A year after Barack Obama’s historic election, his progress report is incomplete at best. But his presence in the White House has already brought long overdue healing to the African American imagination — and potentially to many others.
It has now been a year since that fateful night in November 2008 when Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States and the first African American to attain this nation’s highest office. A lot has changed since then. Much of that initial optimism has been tempered by the harsh realities of governing a country beset by economic turmoil and ensnared in two confounding wars in the Middle East. Indeed, even for many who voted for him, Obama’s achievements so far have been unremarkable at best. So, in October when the Nobel Peace Prize Committee named President Obama as this year’s winner of its prestigious award, it was not surprising that many loud voices rose to protest the choice.
Although many of the objections to Obama’s Nobel Prize honor may have some merit, I think it’s imperative that we consider the words and reasoning of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in defense of President Obama as this year’s recipient:
“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal Guy Chazan and Alistair MacDonald said, “The award reflects the enormous hopes invested in Mr. Obama, both in the U.S. and abroad, since he entered the White House, and the occasionally unrealistic expectations that his presidency could change the face of international diplomacy.”
Chief among the symbolism of Obama’s campaign and presidency is the idea of an empathetic leader who is a bridge-builder, both domestically and internationally. While I don’t hold to the notion that President Obama will solve all of our racial and cultural ills, I do believe that merely by becoming the president of the United States he has already set in motion a course of events that will aid in our healing. The first level of healing that I believe we will experience is a restoration of hope.
Prior to Obama’s election, I don’t think most African Americans actually believed they had a real stake in the American Dream. Sure, there was real and sustained progress in comparison to the horrors of the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation and social exclusion. And there were examples of numerous blacks who were now rich and famous, but this was not by any means the same Dream toward which most Americans aspired. Only one in ten thousand of the youth on the local basketball courts will make it to the NBA, and even fewer still will land a recording contract and earn fame and riches as a hip-hop or rap artist.
I’m talking about the American Dream that says, “If you work hard and remain dedicated to the principles of self-sacrifice and deferred gratification, then no opportunity or goal shall long remain beyond your grasp.” That simply did not line up with the lived reality of the world for black people in decades past. You can do and be anything you want was the standard Horatio Alger-esque refrain of many middle-class white Americans, but this sounded disingenuous to many who had put that maxim to the test and found it lacking.
With Barack Obama’s success I believe that the African American imagination has been slightly healed and started back on the path towards restoration and healthy hopefulness. There is a lot more work that remains yet undone. Past hurts and injuries will not simply go away by ignoring them. The prior policy of benign neglect has not been helpful but has instead strengthened our sense of wounded self-esteem and fortified our identity as perpetual victims. When we were faced with not only individual personal attacks, but also a systemic, and therefore institutional, assault via a string of legal decrees, we began to lose hope and our individual and collective psyche was damaged. The most potent aspect of this psychological wounding is known as internalized oppression (the situation where a victim agrees with his/her oppressor and sees himself as of lesser worth or value as a person).
Merely by acknowledging our former state of injury we are affirmed as real persons, and a slight healing can begin. In order to progress further we will need to find a means of remedy for the harm inflicted, but our proper starting place lies in facing the past honestly. Barack Obama has repeatedly stated that our national legacy of racial exclusion must be addressed, and thus he speaks words of hope to the masses of blacks and other minorities. The hope is first hinted at by the clear statement that many of our nation’s past actions were wrong and therefore need to be acknowledged as such. Such an acknowledgment would give a sense of dignity and worth to black people who were previously regarded as either three-fifths of a person or else mere candidates for chattel slavery (see the U.S. Constitution, Article One, Section 2 and the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case).
The second step on the path to a state of national health and wholeness is the forming of new partnerships not built on the partisan divisions of the past, but rather on the realities of the present. E pluribus unum — out of many, one (people).
Our National unity is presumed as the backbone and foundation of our ideals. Although there are many different ethnic groups represented in our country, we must no longer see ourselves as Red States and Blue States, as White Americans and Black Americans, as Latino, Asian or Native Americans. Instead we must recognize that we are the United States of America.
I believe that Mr. Obama’s success gives hope and substance to this new and renewed vision of modern America. It’s not the America that has been, but rather the America that should be. I still believe that President Obama has created the possibility for our country to have a new and honest conversation about race and other such divisive issues, and to therefore move forward into the future together as partners rather than as partisans.
I know that Mr. Obama is first and foremost a politician, and politics naturally divides. But I also believe that his stated desire for Americans to find common ground and work together where possible is an important one.
“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics,” said Obama during his inaugural address, adding, “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
At this moment in history the community of believers has a unique opportunity to model the reality of GOD’s presence in our world. The 23rd Psalm speaks of the LORD as One who not only makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still water, but One who uses these resources to heal and restore our souls. On more than one occasion I have heard a preacher emphasize that the peace of GOD is not the same as tranquility or the absence of turmoil and conflict. In Hebrew the word shalom means “complete” or “entire.” GOD has not called us to a mere cease-fire but to unity and wholeness on both an individual and a collective basis.
Each one of us in the Family of Faith has the responsibility to be all that we can be, for the glory of GOD. As we grow in maturity and stature we need to also exhort and encourage one another towards the hope of our calling — that is, the present display of the character of GOD here on this earth. Just as President Obama has challenged our country to transcend the boundaries of race and class, so also must the people of GOD move beyond our small enclaves of political and denominational isolation. There is hope at present that the way things are is not the way they will remain.
If the believing community is willing to take GOD at His word, then we will rise up and fulfill the truth of the Scripture that says:
“Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).