After reading Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop, I immediately picked up The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (released Feb 2016.) This is a bit of an odd book. It has biography, political commentary, social/cultural history, leadership analysis, long commentary on speeches and policy and some politics of the modern African American political and civil rights leadership. More than anything else, this uses Obama as a lens to see what being Black in America means.
So much of The Black Presidency was fascinating, but introduction of the idea of black leadership as either politician or prophet was a new idea for me. Dyson contrasted the traditional two roles, placing Obama squarely in the politician side and much of the frustration with Obama by African Americans as a frustration that he was not in the prophet mold of African American leadership. Obama has gained much from the rhetorical flair of the African American church, and many of his speeches have taken on the cadence of a pastor. But in the end, he has chosen politician, and the corresponding policy work, as his main focus.
The Black Presidency opens with the recounting of a gathering of friends and leaders that were gathered together before the speech in Selma celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma. Dyson, Jessie Jackson, Andrew Young, Al Sharpton sat together in the church office prior to Obama’s speech at Brown Chapel AME Church, three generations of African American Civil Rights leaders. Dyson quotes Young, “Look, there’s a lot on his plate. And he’s got to deal with these crazy forces against him from the right. I think that Obama has done the best he could under the circumstances.” While that might be seen as a thesis statement of sorts for the book, Dyson goes far beyond looking at what is politically possible. Some of Dyson’s critiques are of things that were clearly not politically possible. Or at least, not politically possible along with some of the other political decisions. In the end, I think Dyson is balanced, if not in every critique and praise, at least in the book as a whole, on both the possibility of a Black President and the reality of Obama as a Black President.
There are three other areas that I think particularly White readers will find insight into both Obama and the African American experience. Respectability politics is a phrase that I have increasingly heard used condescendingly from younger African Americans. Dyson works through both the necessity, historically, of respectability politics (the internal policing of African Americans, but also other marginalized groups, to show that their values are mainstream and compatible with the majority values) and the limitations of respectability politics in modern civil rights movement. Dyson talks about Obama as a scold, particularly toward African American men, in ways that he was not with other minority groups. That discussion, particularly for White readers that are unaware of the frustration with Obama by the African American community, it helpful.
I also think that Obama as conservative, while not a major theme of the book, is important. Obama is conservative in may ways: traditional two parent family, staying in Washington after the presidency so his daughter can finish high school, eating dinner together as a family most nights. As a Democrat, it has been surprising to me both the number of conservative think pieces toward the end of Obama’s presidency that paid attention to this and the lack of widespread acknowledgement of his inherent conservatism prior to that.
The end of the book looked at the role of police and policing in Obama’s Presidency and contrasted Obama and Eric Holder as two relationally close, but different types of political leaders. Police and the ongoing tensions between the African American community and police that gave rise to the Black Lives Matters movement will be part of Obama’s legacy as well as his limited ability to do much about the problem. Holder, through the increase in funding and investigative resources of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division was able to bring light (and bring about some change) to the problems within policing in ways that Obama with his bully pulpit was not.
The Black Presidency was published almost exactly one year before the end of Obama’s Presidency. There will be many additional looks at how Obama’s race, his identity as a biracial man, his unique upbringing, the politics of the era and other factors impacted his ability to be President and his perception by Americans. But as an early look, Dyson’s book is well worth picking up.