Message to the People - Exploring Obamamania

Jun 25, 2008 at 10:25 am

My latest book, “What’s Wrong with Obamamania?: Black America, Black Leadership, and the Death of Political Imagination,” made its way to book stores and Internet sellers last week. The pre-release buzz and national reviews have been very exciting for me. It’s always flattering when people you may never meet evaluate your work and use terms like “fascinating” and “compelling.” Beyond the ego boost (which we all need from time
to time), I really believe this is an important book at an important time.

Of course, the first question interviewers and potential readers ask is, “So, what is wrong with Obamamania?” Obama supporters often ask it with a modicum of aggression and anger. (Ironically, their oft-encountered aversion to asking and being questioned is definitely one thing wrong with Obamamania.) I spend more than 150 pages in the book (including a great preface by U of L Arts and Sciences Dean J. Blaine Hudson) addressing that and other issues, but necessarily provide abbreviated answers for other inquiring minds. 

First of all, there is a reason the title of the book is “What’s Wrong with Obamamania” and not “What’s Wrong with Barack Obama” (though that question is certainly engaged). Obamamania is a largely emotive phenomenon that has both good and bad consequences. On the good side, Obama and the movement that follows him have motivated unprecedented numbers of new voters (especially young folk) to get involved in the political process. This cannot be overemphasized.

Obama’s candidacy also provides another opportunity for us to see how stale, nasty and unproductive American politics (and politicians) can be. To be sure, he has ridden the wave of “change” to a largely unforeseen victory in capturing the Democratic presidential nomination, and change is definitely needed. He has rightfully accentuated many Americans’ disgust with politics as usual. The question now is, can he deliver on the change promises if elected? 

One change is his style — at least on its face. As is often cited by his supporters, Obama does speak with a different political voice. I’ll let you in on a secret, though — black folk are used to that voice. They hear it every Sunday morning from pulpits across the country. Obama has simply been able to transfer the rhetorical dynamism and flourishes of black ministers to the political arena. Where do you think the emotion and fainting at rallies comes from? I digress. 

I think there are at least three major things very wrong with Obamamania (more are covered in the book). One, the phenomenon allows for an emotional and often irrational environment in which Obama’s supporters and critics evaluate him in sometimes immature and unrealistically bifurcated terms. Many of his supporters have built him up as a veritable political messiah. Some of his critics have gone so far as to literally cast him as some type of Manchurian candidate (as one recent book does) with terrorist leanings and affiliations. Neither of these approaches is healthy. 

Secondly, Obamamania is largely ahistorical and does not allow for proper contextualization of Obama as a candidate or leader on America’s historical sociopolitical landscape. When one considers great Americans from Abraham Lincoln to Adam Clayton Powell Jr., W.E.B. DuBois to Charles Hamilton Houston, Martin Luther King Jr. to Shirley Chisholm — how does Obama fit in? What does this historical moment mean? How did it come about? And where do we go from here? 

Finally, specific to a still suffering black population — will support of Obama translate to real-world attempts to speak to black poverty, disproportionate incarceration, undereducation, unemployment, political disenfranchisement, etc., in a different, more serious way? To date, many black folk have certainly invested more in “hope” than a real Obama track record on these issues since his entrée into politics. For black people who have invested their political imaginations in him, is he the “spook who sat by the door” or business as usual in a different package? Only time will tell. 

“What’s Wrong with Obamamania?” raises these and other issues in an effort to ultimately prompt readers to do what I’ve been trying to make them do my entire career — think. I hope you all will give it a read.

Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools. 

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