President. Barack. Obama.
Depending on who you are, those three words may conjure up feelings of hate, love, jealousy, pride, disgust or respect. What is not up for debate is that soon, the word “former” will be written next to his name. When I reviewed my own writing recently, I was able to see how my perspective on Barack Obama’s presidency —or a black presidency in general —has changed over the years based on my exposure to prejudice.
Back in high school, I was pretty optimistic. I was especially hopeful about one development in particular — a black president. In April 2004, I ended up poetically expressing that dream while visiting a place which is as connected to presidents as it is to slaves — Yale University.
The black students at Yale, whom I was to join the following fall, had arranged an informal event where current and prospective students could perform songs, poetry, etc. When the emcee asked if any prefrosh, i.e., pre-freshmen, wanted to perform, I barely raised my hand. Nevertheless, I was noticed by a fellow prospective student who then caught the attention of the emcee. I got up to perform my poem, and toward the end of my piece I specifically declared, “It won’t be long / before a black person comes along / who will have a family reunion on the White House lawn.” I got a few compliments for my poem, made the trip back home from New Haven, Connecticut to Prince George’s County, Maryland, and not much changed over the following Summer except some guy named Barack Obama gave a speech that people seemed to like.
By the time fall of my sophomore year arrived, I still seemed hopeful about the possibility of a black president. In a poem focusing on the N-word, I hypothesized that many people would say nothing if a black friend declared, “A ________ will never become the president of the United States of America.” I agreed with the essence of that statement because I felt that a person with that powerful black blood would eventually become the president, and, thankfully, that still left all black people in the running.
All that apparent faith, however, disappeared by the end of the school year. My poetry thus reflected my new belief that the nation was far from electing a black president. During the spring semester, I wrote my most pessimistic poem to date. My piece was specifically for a group poem that I performed with two other black male members of WORD, a performance poetry group I helped found at Yale. The “chorus” for the group poem may give you an idea of the change in my attitude: “They only let us run so far / before they pull back on the leash. / We want to be flying stars / but they’d shoot before we left our feet.”
Not exactly, “Yes We Can.” At the spring show for WORD in 2006, I actually ended up performing both this poem and the earlier optimistic poem concerning the N-word. I still do not know why this conflict did not resonate with me at the time. What I do know now is that my drastically different beliefs were in fact directly related to my gradually decreasing hope for race relations given current events in my life, on campus, and in the country during my sophomore year at Yale. Seeing racial profiling with my own skin, reading campus journalism that gave me an eye sore, and recalling television coverage of Hurricane Katrina led me to have less hope that the nation would respect a black person enough to elect him or her president.
I had become personally acquainted with racial profiling earlier as a Yale student, but one particular incident in February 2006 stuck out more than all the other experiences. As another black male student and I were clearly walking towards the main gate for one of the dorms, a white student, already near the gate, looked behind at us and then made sure to close the gate entrance. My friend and I are both bespectacled individuals who were wearing backpacks at the time, but, then again, the only thing that student really cared about was that we were both wearing brown skin. I am not sure what that student thought my friend and I were going to do unless she closed the gate, but that incident apparently left a scar that I did not begin to notice until reflecting on my poetry later on.
After writing about that incident in my school’s main newspaper, my vision for the nation was further impaired in April 2006 by other campus journalism that supposedly was just satire. I didn’t get it. The student writing perpetuated the historic objectification of black women, belittled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.and made light of Hurricane Katrina.
When I specifically remembered the disaster that almost made me mad enough to punch a rain drop, my internal portraits of slave ships told my mental pictures of the Superdome, “You sure look familiar. Have I seen you before?” The carving of Emmett Till in my head smiled at the photo of a Southern victim who never will get a chance to see the South Side of Chicago. And my recollections of the Birmingham girls played Connect Four with the memories of femininity who had fire in their pupils, reflecting the burning buildings that stood in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
I did not realize it at the time, but when this multi-pronged flashback of racial pain complemented the “No Blacks Allowed” slogan that was seemingly stamped on the forehead of that Yale student-gatekeeper, those experiences combined to blind me to the possibility that the country could one day unlock the White House doors for a black candidate.
