The unlikely heroism of Barack Obama began for me the first and only time I saw him, on a warm winter day in Los Angeles in 2007. He had just declared his candidacy for president and was holding a rally at Rancho Cienega Park in the Crenshaw district. Crenshaw is the last primarily black area left in the city; it is next to Dorsey High School, one of three majority black high schools left in the 700,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, and for nearly twenty years it was the site of the African Marketplace and Cultural Faire, held in late summer. In other words, anybody holding an event at Rancho Cienega was trying to get a message out to black folks. The fact that lots of white folks lived pretty close by, some just across the street at Village Green, a leafy condominium community built as a prototype of utopian urban living in the 1940s, didn’t matter. Nor did it matter that whites live in considerable numbers in Ladera Heights, a few miles north of Rancho Cienega, and in much greater numbers in Culver City, a couple of miles southwest. The proximity of these places doesn’t connect them at all. Crenshaw is a black nation-state, so those whites who do live here don’t live outdoors, are never seen on the streets, and more than likely tell their white friends and potential visitors that they live not in Crenshaw but in adjacent places like Culver City or West Los Angeles. They will acknowledge black neighborhoods only when special events are held there such as the African Marketplace or the Martin Luther King Day parade, when the place itself is the point; on those occasions, Crenshaw lights up as local exotica, an in-house tourist destination. But for most of the year, as far as Los Angeles and Southern California and the rest of the country and the rest of the world are concerned, Crenshaw, like black hubs in big cities anywhere else in the United States, lives in shadow and uncertainty.
The special occasion of Barack Obama’s rally wasn’t going to change that. I was curious to see him but hardly excited, and if I hadn’t been looking for fodder for a weekly op-ed column I was then writing for the Los Angeles Times, I probably would have stayed home. Obama was all the talk and I knew generally who he was, but I knew nothing specific except the keynote speech he’d made at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 that had made him a star. I thought Obama was good-looking and remarkably self-possessed, like many aspiring actors I’ve met, but I was not a fan of that speech. It made me uneasy. The call for Americans to overcome their differences and find strength in unity across party and ethnic lines hadn’t moved me in at least twenty years, not since I started college in 1979 and felt almost at that very moment the 1960s officially grinding to a close. I saw a preview of it in fifth grade, when I was bused to a very white school not far west of Rancho Cienega and understood at ten years of age that integration was going to be impossible because whites simply didn’t want it. Blacks would always be tolerated, never invited or freely given space.
I didn’t resent this, probably because it didn’t surprise me. I had grown up with a fiercely activist father, a soldier of the movement and a New Orleans native who believed in justice and equality for all, but he harbored no illusions about the depth of white American resistance to both. He was committed to changing laws and behaviors; changing hearts and minds was not a reachable goal. It depended too much on feelings, and in my father’s line of work and in his own life experience, feelings were unreliable, mercurial, even dangerous, for everybody concerned. Anybody talking about feelings as they related to justice and politics had his head in the clouds or was secretly averse to the real work needed for racial progress — work that was tough, unglamorous, and distinctly unsentimental. It was also lonely. Erasing differences and coming together across color lines as a way to effect change was one of those facile ’60s utopian ideas commercialized by companies like Coca-Cola that celebrated brotherhood and equality as the good feeling Americans get singing a song or downing a soda. Now that feeling had been resurrected as a serious message for a seriously disillusioned age that seemed to be always invoking the ’60s, minus its actual events and unfinished business. The sense of possibility, of transformation being eternally on the horizon, was the only use people had for the ’60s anymore. Mainstream politics had long ago stopped talking about its hard lessons and touted only hope and rainbows, talking up the idea of change rather than the mechanics of it. Obama was just the latest politician to do this.
By the time I reached the park I was more than halfway annoyed with Barack Obama and his campaign of hope. I had decided that it was hollow. The fact that he was a black man exactly my age who could make extraordinary history and put our generation on the map moved me less than the eternal question of, hope for whom? Nobody ever asked black folks what they needed. Yet everybody was always giving them something they claimed was good for them, and always at places like Rancho Cienega, throwing out encouraging words that shimmered on delivery, like strings of beads tossed from a Mardi Gras float, but that started to dull the minute the event / rally was done and everybody was walking away. The words dropped on the ground and stayed there, with good reason; no use taking anything home. I knew this firsthand. I had sat through these kinds of faux events for fifteen years now, since the citywide unrest in 1992 had made a prophet out of every black leader or figure who claimed to have a piece of the answer Going Forward, sometimes the whole answer. They called a press conference and I would come, making it as significant as I could in a write-up the following week. (The real prophets were not written about because they rarely had press conferences.) I anticipated Obama scaling down his prophetic message to fit this place, this black island in the ocean of Los Angeles that was itself by an ocean and because of that, perhaps a more hopeful place than a similar island in Des Moines or St. Louis. Los Angeles is not hallowed ground or the heartland but the end-land, the great western flourish of the American continent, a shining sea. Obama chose well, I thought: plenty of room for expanding in all directions about possibility and hope and whatnot.
