Why Obama can't show his rage: Malcolm X, "Key and Peele" and the personal history behind his cautious Ferguson response

A natural conciliator, stuck between a left that wants more anger and a right just waiting to criticize him for it

Published September 9, 2014 6:44PM (EDT)

           (Comedy Central/Ian White)
(Comedy Central/Ian White)

The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, is distressing, in part, because it appears that systemic violence against blacks continues in as blatant a fashion as it did 50 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement and the dark zenith of apartheid.  During those periods, just as now, anger becomes the overwhelming sentiment of political life: To take it seriously could arguably be prolonging public conflict; to deny anger legitimacy amounts to a denial of the facts of police brutality.

With the events in Ferguson, the language of anger and rage recurs — in the protesters, in the criticisms of the protesters and in the remarks by President Obama as he pleads for peace.  The television show “Key and Peele” has a recurring sketch based on the idea of a man named Luther who is Obama’s “Anger Translator.” The sketches consist of one actor (Jordan Peele) playing President Obama and talking about reelection, healthcare, Mitt Romney, etc., while another (Keegan-Michael Key) acts as Luther, a man who expresses exuberance, frustration, hostility, sarcasm, in a way that President Obama never does. Although Luther embodies a wide range of emotions that the American public has never seen Obama express, the fact that Luther is called his “anger translator” reveals its prominence as the emotion that seems most conspicuously absent.

It is this absence that has spurred criticisms of Obama in reaction to the events in Ferguson.  While his response to the Trayvon Martin shooting conveyed an anguished sense of its personal resonance, the response to the anger of the protesters at Ferguson is antiseptic in just the ways the Key and Peele sketch parodies.  From his entrance onto the national political stage with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, one of the biggest challenges Obama faced was to convince a majority of Americans that he was not an angry black man who would covertly enact vindictive policies. To wit, conservative critic Dinesh D’Souza’s book is called “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” and presents a detailed argument for Obama using his secret anger to turn politics in the United States into a struggle for decolonization. The controversy surrounding his friendship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church around Wright’s willingness to be openly critical and angry about race relations in the U.S. was perhaps the most potent display of how Obama has had to repeatedly distance himself from anger as a legitimate political emotion.  When his recent subtle attempts to incorporate class-based anger into discussions of income inequality failed to connect with Americans (and he was advised to talk about the “middle class” instead), this was further confirmation that for Obama anger doesn’t pay.

Obama’s refusal to engage with anger makes sense as a strategic calculation, one that buffers against race-baiting criticism while consistent with his overarching philosophy of pragmatism and bipartisanship. He has taken as a model of black leadership the carefully controlled righteous anger of Martin Luther King Jr. whose commitment to nonviolence was meant to be practiced in word and deed and the language of disappointment or impatience figured more prominently than anger. King’s anger, when it appeared, was part of a prophetic religious tradition where anger from the pulpit constituted its own idiom, one that is difficult to translate into the secular realm. Still, Obama takes King as an exemplar who effectively conveyed anger when necessary but advocated a type of politics based on cooperation.

Obama also takes from King a didacticism in regards to anger and the speech he gave following the public outcry after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin captures his way of describing charged content with stoic detachment. At a White House press conference in July of 2013 he said, “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago ... There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store.  That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That includes me. “

Here Obama acknowledged the conditions of injustice that continue to cause anger, even the type of  anger that stems from seemingly disproportionate reactions to repeated slights, and he even placed himself in the category of victim, but his tone was not accusatory. He spoke with an acute understanding of the defensiveness whites may have at being singled out as the perpetrators of injustice. This is Obama’s wager of leadership, further confirmed by his reactions to the events in Ferguson —anger is too volatile and divisive for productive political discussion — but history shows it is not the only option.

