“You could be President of the United States one day.” Did anyone ever attempt to motivate you by saying something like that to you when you were growing up? As I am preparing this post, I am taking a close look at the image of Mount Rushmore which bears the likeness of four former Presidents of the United States carved in stone. As an American citizen, it is an image that is meant to instill a sense of pride in me, yet, as a black woman called to follow Jesus Christ as my highest leader, it instills a sense of concern in me. In this nation, we worship the democratic imagination of dead white men.
When I was in high school, Condoleezza Rice was the United States Secretary of State. I could relate to her. She was a brilliant and misunderstood black woman who had, since her childhood was driven, talented, and uniquely gifted. I once read an article about her in “O” Magazine that explained her childhood in which she felt ostracized from her peers of all races because of her unusual interests and her introverted nature. I do not attest to having half the intellectual capacity of Condoleezza Rice, but learning more of her story made her a hero of sorts to me. It was not long before folks at church began approaching me, referring to her success. They thought that if a black woman could be Secretary of State in the early 2000s, surely one day I could become President of the United States. It was an odd pipe dream that I didn’t share, and that I certainly do not have now, but I know that many children growing up in the United States are fed the same “dream.” Now being an adult, I understand that dreaming with children is a necessary activity. It keeps them encouraged and believing that they are somebody and will make something of themselves in adulthood. To dream is a sacred art.
Dreaming is sacred. Honesty is sacred too. From the Inauguration of George Washington on April 30, 1789, until the Inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, the presidency of the United States was a position that was filled exclusively by highly educated, mostly able-bodied, publicly heterosexual, white males. Obama was a break from that tradition only insofar as he is nonwhite, or more accurately, he was half nonwhite. Obama represents what America is becoming. Social scientists say that within the next twenty to twenty-five years, we will be a nation of predominately nonwhite folks. I wonder what that will mean for the high office of the presidency of the United States. I wonder what the racial mixing of America will mean for whiteness. Once upon a time (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) when folks from Ireland, Italy, and other European nations began descending upon the United States in larger numbers, the terms of the American category called “whiteness” began to shift to accommodate them. It was a nationalist project that has been largely successful. But, to return to the subject of the presidency, after our eight years of slight deviance from the status quo, this past January, we witnessed the inauguration of a man who more than exemplifies that we have returned to business as usual (pun intended). I often hear folks critiquing Trump’s presidential behavior, or lack thereof, but I think we are experiencing historical amnesia. Former President George W. Bush publicly struggled with the press. Many former presidents were involved in personal scandals. Many former presidents allowed business to take precedence over national security. Many former presidents were openly racist, homophobic, nationalist, and xenophobic. President Trump is, in many ways, an accurate description of where this nation is ideologically.
But, in some ways (not all) President Obama was a brief reprieve from our typical president, if only in the way that he publicly behaves himself. In 2009, when Obama became President of the United States, I felt empowered that perhaps, I really could do anything. Despite all the limits I had seen black womanhood place on the potential of my foremothers living in the Americas, many of those limits had been removed. Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office, and the presence of wife, Michelle, made the myth of the American Dream feel less mythic. Yet, the rendering of the myth less mythic does not mean that it is no longer a myth.
Do you remember then junior senator, Barack Obama’s 2004 Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention? Obama made several statements in his speech that are worth further consideration because of the questions they raise about the potential of interracial relationships, racism in America, and what the history of this nation means that we have the potential to become. Let’s do a close reading of that famous speech.
First, let’s hone in on the “improbable love” Obama says that his parents shared. Indeed, that love could accurately be described as more than improbable. Their love was illegal according to national law which did not legalize interracial unions until 1967, Obama was born in 1961. In some ways, Obama’s birth was an impossibility, not only because of the laws of the day, but also because of the culture. Obama’s father was a brilliant young man from Kenya who fell in love with a white woman from Kansas while on a scholarship to study in the United States. They couldn’t be further apart culturally, but Obama shares with the audience that his parents were united in their love of America and the possibilities it could offer, so they gave him an African name, Barack, which means “blessed” because “in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success.” Perhaps when reading a sentence that is so patently false for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are refused interviews based on internalized biases about names, we must rely on the word Obama uses to modify America, “tolerant.”
Second, let’s hone in on what Obama calls America’s “faith.” He describes the “true genius” of America as “a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted.” He does clarify that last part of this statement to note that it is true “most of the time,” however, many of the things he is describing, while true, do have a price, especially for the very poor and for people of color. There are still too many children in this nation who go to bed starving. Too many children in this nation because of their sexuality can find no safe place to live. Too many children are mis-educated and undereducated. The current President does make journalists fear about writing what they think. In last week’s press conference, the tone he took with the journalists in the room made them feel that instead of being truth tellers for the people, they must write, speak, and believe the administration’s truth or else be silent. While this “faith” in America is indeed something we are taught to have, the faith has failed us far too often.
Then, Obama’s tone shifts. It is as though he suddenly tires of peddling the myth. He calls upon American government to be better because the people need it to be. He does say that American people are willing to work hard but that America needs to live up to its promises. He names the problem, that children who “have the grades” cannot afford to attend college. Obama explains that his party’s nominee for the presidency, John Kerry, was the man who would help the American people.
Then, Obama gives his definition of America. He explains that, “it's not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people . . . It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: "E pluribus unum," out of many, one.” Obama explains that if there is a child on the Southside of Chicago who cannot read, it matters to him although it is not his child, if there is a senior citizen who must choose whether to pay for food and rent or medication it matters to him although it is not his grandparent, and if there is an Arab-American family whose civil liberties are being curtailed it is also a curtailment of his civil liberties. His assertion of our deep interconnectedness is a theme of The Holy Bible as well. It is what Jesus is teaching when in Matthew 25, He explains that whenever we have done something good “for the least of these” we have also done it for Him. Obama’s language here is aspirational. It is the sentiment we have seen expressed in the past weeks among those who have taken to the streets to protest the curtailment of the rights of folks they have never met. It is a holy calling to consider harm done to anyone as harm that has been done to us.
Finally, Obama moves us into the language of hope that he is now famous for using in his successful run for the presidency in 2008. Obama encouraged his listeners to have a politics of hope. He said, “It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.” Hope. I agree with Obama that we are called to hope. I agree with Obama that hope is substantial and life-changing. We must hope. Yet, I approach with reservation the specific characters Obama inserts into his legacy of hope. What is the connection between the enslaved person singing freedom songs, the immigrant choosing to travel to the United States in hopes of a better life, the naval lieutenant on an imperial mission, the millworker’s son, and the skinny kid with the funny name? Indeed, they all are American. They are all part of the story that makes us who we are. They all are part of the successes and failures of the American project. They all are interconnected in the most spiritual sense of the term. They all, I trust, had dreams and their dreams mattered. But, I don’t think that everyone thought their lives mattered, or at least that anyone believed their lives mattered equally. History is filled with successes and with failures. We should be honest about both the successes and failures of history and we don’t need to get too sentimental about it.
Let’s make our present and future better. Your dreams are sacred and so is your truth. Let’s force the best out of our leaders, but let’s also remember that we belong to God, and belonging to God gives us unexplainable power. With the help of God, we can, and we will. See you next Monday.