His warm-up act was a choir on a stage erected in the middle of Rancho: a dozen or so bright-faced people singing and swaying to a gospel-like tune. They were black, white, Latino, and maybe an Asian or two, a human rainbow rising over the sea. They looked serene and perfectly oblivious to the fact that they were in Crenshaw, or perfectly happy that they were here and not in St. Louis. The crowd of rally-goers was considerably black, but very mixed; of course, I thought, glancing around with more than a little contempt, people hired to drive home the message of multicultural togetherness. Fellow actors. I stood and folded my arms tighter and tilted my face up to the sun. Though I’m a native, I appreciate the sun and never take it for granted, especially in winter. Sun here is ubiquitous, but it is not guaranteed, never a given in any season. It is generous but sly, temperamental.
I closed my eyes in appreciation, and when I opened them, Obama was on stage. I blinked. The sky and commanding sun had shrunk, willingly transformed into a backdrop for a figure who was striding — or pacing — in front of the choir in a white shirt and tie, holding a microphone. He was taller than I expected, more imposing, and he radiated something that I didn’t expect at all. Not charisma — well, charisma, yes, but something more unwieldy than that, a restlessness that was used to sitting on itself and showing an even, polished surface that the world read as charisma. Something had pierced that surface, and now a ray of agitation that was knitting Obama’s brow almost into a frown and turning his measured strides into emphatic stomps here and there that made the raised wooden stage shudder.
I know what you’re thinking, he was saying to us. I know. You’re tired. Tired of war, tired of Washington. Tired of too many people in prison . . .
His tenor boomed over the crowd, which cheered his every line. But that booming voice was also intimate. This was not just a voice of aspiring authority or practiced salesmanship — please vote for me — or even charisma. It was overwhelmingly the voice of Obama, one man in a white shirt and dark tie talking encouragingly to the rest of us about how crappy things had become in America and how his own ideas about the country could make it better. Not just make the country better, but make it realize the potential that it has for greatness despite a history, including a very recent history, of bullshit and broken promises and racial hypocrisy and fake populism and all the rest. So certain was he of this idea that he forgot himself — or he remembered himself — and flashed a bit of the agitation and anger that I immediately recognized as all of ours. Oh lord, I thought, amazed, he is one of us. Most remarkably, he is one of us, a black man who understands the grieved nature of black anger toward crappy America and its bullshit promise, understands it even if he has not exactly lived the bullshit in the way many of us have lived and continue to live it, even if he can’t describe it aloud. I forgave him that. What was more important was that despite his Harvard pedigree and lofty idea about America and his Hollywood-approved handsomeness, Obama was a common man, certainly gifted but as ordinary as so many black people with many gifts who live in agitation their whole lives, people who might be told they are somebody but who never find a stage or listening ears. For all of those folks and for everybody else, Obama was offering redemption, a voice. He was offering hope.
Another amazing thing was that unlike most black figures, including Jesse Jackson, Obama was not chasing the American ideal of togetherness — praising it but really chastising it for betraying black folks so badly. He was out in front of it, calmly extending the ideal in both hands as if it actually belonged to him. When he said, “You all are tired,” he was saying he was sorry that his ideal had disappointed but assured us it was going to be restored; he was giving us his word about something I always thought we as black people had none to give. It had never felt possible. Obama didn’t change that reality on the spot, but his confidence touched me. He was seeing something I couldn’t, looking over our heads at something, largely invisible to most of us, that drove him, that had driven him all over — Chicago, St. Louis, and now here, finally, to the continent’s end.
It was because of this vision of something I sensed but couldn’t see, but which I knew that he saw, that made him a hero to me that afternoon. I saw his faith in a fully realized America, a faith that I and many other black people — certainly all the ones I knew — had put aside long ago, mostly because we felt we had no choice. Obama, on his own, was offering us back that choice. He was a hero not because he was transcendent or prophetic, but precisely because he was none of that, at least not yet. And he might never be; he might fail utterly in this undertaking, I thought. But the undertaking was what mattered. It was what moved me. I also thought that whatever he did from this point on was going to matter terribly to black folks. He was one of us, although he didn’t know that yet; stalking that stage, he didn’t really know what he was setting in motion, and that ignorance moved me too. Obama saw things we didn’t, but we also saw things that he didn’t, and this kind of silent dance was a dynamic between a black figure and his followers that I’d not seen or felt before, a modern romance that I knew right away was going to be the stuff of myth, not just speeches and endorsements and poll numbers. What Obama did was going to matter in a way I never thought any black person in my lifetime could matter. The stakes were too high to even measure.
