By Michael Eric Dyson
Jan. 14, 2017
His success elated us. But then we spent eight years worrying for his life.
I stood in Grant Park on election night 2008, along with more than 200,000 other people, and watched as a man I’d known as a fellow member of a Chicago church, a man I’d worked to help get elected, took to the stage. He would be the first black president of the United States of America. My joy at the surreal scene was transcendent. The jumbotron flashed the face of the civil rights stalwart the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, with tears streaming down his cheeks, an image that evoked the profound elation of black America at the election of Barack Obama.
But his weeping visage summoned a darker prospect for me, one that cast a shadow over Mr. Obama the moment he announced he would make a run for the Oval Office: They might shoot him. Mr. Jackson had been present when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met his violent end on a balcony in Memphis. As I viewed Mr. Jackson’s watery eyes, I couldn’t help but associate him with Dr. King and the fear that our newly elected president might be assassinated.
Black America has held its collective breath during every second of Barack Obama’s presidency. I remember stumping early for the Illinois senator, only to have black people I met on the campaign trail tell me that they couldn’t possibly vote for my man. Not only was he not as well known, or beloved, as his opponent Hillary Clinton, but didn’t I know that he’d be harmed if he even got close to the White House? “You know they’re going to shoot him.”
Never far from the surface was the fear that some lunatic bigot might put an end to the life of this extraordinary man. Every time an intruder scaled the White House fence, we winced. Every report of a rogue police force cracking racist jokes about him raised concern. Now that his presidency is coming to an end, we can heave a sigh of relief on that point, even as we worry about the efforts of his successor to eviscerate his legacy.
No matter the criticisms one might have of our beloved first black president, there is no denying the importance of his presence in the Oval Office. The sight of him striding across the White House lawn; the prospect of seeing him daily on television; the fact that his photo would often appear on the front page of many newspapers across the globe; the fact that he filled the White House with black guests during Black History Month celebrations, or other occasions of black recognition; the fact that Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, and Beyoncé and Jay Z, too, seemed to pop up at White House events often; the fact that young children of all hues saw this man as the country’s leader were of incalculable value in the fight for black worth and personhood.
President Obama’s historic tenure ends as the nation celebrates what would have been Martin Luther King’s 88th birthday. As I see it, Mr. Obama is the only figure to ever give Dr. King a run for his money as Greatest Black Man in American history. More than a gentle rivalry for supremacy in the history books joins the two. They are tethered by death, too — if not by its actual occurrence, then by its looming possibility.
Death has been the existential arc for some of the most prominent black leaders since the 1960s. It was true of Dr. King, and before him, Malcolm X, and before him, Medgar Evers. Leaders who have survived have been dogged by the threat of death. The former leader of the National Urban League, Vernon Jordan, survived an assassination attempt in 1980. Al Sharpton was stabbed in 1991 as he prepared to lead a protest march. Jesse Jackson endured death threats when he contended for the presidency in 1988. The paradox that surrounds such figures is irresistible. The invincible are the vulnerable; the heroic are the tragic; the iconic are, too often, posthumously celebrated.
The perennial prospect of President Obama’s death provoked more than fear. It led, as well, to his very survival’s becoming a crucial calculus of his success. The fact of his existence, of his mere persistence, is the real racial achievement. This led black folk to grade Mr. Obama on a curve.
It is not as though the breadth of his accomplishments needed any artificial lift, of course. This president kept our country from falling into depression, extended health insurance to 20 million Americans, somehow made a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons, saved the auto industry — and as he reminded us in his farewell address Tuesday night, took out Osama bin Laden.
There was a great deal of pride in his high intelligence and political prowess. Yet we also excused President Obama for doing what could seem like so little specifically for black people. The often unconscious feeling seemed to be that the man survived the worst they could do to him, and the fact that they haven’t killed him means that everything else he does is a bonus. Black complaint was viewed as complicity with wrong, harm and evil.
That same understanding informs how we view the rise of our 45th president. There is a feeling that this country simply isn’t going to let a black man survive this office. The man who spent so much time spewing bile and hate for President Obama is now the man to whom Mr. Obama must hand over the Oval Office. Donald J. Trump’s triumph is especially hard to swallow, because it is a form of death to President Obama’s body of work. Mr. Trump was the loudest and shrillest mouthpiece for a racist movement that questioned the authenticity of President Obama’s birthplace. He whipped up a vengeful racial animus against the president that had the potential to end violently.
It is particularly galling to witness the symbolic murder of President Obama’s character and intelligence while observing what will become the most inexperienced and, potentially, the most incompetent presidency in our nation’s history. The irony, of course, is that, were he inclined, Mr. Trump might make a bit of headway, and more than a few headlines, by focusing on something other than erasing President Obama’s policies.
He might shrewdly deploy his publicity machine to promote his willingness to do for black Americans what President Obama refused, or felt he wasn’t able, to do: to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus early and often in his presidency. Mr. Trump might trumpet the virtues of historically black colleges and universities. And if he directly addressed black unemployment and the need for job creation, he would be heading in the right direction to repair his image as a caustic destroyer of black personhood and cultural prosperity.
There is another way death has operated in regard to the Obama presidency: It has killed some black dissent and largely erased traces of an earlier generation of black leadership.
I read in a December poll that 62 percent of black people said the election of President Obama was the most important event of their lifetimes. Fourteen percent named the assassination of Dr. King. I am 58. Those numbers surprised me, as a man who hails from President Obama’s generation. I was 9 years old when Dr. King met his end, and the image of his sacrifice can never be erased from the memories of black Americans. Dr. King’s life can never be eclipsed or cease to be the root of all that is transformative in the lives of my people.
This is where the clash of hope and fear abound. Dr. King’s life and death represented the hope that someone like President Obama was possible. Mr. Obama’s rise was leavened with fear: fear that he would be killed, a reminder of all the fears that other black Americans share every day, fear there wouldn’t be another chance at this office.
Barack Hussein Obama is one of the most remarkable figures in black and American history. His unlikely rise is not only, as he would have it, the beautiful completion of a trajectory of American exceptionalism. It is, too, the triumph of an improbable black life that grew from a community where black death has been the norm for some of its most gifted leaders.
We are exceedingly happy that he made it through alive. We are crestfallen that the man succeeding him, like so many of those who voted for him, hated each breath that he drew.