President Obama has to be one of the bravest people I know. Because there’s only two ways you go out there day after day in that job, taking all the shit he does from lay people, know-it-alls, assholes, racists, and professional pundits, and not once break stride or brain—you’re either brave, or you don’t give a shit. And Mr. Obama does not strike me as a person who doesn’t care.
Of course, I’ve heard everyone else’s definition of how this president appears to be. I’ve heard all the endless speculations about what he should say in a speech or debate, or what he should do in his authority as president. When he doesn’t say or do what people want, he becomes a caricature of their imagination—one where he lacks fortitude, or should have been John Shaft, or one of the Untouchables, or whatever.
I’d be lying if I said that none of this bothers me, because it has, and it does. I guess because as I look to this president as an example, a role model of the kind of person I’d like to be; that people take him and try to make him into something or someone he’s not bothers me. I feel like if they can do that to him, what can they do to me? What do I become to people when I fall short of their standards? Or do I already know?
The way I see it, people try to sell you on the idea that being smart and articulate as a Black man is some sort of advantage, when clearly it’s not an advantage at all. When it comes right down to it, no matter how intelligent or articulate we are, it doesn’t take much to throw us back into a caricature of what people think a Black man should be at a certain point and time.
Michael Eric Dyson, in his book Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (1993) had this to say on the subject:
“The tragedy in all of this, of course, is that even when articulate, intelligent black men manage to rise above the temptations and traps of “the ghetto,” they are often subject to continuing forms of social fear, sexual jealousy, and obnoxious racism. More pointedly, in the 1960s, during a crucial stage in the development of black pride and self-esteem, highly educated, deeply conscientious black men were gunned down in cold blood. This phenomenon finds paradigmatic expression in the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These events of public death are structured deep in the psyches of surviving black men, and the ways in which these horrible spectacles of racial catastrophe represent and implicitly sanction lesser forms of social evil against black men remains hurtful to black America…”
“… As we move toward the last decade of this century, the shadow of Du Bois’s prophetic declaration that the twentieth century’s problem would be the color line continues to extend itself in foreboding manner. The plight of black men, indeed, is a microcosmic reflection of the problems that are at the throat of all black people, an idiomatic expression of hurt drawn from the larger discourse of racial pain. Unless, however, there is vast reconstitution of our social, economic, and political policies and practices, most of which target black men with vicious specificity, Du Bois’s words will serve as the frontispiece to the racial agony of the twenty-first century, as well” (Michael Eric Dyson, 1993).
We’re still looked at as thugs, lazy, oafish members of society, and we’ll still get thrown in with the lot even if we’re not. That’s my problem; that’s what irks me about the sort of things said about this president, from all sides of the political spectrum. In my view, this is a model for what our expectations of any man, let alone a Black man, should be. That he ultimately became what we say we want our Black men to be is still quite unbelievable, given all that he’s had to take since.
Yet for that, what has he gotten?
People trying to define his religion, his political beliefs, and his testicular fortitude. People calling him out of his name, questioning where and when he was born, and his education. For being so smart and articulate, he’s caught a lot of shit. People question his fortitude, when he’s had to go out there, day after day, year after year, and just take the shit he’s taken day after livelong day? Lesser men would have lost it long ago, and may well have been within their rights to. Lesser men would have walked off and left it to chance. Lesser men wouldn’t have signed up for another four damn years of incessant ridicule and denigration.
Yet there he is, running for reelection. There he is, signing up for duty again.
I don’t know why. Perhaps Mr. Obama believes in what he’s doing to such an extent, that it really doesn’t matter what others say or do. Perhaps he understands it as part of the deal. But there’s something courageous about that. I’m not sure I could have done it, nor many of you. Yet there he is, and he just does it, without complaint.
Somewhere in there, I see an example to follow. I’ve written about many of the challenges I face both here and on Twitter, and I’ve spoken of the difficulties and annoyances of those challenges. There are days where it’s disheartening to think that there are people out in this world that think the way they do about people. But it speaks only to their limitations, not to mine. I understand the plights spoken of by Dyson, and it’s real. That doesn’t mean I have to accept the worst conclusions of these, or limit what I can achieve because failure is a standard for everybody else.
Perhaps that’s what Mr. Obama understands. Other people cannot define who you are, if you have defined yourself. And though there are challenges, and not everyone will accept me as I am, I’m becoming okay with that. Slowly, but surely. There are people out there who do accept me, and I’m good with that.
So here’s what I have to do to follow this example. What I have to become better at is defining myself—defining my values, vision, and goals, and working to become a better person for my own benefit. I do have fears that certain goals won’t be met—I think we all do—but if I try to follow trends and examples that aren’t in my best interest, I know I won’t meet them. Sometimes the only way to progress is to keep stepping forth. Through the temptations of drugs and alcohol; through the discordant times where things just don’t come easy; through other people’s perceptions and projections. And the example I wish to follow is that of the president: to be cogent, courageous, and progress anyway; to step forth, anyway. Because it’s surely not easy to do when, on any given day, 150 million people don’t like you.
Yet he does it every day.
For all I know, I have a few people I don’t know who don’t like me, but at least 25 I do know who do like me; and out of that 25, at least seven who love me. Amidst all the “continuing forms of social fear, sexual jealousy, and obnoxious racism” and all the other crap I’m due to be subjected to in this world; when you’ve got at least 25 people on your side, seven who love you, and at least one you love as much as they do you, that makes up for all the people who couldn’t give a damn about you, for nothing more than the fact that you exist. Perhaps that’s all you need. Perhaps that’s all the president needs.
So maybe I’ve got nothing to fear after all.