That year was not my initial, or final, exposure to a lack of respect for black lives and minds, but it served as a tipping point. Looking back, it took me a while to reach that pessimistic presidential position given the area that I am from. I came into college with a decent amount of hope for race relations because I did not fully appreciate the particular demographics that I had experienced back home. I come from a predominantly minority area so it did not occur to me until later on that the white individuals I consistently came into contact with growing up—as neighbors, classmates, fellow congregants, etc.—knew where they came from. That is, they knew that they lived in a multi-cultural world and were thus used to coexisting every day with peers who looked different from themselves.
The same could not necessarily be said for some—but by no means all—of the white people that I encountered in college. Certain individuals may have viewed the predominantly white institution as an extension of their homes and thus felt free to act as if people of color were trespassers on campus or simply in their world as a whole.
Given my exposure to prejudice on campus and in society overall, my hope in race relations decreased by such a drastic extent that I went back on my words and experiences. Thus, when I was writing the poem that was blind to the election of a black president, my pen erased the various positive interactions that I had had with white individuals over the years. U.S. history teacher who had supported my pro-affirmative action research paper? Gone. Boy Scout leader who had encouraged me on my path to becoming an Eagle Scout? Gone. Priest who had criticized the idea that studious black people were acting white? Gone.
Since I felt that my skin was treated as an outcast—both personally and collectively—I became so disillusioned with race relations that I was no longer able to value the authentic desire for social justice held by many white individuals, including those whom I had personally known and strangers from several eras who had actually died fighting for the right of people of color to control their own lives. Integration was the only thing that I knew, but by the spring of my sophomore year, my hope had separated from me. In less than one year, I had acquired amnesia of the myriad white people who genuinely want all of America to maximize its potential.
As much as I believed the negative words I wrote that spring, they were eventually silenced by a presidential buzz that led me to recover my hope for the future. It was during late 2006 that I started writing a poem titled, “Keep the Change.” The poem primarily focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but at one point I assert, “Perhaps it’s even fitting that in the U.S. of A. / our MLK is allowed the honor of pulling an Obama / on Americana bills and coins of color.” I first performed the poem about a month before then-Sen. Obama officially announced his presidential campaign in February 2007. I did not set out to poetically express my optimism about Barack Obama; it just came out of me. All the presidential speculation served as background music for my less restrained writing. Although my physical, written, and visual encounters with biases had seemingly prevented me from contemplating a black presidency, it turned out that my belief in the unprecedented had not been completely washed away.
About a month after Barack Obama was voted into the White House on November 4, 2008, I got the urge to write another poem about black presidents. The poem, which was later published in Essence Magazine, is below:
He Hopes They’re Coming After Him
You know he’s working
For the day
When he will be asked,
“Who is the nation’s greatest
Black president of all time?”
And Barack Obama
Will not have to be
The first and last name
That comes to his mind.
To date, my hope for a black president has seen four phases where I contemplated: (1) the first black president; (2) no black president; (3) Barack Obama as the first black president; and (4) multiple black presidents. Although I am currently in the fourth phase, I still do not think that we are in a post-racial nation, nor do I even aspire to live in one. For example, I would never want future black presidents to look at Barack Obama as just any president, let alone ignore the contributions of those who never even had the chance to vote for a president given their skin color.
Although I do not hope for a post-racial nation, I do hope for a post-racist nation. For instance, I would not want future black presidents to overlook the nation’s racial history, but I pray that they will not be able to directly relate to the peculiar institutions and practices of that history. I hope that those hollow building blocks—many of which are still in place today and will continue to remain in the immediate future—will one day be removed but still never forgotten.
Ideally, I would want future black presidents to be able to read my writings about other potential black “firsts” in politics, technology, and other arenas and feel that there is nothing that they are incapable of doing except for personally identifying with my discussions of the one millionth black individuals to suffer from racial profiling, police brutality, and/or incarceration. I do not doubt that I will feel compelled to write more distressing material about racism in the near future, but I just hope that eventually race relations will improve by such a great extent that black presidents—whether they are born in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, New Orleans, or New Haven—will not actually be able to conceive the pain contained in my accounts of the cities of old. I think that would be the best audience reaction that I could ever hope for.