We're just a few weeks past the president's first 100 days benchmark, and his approval rating is holding steady in the polls. Redressing eight years of profound negligence, Obama has acted to resurrect the ailing economy, temper anti-American sentiment abroad, and decrease military involvement in Iraq. But for the lesser known, underappreciated demographic of black male intellectuals, the commander in chief is doing something terribly wrong: This dude is destroying our street cred.
Not long ago, the thinking black man posed a credible threat to the social order. We were the rogue outliers who bucked the trend of inferior black performance on standardized tests, who transcended the need for a boost from affirmative action. Now, what is a milestone for Obama is a millstone to the coolness of black male intellectualism. Obama's success is as devastating to our status as social deviants as the advent of Homies action figures (toy caricatures of "ghetto" stereotypes that depicted hardened criminals as cute and cuddly) was for the repulsive force of black delinquency.
Quite suddenly, being confronted with an unapologetically intellectual, hyper-articulate black dude who is self-assured to the brink of arrogance is no longer sure to create the kind of bewilderment and consternation that guaranteed me major laughs after college admissions and job interviews or "meet the parents" activities. In the salad days of being the only African-American male in Advanced Placement U.S. History, I could generate a palpable sense of awkwardness by stopping the lesson to quiz my instructor on the specifics of Cointelpro; my scholarly younger brother may never get to experience that perverse thrill. Where I got my kicks imagining that my flamboyant displays of subversive cerebral fortitude made the white establishment want my head on a stick, my brother's comparable acts will be met with a propensity to picture his on the dollar bill.
I feel the same way that bearded, vegan fixed-gear bike enthusiasts must have felt after folk-punkers Against Me went major-label; it is that much harder to belittle and distance oneself from mainstream culture when a commodified facsimile of your particular, once unknown archetype prevails on a national level. In fact, Obama's influence may be far worse than Against Me's ascent, as awareness of the black intellectual as an archetype arguably didn't exist at all until recently, save for maybe Steve Urkel (who was, needless to say, an uncannily poor representative) or Huey from TV's "Boondocks." The scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has been a visible symbol in academia, but only a marginal influence on popular culture at large. And for every one of those examples there were countless embattled athletic stars like Mychal Bell of the Jena Six or violent sociopaths like convicted serial killer Lee Boyd Malvo generating quadruple the national attention.
These days Obama's popularity has shone a blinding spotlight on a once invisible caste, and its effects reverberate beyond the obvious tokenism of the popular notion that Newark Mayor Cory Booker is now a plausible future presidential contender. You may not admit it, but you're probably feeling at least marginally more curious about the bespectacled black drummer in Plain White T's now, too.
To paraphrase Richard Pryor, I've been a thinking Negro for years, and now I'm suddenly faced with too much room for advancement. Committed to radical nonconformism from an early age, I drifted in and out of several punk rock subcultures as a teenager with an utter indifference to proving my alternative credibility. Back then, I thought it was commonly understood that being a brainy black guy was the ultimate trump card in the petty grubbing for superior individuality among the hipster elite.
While other rebellious youth scanned used record stores for the most obscure releases and wasted weekends combing the Internet for ahead-of-the-trend threads, I rested on my laurels, believing I'd accidentally won the scene point lottery simply by virtue of being myself. Now, I spend late nights combing Craigslist for a bargain on a red, black and green liberation jump suit because I realize that my Bad Brains T-shirt and fist pick just don't cut it anymore.
Maybe parking a cheek on a pew at the Trinity United Church of Christ is the answer to shoring up my credentials. Say what you will about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but his 15 minutes of national fame were well spent protecting the ethos of the black intellectual as radical. With every television replay of his inflammatory sound bites, I grew a little more confident in the power of my bookishness to strike fear in the hearts of men.
In the months leading up to last year's presidential election, several of my friends' parents -- mostly white, middle-class baby boomers -- made oddly consistent predictions about what the election of a black president would mean for the African-American community's relationship with government. These Obama supporters were gleeful at the prospect of civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton being “out of a job” once Obama's symbolism wiped clean so much as any echo of black plight from public consciousness. What they didn't foresee is that the president's success has the potential to inspire a maturing generation of similar men to fully embrace and assimilate into the system rather than work as outside agitators with a specific and limited racial constituency.
Such a development's effect would not so much dismiss entirely the politics of the civil rights generation as provide a clear path to a broad coalition of support for those to whom Jackson and Sharpton have passed the torch. Whatever this may do for the improvement of black political leverage, it certainly won't be very cool. Norman Mailer once defined hip as “the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle.” Never mind that Politico has declared Obama the first hip president; when the wisest primitive has become king of the jungle, all that upward mobility makes for something interminably square.