Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An exploration of hope in better days

In this season of discontent with President Obama, it almost seems pointless to write about William Jelani Cobb's The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, published this year. Cobb, an associate professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta, explores what electing a Black American meant in 2008 and speculates a little about what this improbable achievement might mean going forward. I found the book a great reminder of much that the normalizing (and demeaning) of a Black family in White House had enabled me to forget.

Some conclusions first -- Professor Cobb was never under any illusion that Obama's election somehow meant the end of U.S. racism.

The historian David Levering Lewis told me after the election, "Of course race mattered in this election -- it just happened to matter in a good way." ... In 2002 reporters asked Denzel Washington what it meant for three African Americans to be in contention for Academy Awards in the same year. He replied, "It means that three African Americans are in contention for Academy Awards in the same year." I am tempted to answer the question about the meaning of a black presidency with the same terms: It means that the president is black. And anything beyond that will be left for time to tell.

... He is a president, not an antidote. We are not postracial; we are not postpartisan. We are American, with all the unwieldy, contradictory implications of that identity. The paradoxes are ours to assume; Barack Obama is simply a man and a president. His election is best understood as a passing respite, a brief moment of rest before it falls to us to once again turn our shoulder to the wheel of history.

That said, Cobb reminds the reader of the sheer improbability of the election of 2008.

The truth is that none of us really know how it happened. But the more compelling question is why Obama thought it possible in the first place. In a season in which historic developments seemed to occur almost weekly, the first and possibly greatest accomplishment of Obama and his team was their recognition that the political climate offered a path to victory.

Yup, that's where the audacity was located. Having dared to imagine a successful campaign, Obama and his people enjoyed astonishing luck (luck that seems to have run out now that he's in office). If the rest of us understood what happened in a mistaken way, it was that we underestimated the role of extraordinary and unearned good fortune that broke Obama's way -- a combination of G.W. Bush's extreme unpopularity, a financial crisis breaking in mid-season, and John McCain's entirely ham-handed campaign.

Cobb tackles the touchy aspects of Obama's rise, including his complex relationship with other African American leaders.

The most amazing development of the election cycle was not that a black candidate became a viable contender for the presidency, but that he received virtually no support from the civil rights-era leaders whose sacrifices made his campaign possible. Black America's "greatest generation" had made their momentous achievements in creating a new social landscape, but as the Iowa returns rolled in, their leadership mandate expired dramatically.

He plumbs the difficult issues the Obama family "brand" threw up for Black America.

The decline of the American family has been widely studied for decades, and no particular set of people is designated to shoulder its burden. But among black people every failed relationship becomes statistical grist, a data point in a broader indictment, to be examined in excruciatingly public detail. In America at large broken families are not autopsied; in black America they are given open-casket scrutiny.

In that context the Obamas appeared to represent a mythical ideal of "black love," one that has been a mainstay of magazines like Essence and Ebony and the ballast of Afrocentric poetry for ages. It was most immediately visible after the two shared dap in Minnesota, after Obama formally won the Democratic nomination. I saw that brief meeting of fists at a campaign event surrounded by an overwhelmingly African-American crowd. The gesture registered with them immediately -- they needed no pop culture interpreter to explain its meaning. It said to those arrayed around a massive flatscreen -- and those watching around the world that Michelle Obama was not only his wife but also his teammate and collaborator, his homegirl.

This is dangerous territory, akin to exposing the family secrets, but Cobb goes there.

I've quoted a lot here simply because I know of no other way to interest potential readers in a book that it is all too easy to dismiss as a quickly outdated peon to a man and a moment that seem to be fading even from out memories. Hope is battered these days, apparently dead or dying. But a pretty "big fucking deal" (thanks, Joe Biden) happened in the election of 2008, and even as hope withers, it is still worth trying to understand and appreciate it. Professor Cobb has done his part.

1 comment:

Don said...

I have plenty of hope. I hope Obama faces a bare-knuckled primary challenge from the left in 2012, AND a third-party left candidate in the general election. I hope all the liberals who were hoodwinked by him in 2008 support those challengers. I hope the right of habeas corpus is restored by 2013.

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