Faces at the Bottom of the Presidency

The first chapter of Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell “Racial Symbols: A Limited Legacy” really resonated with me because it brings up a lot of points that I make when I discuss President Obama with my relatives. I have one uncle who, whenever anyone in the family brings up a problem related to anything from politics to the economy to simply the amount of traffic in the city where we live, teasingly responds, “I don’t care. Do you know why? We have a black president!” Another relative responds to any criticism of Obama with “All that [the criticism] is overweighed by the fact that now little black boys on the Southside of Chicago have a role model to look up to.”
Sometimes their attitudes make me wonder how many black people really meant it when we echoed Martin Luther King Jr.’s saying that “None is free until all are free.” Maybe we were just kidding. Maybe we only care about our freedom and don’t care about Palestinians being displaced, Iraqi civilians dying, or people suffering from neo-imperialism in Latin America if the person in charge of all that suffering is Black. Is symbolism superior to substance? Was Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream the symbol of a black individual in America’s highest office or a radical revolution of the masses that transcended race and even nation? (And is the presidency indeed our highest office? It seems to me that black leaders from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X have always had a higher office – that of prophet.)
Sometimes I argue that the day before Obama went into office black people owned one half a percent of the wealth in America and the day after he leaves we’ll still have one half a percent, and if we content ourselves with symbols over substance America will give us ten more black presidents in a row so that we’ll be distracted from having only half a percent of the wealth.
And yet, even while I argue against being swayed by the symbolism of Obama, I have a reverence for the signifying power of melanin. The reason the world was so happy when Obama was elected was because people know black people have generally been on the side of justice. There’s a reason people all over the world adapt hip hop to their own struggles. I love that when I traveled one of the countries most remote from America, Mongolia, nomads were familiar with and complimented me on the Civil Rights movement. I DON’T want my melanin to be Imperialism’s New Clothes. I don’t want my melanin to be tarnished by Obama’s warmongering, Colin Powell’s coup of President Aristide, or Susan Rice’s pandering to Israeli settlers. If there is a symbolism black people should be invested in, it’s the one born of our reputation for moral courage.