Interrogating anger as a political emotion brings to mind the rhetoric of Malcolm X, whose anger is seen as a foil to the affect embodied by King.  Such comparisons are often shallow, shortchanging the political visions of both leaders in an attempt to draw a sharp line between integrationist and black nationalist hopes for the U.S.  Examining “The Ballot or the Bullet,” a speech Malcolm X gave in 1964,  reveals another way to understand the function of angry speech.  Delivered at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, the event of the speech followed his departure from the Nation of Islam and marked the beginning of a period of internationalism, political involvement and, some would argue, an integrationist vision that would be inchoate at the time of his death in 1965.  Malcolm’s calculation in the speech is that the anger he invokes in the audience as part of the speech is desirable — both as an expression of the strong feelings of the communities of which he is a part and as the seed of movement just beginning to take shape.  Anger is the best emotion to capture the force of momentum for change but also represents a refusal to blindly follow prescribed political paths. For example, in this speech Malcolm turns his attention to the Voting Rights Act that has been passed by the House but is awaiting approval by the Senate. He highlights the significance of the act (the ballot) but also all the ways in which its passage will be an inadequate response to the depth of racist institutions and may require destruction and violence first (the bullet). In a parallel to Obama’s remarks after the Trayvon Martin decision, Malcolm’s speech begins with a recollection of racist violence that aligns him with his audience members:

Whether you're educated or illiterate, whether you live on the boulevard or in the alley, you're going to catch hell just like I am. We're all in the same boat and we all are going to catch the same hell from the same man. He just happens to be a white man. All of us have suffered here, in this country, political oppression at the hands of the white man, economic exploitation at the hands of the white man, and social degradation at the hands of the white man.

Malcolm speaks to his audience as equals, without the pressures of a formal environment, and suggests that violence based on skin color had become a way of life and the white man, in singular and plural forms, was the agent of oppression. Malcolm’s willingness to name the white man as the perpetrator begins a dynamic of confrontation that continues throughout the speech; it is a confrontation between races, between blacks and their past, between apathy and action. The lack of acknowledgment of the scope of racism by so many whites makes it premature to consider what remedies are possible.  The anger that he references cannot easily be channeled into any one strategy for action, nonviolent or not, because it is the beginning of a trajectory that cannot be predicted in advance: “These 22 million victims are waking up. Their eyes are coming open. They're beginning to see what they used to only look at. They're becoming politically mature.” The anger as it relates to the desire for violence is trying to initiate an event in the world while, at the same time, trying to contain its destructive power.

Malcolm’s calculation was that the evocation of anger, including through a confrontation with the audience, was an apt way to understand the constraints and possibilities facing African-Americans. Obama’s conservative critics are, in many ways, always looking for precisely this depiction of anger in his words. They are poised to see the violence, the uncertainty of the future, and the divisive split between blacks and others and he refuses to make this easy for them.

Yet in Obama’s autobiography "Dreams From My Father" it is apparent how strongly Malcolm’s X’s vision has shaped his own.  Malcolm’s writings serve as a template for understanding anger, his own and that of other black men, but they also forced him to articulate his unease with destruction as a path to the solidification of racial identity, especially the value of expunging his white heritage.  Still, he comes to realize that the complexities of anger remain an important subtext for interpersonal understanding. He writes about a conflict with a white former girlfriend who, after seeing a play that made salient black anger and humor, said that she thought that such anger was a “dead-end.” Obama, it is implied, saw the anger as necessary, for catharsis but also for survival, given the strictures of racism, and her inability to appreciate these aspects was a signal of a deeper incompatibility of worldviews.

On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s death, there was often, in the coverage of his long and storied life, a tension between President Mandela (the man who was willing to negotiate with the apartheid regime) and the anti-apartheid activist Mandela (who spent 27 years in prison). Like Obama, President Mandela was recognized for his measured speech and the way generosity rather than anger dictated his approach to divisive racial issues. Mandela’s relationship to anger is a complex one but, again like Obama’s, frequently simplified in popular coverage of his life. On the one hand, as a leader who envisioned the possibilities of the ambitious Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he was adamant that forgiveness and reconciliation could and should prevail over anger. On the other, anger seemed to motivate his membership in the ANC (African National Congress) and his co-founding of its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as the MK). The  1964 speech he delivered as a defendant in the Rivonia case that would send him to prison for more than 20 years is often cited as the paradigmatic example of his mission as an anti-apartheid activist and provides an  insight into how he, future Nobel Peace Prize winner, evoked anger.

