my president, and this president of the United States took the time to tell the country that as a young African American, Black and Negro young man is worth being valued in the sight of this country.

I will rest well tonight because he said it, and there’s no white racist attitude in hell on earth that can undo what he said.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL


4 thoughts on “Restoring Blackness: Obama’s Commentary on Trayvon Martin

  1. Absolutely eloquent reflection on President Obama’s statements on Trayvon Martin and the ‘not guilty’ (though not innocent) verdict of George Zimmerman though he gunned down a teen-aged (16 years + 21 days) black boy-child of his parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracey Martin.

    Trayvon Martin should not be held complicit (guilty) in his own murder at the bloody hands of George Zimmerman.

    Thank you Uppity for your insightful word-thoughts on ‘racism,’ America’s birth defect (h/t Condoleezza Rice) for such a time as this.

    1. Oops, did not watch the TYT (Cenk Uygur) video before responding; excellent pertinent video clip of the Tavis Smiley interview on the Bill O’Reilly show re Trayvon Martin legal injustice.

      Thanks, Uppity, would have probably missed the TYT clip.

  2. Good talk.

    I am not a fan of Tavis Smiley; however, I think he always makes good points. I think we, in the Black community have to be aware of the fact that President Obama is a politician and Tavis Smiley is a public figure/activist. The two operate completely different spaces and are held to completely different standards. Because of this President Obama cannot afford to go some emotional rant about Black people. He is the president if The United States (which includes more than Black people). So I found the president’s statement to be powerful in that he attempted to use his position and influence (as much as he could) to force the country to address certain issues and begin a conversation in spite of knowing that the right wing pundutsvwere going to criticize him (as they have) and twist his statements. What he didn’t want to do is begin that conversation and allow it to be consumed by political signifying and grandstanding debates where change would not be the motivating factor.

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