Adapted from “What’s Wrong with Obamamania?”
(due June 2008 from SUNY Press)
On Jan. 3, practice ends and the real game begins. As Americans vote in obviously historic primaries, questions are begged. “What do we want and why?” The candidacy of Barack Obama, the first serious black presidential contender, certainly prompts these and other queries.
I do not know if Obama will ultimately be a great or poor leader. I do know that we currently have a bad crop of black leaders. They maintain their positions largely because of suffering itself. It is a dismal cycle. Racial hegemony creates black suffering; black suffering prompts perceptions of insurmountable disempowerment; disempowerment breeds dependence; dependence often fosters weakness; and weakness enables the continuance of oppression and domination. This interaction lowers us all over time.
The fact that overly dependent masses often find comfort in ignorance and never take an active role in struggles to better their worlds plagues leaders with decent intent. Power and position often seduce some of these leaders, and they lose their way, but the rare ones who stay the course are inevitably susceptible to loneliness, burnout and easy targeting by opponents.
Abusive leaders, on the other hand, use collective weakness bred by dependency for their own gain. This is the path set upon by many of today’s black leaders. Though masked by rhetoric of justice and healing, financial gain is their end-goal. Their influence rests firmly upon the reification among the masses that a satisfactory future requires a return to an idealized past — a past that, in fact, never existed. To be sure, many in the black community mythologize the past as a time everyone was involved in struggle and a few leaders and organizations single-handedly “led us to freedom.” Others extend this pattern to idealizing segregation, the strength of racial purity and even Africa. Of course, these beliefs are flawed, but the actual historical facts do not matter.
Admittedly, representative democracy, by its very nature, demands a certain level of dependency among its citizenry. It relies on elected officials in particular and other public leaders in general. Ideally, the expectation is that citizens know even if they are not able to do — if doing is defined by directly deciding the course of public policy. This is political dependency but not necessarily weakness. However, if citizens degenerate to the point where they neither do nor know, they are not only dependent but also weak and open to manipulation. Manipulated people wedded to past-oriented romanticism are blind to the necessity of developing modern, complex political solutions to complex political problems. Coupled with weak, retrograde leadership, this reality leaves much to be desired in post-civil rights black America. It should come as no surprise that many black people are eager to crown the next Martin King — a new “savior-leader” to remedy their ills. It is an unenviable position, and whether Barack Obama chooses to assume this weight or shun it, there is a price to be paid.
Increasing threats to democratic ideals and liberatory humanization in the United States and beyond make aimless, emotive rants by ministers and professional activists less and less relevant. The focus must be broader, clearer and more inclusive as the American landscape shifts. This means that, even though black folk are comfortable with them, old approaches now must be reexamined, augmented and sometimes discarded. This is a troubling proposition, because it forces us out of familiar zones of comfort. Increasingly, we are in need of people who have skill-sets that move beyond superficial (and often flawed) commentaries on ontological realities and interrogate epistemological reasons behind them. Only then can we grasp new and innovative paradigmatic possibilities that stand greater chances of bringing something more beautiful and just into the world.
We must engage and seek to balance many factors that face us daily: individual cultural debauchery against systemic oppression; the criminality of our youth against the criminalization of our people; the prophetic voices of our holy men against the hubris and nasty exploitation of many of the same; praise of the success of our middle class against oft-encountered vulgar careerism and disdain toward the less fortunate; necessary activism against people who profit from the pain of others.
At his best, Barack Obama may
provide such a balance. At his worst,
he may not even try. In either case,
both he and America will be forced to deal with lofty expectations and the inevitable disappointments they bring. So vote, my friends, but know what you’re voting for.
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