From the beginning of the speech, Mandela addresses the question of violence in relation to the ideal of racial equality and does it in a way that distances the decision to participate in violence from his experiences of anger. He says: "I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the Whites."

Contrary to expectations, he seems to be saying, it was not utter frustration that drew him to the plan of armed resistance, but a rational calculation about the current conditions of the apartheid state. Mandela’s language in this section of the speech, at the time when he takes responsibility for some of the acts of the MK, is that of someone, like Obama, who has achieved a level of stoic detachment from his own emotional history. It is not anger that motivated him, but an analysis of the forces that were in place to maintain the edifice of apartheid.

The power of the speech comes from the oppositional tension between his efforts to show control over anger and the way this approach heightens its threatening nature when uncontrolled. Mandela’s rhetoric creates a causal chain between the anger felt by Africans, the particular seduction of violence at that time (even its inevitability) for Africans, and the demands on the leadership to respond to this anger that would serve as the rationale for the creation of the MK.  The volatility of anger of the masses, and its resistance to being controlled or denied, is a critical reason why, Mandela argued, armed resistance must be pursued. It is not the emotion that is driving the violence, but a strategic decision about what that emotion, in the minds of a less controlled group, would do with it.  Mandela’s calculation was that he, as a skillful orator, could both disavow personal anger as his motivation while at the same time acknowledging the tremendous anger of a group. Here the kinetic quality of anger animates Mandela’s defense; that is, his argument only holds because of the great force of anger, its energy and not primarily its informational or confrontational qualities, despite his stated disaffinity for it.

Obama is, as the first black president, both a worthy heir to this legacy,  and an unlikely addition to the revolutionary tradition of Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. He is not speaking from the dock or as a leader who has just broken away from a religious sect; he has the authority to use violence in a legitimate way, not as an enemy of the state. Obama, in his remarks after the unrest at Ferguson, goes even further than Mandela in distancing himself from the energy of anger, despite its presence in the public reaction to the killing of Michael Brown. He does not want to suggest that it is anger, either via the confrontational manner Malcolm X evoked it or the kinetic one Mandela suggested, that motivates him or his constituency.

Instead, Obama’s calculation is to distance himself from anger in public while trusting that allies of a certain type will be able to see the conversation he is having with the legacy of black leaders. His strategy is to acknowledge in private, as in his memoir, that anger was at the core of his call to social justice and public service and that an appreciation of the complexity of anger is central to being able to understand the worldview of another person. Anger, based on his lived experiences, cannot easily be metabolized into compromise and professorial detachment.

Obama’s detachment, constraint and cool attention to righteous anger as a leader exists in a layered state above his understanding of its confrontational and kinetic dimensions. Yet, this pentimento is difficult to see and becomes the source of conservative accusations that he harbors a secret rage and the invitation for the liberal query about his lack of it. Commentators have remarked on Obama’s ability to code-switch, that is, speak with distinctive vocabularies and cadences depending on the audience, and this is perhaps the way that a new calculation might begin. Given Obama’s skills as a speaker and writer along with his respect for the storied legacy of black leadership, there is the sense that Obama can and should reveal more of what he has understood when it comes to anger. Luther, the anger translator, manifests our desire for Obama to show a rhetorical engagement with anger that allows its multiple, often conflicting, dimensions to exist simultaneously.

By Sonali Chakravarti

Sonali Chakravarti is assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and the author of "Sing the Rage: Listening to Anger after Mass Violence."

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