Jean McGianni Celestin is a writer who focuses on the intersection of race with culture, sports and politics. Follow him @LiberatedKing.
Barack Obama’s reflections on Trayvon Martin marked a singular moment in the history of the American presidency. For the first time since his ascent as a political icon, the president spoke about America’s race problem with unflinching honesty. It was the kind of straightforwardness about racism that many black people long to voice on a daily basis, and on Friday, Obama echoed it in resounding personal tone.
“You know,” said the president, “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. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
The poignancy of his statement reminded those who wanted to forget that the deck is still stacked against blacks in this country, and Martin’s shooting-death in Sanford, Fla. is another grave example of how it applies.
“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store,” he continued. “That includes me.”
Looking back, had Obama been as clear and unambiguous about racism in the beginning of his prominence as he was behind that podium, there would be little room for the dissenting voices who claim that he hasn’t done enough for the black community as commander in chief. His perceived detachment to the race issue might have been forgiven or, at least, allowed space to tread as political choreography. Instead, the criticism has persisted in the four and a half years he’s been in office, and his dismal record on black unemployment, the usage of drones (particularly in Africa), Guantanamo and the warrantless surveillance of American citizens gave them reason to surge.
In light of his recent candor, those voices are still vital; if not more now than ever before. They oblige black people to look at the bigger picture and compel them to ask, for instance, how can Obama mourn Trayvon Martin’s death while openly endorsing the architect of the most robust practice in the criminalization of young black men like Martin for a cabinet post that would give the practice national oxygen?
And what does it mean for Obama to relate to the black experience of being marginalized while presiding over the hunt of one of Black America’s greatest freedom fighters, Assata Shakur?
Earlier this year, the FBI added the 65-year-old former political prisoner to its list of Most Wanted Terrorists. So what does one do with those “Hands Off Assata” t-shirts now?
Do we burn them? Or do we require Obama to look in the mirror and see how those measures defeat the painful narrative he presented on our behalf?
The ramifications of giving him a pass on any of these questions are more fatal than what we gained from his contribution to the national dialogue.
Personally, I’ve always wanted to root for Barack Obama. He is a black man navigating through rough currents in a wider body of shark-infested water than any of us have ever swam in. So I always find myself wanting to defend him in the midst of the blunt hatred he’s been subjected to since his 2008 election. But the political process is a blood-sport that has real life consequences, so I always have to keep Obama in proper context.
He’s a politician before and after all; skilled in shaping perspective and in walking the tightrope between who he might be and who he wants the world to see him as.
For some, his presidency is an allegory for adjusting to the system rather than fighting it. But even with those conflicts in mind, I’ve always expected these moments of clarity from him. I’ve always hoped for junctures when his black skin isn’t too thick and his proximity to the hood isn’t too far to acknowledge black pain in a way that doesn’t blame us for it.
Perhaps this is a turning-point in the relationship we have with what’s left of him in the White House. By speaking on Trayvon Martin, President Obama inadvertently extended an olive branch for us to hold his feet to the fire. And if we are wise, we will use it as warrant to judge him by his deeds rather than his words. If we are savvy, we will apply it as a license to get what we want out of the system―even if those things are provisional.
For what it’s worth, Tavis Smiley might have encapsulated the president’s remarks best when he tweeted: “Race is not a personal reality, race is a political reality.”
That is to say it is okay to applaud Barack Obama for speaking up about race this time, but as a community, we must get to a place where we hold him accountable for transforming his words into action.
This is perhaps a new frontier with the president.
May we embark on it more wisely than we did in his first term.