When the rally was over, I didn’t leave the paraphernalia of words on the ground as I ordinarily did. Instead, I was carrying something that excited me, something very physical, which also made me uneasy. I was rattled. Obama had gotten under my skin and into a psyche that belonged to another age, one in which black people followed the fortunes of people like Joe Louis and Malcolm X as if their lives depended on it, because in a way they did. I walked away knowing I would now have to follow Obama like that. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to and doubted that I even had the time, but I had no choice. It was this feeling of surrender, immediate and almost titillating but mostly alarming because I had no idea where this one man would take us and how this quest would end, that made him a folk hero that day. A dangerous one, too, because this Obama, like Malcolm X, had ambition that he saw as perfectly appropriate, even patriotic, but it was going to make him an outlaw. A pariah, a loner. It didn’t matter that Obama, quite unlike Malcolm, appeared utterly mainstream, that he attracted enough admiration and support from white folks to eventually put him into the highest office in the country and arguably in the world; despite that, he was going to be on his own. This isolation was another thing that he didn’t see coming then, but I did. We did. Certainly Malcolm would have seen it. Martin Luther King, despite his own belief in the Beloved Community that had paved the way for Obama, would have seen it too. But Obama had cast his grand vision on an assumption never made by a black figure before: that everybody, black and otherwise, saw things exactly as he did. They, too, saw what had been lost in America and knew what needed to be reclaimed. He wasn’t only a black man arguing a position on our behalf, he was a fellow American steering the way back to an America that had once morally challenged itself on many questions, including the question of race. Obama was appointing himself primary keeper of the American story, not a critic of it, a thoroughly modern vision of black possibility that was going to get him elected, and then reviled, by white folks.
Black folks who had always seen the American story for what it was saw it all coming; we would overwhelmingly support Obama and then brace ourselves for the opposition. Our apprehension, as it turns out, has been more than justified. But that doesn’t dim the miracle of Obama, which is simply that his new story, his attempt to not just belong to America but to lead it, is ours. He is ours. The truth of that has been alternately heady, bittersweet and tragic. The story is not over, the meaning of the particulars not sorted out. But it is already legend.
* * *
From the instant he became president, Obama has been a black cultural touchstone like nothing I’ve seen before. His presence has changed everything, realigned our thoughts and arguments about ourselves and our progress and our country, affirming some things and disproving others. As so many people have said to me, his symbolism has been the most influential thing about him. It’s also been the most controversial. As president, he is a black man waging a battle against the racist tendencies of the very system he was elected to lead, fighting daily to effect ideals of unity and common good that were never meant for black people at all. This is the spectacle that black folks have followed anxiously, more so than his policies, many of which have been shaped — not in a good way — by his failure to effect those ideals. The failures, the over-compromises, are Obama’s acknowledgment of defeat; that includes his almost total silence on the subject of blackness itself, which for black folks feels like the worst defeat of all. And yet we watch Obama struggle and sympathize with him, with his thwarted ambitions and his failures, because to be what he’s trying to be — black, idealistic and president — is nothing less than superhuman. A folk hero’s errand for sure. The errand is almost complete.
True to what that electric feeling in the park presaged for me in 2007, Obama has been a figure of unprecedented importance for black people. Throughout his turbulent presidency we have anxiously measured the breadth and meaning of every setback and every triumph, though clearcut triumphs have been rare (and even they are cause for a certain anxiety). In the pantheon of black figures and leaders, Obama is unique, a logical extension of King and Malcolm but also detached from them because he has made most of his decisions detached from us; he has us in mind but not at the table. As president he decides things only as himself, not as an agent of other black people, which doesn’t mean that we don’t benefit from his decisions, but we don’t know what he intends for us, if he intends anything. It is a new and strange dynamic that has left us still arguing what Obama’s role as president should be as far as black people are concerned. What I have heard most often is, “He’s not the president of black America, he’s the president of the United States of America!” which to me is a bright red herring, a self-negating posture meant to head off a more troubling discussion about why we as black people have learned so well to have no expectations of anyone who makes any claim to represent our interests, however obliquely. Yet we support Obama because we must; his stature in the world and his still-unfolding battle with the America he claims to love demands our support. He may not actively represent us — the first black leader with that somewhat dubious distinction — but he is ours. He means more to us than anyone has meant in a long time, so even if you have soured on him since 2008, you cannot ignore him, and you especially cannot ignore what he means. As a twice-elected president, he is a towering symbol of previously unimagined black success that has reconfigured all of our conversations about race and racial progress; nobody can talk about either thing anymore without invoking his name or citing what he recently said or what’s been said about him.
But his ubiquity is double-edged. In a white America that blacks must still navigate, Obama is both our armor and our Achilles’ heel: on the one hand, his presence in the White House refutes stereotypes of black inferiority and fallibility; on the other, his blunders or failures of nerve confirm them. We largely forgive him the blunders, because that is our job — who else but us will give him the margin of error he needs but is never granted, the margin we seek but rarely find for ourselves? Who else will say he is human? And we forgive him because, towering figure though he is, Obama is one of the family. He is one of our bright young men who made good, the very essence of the talented-tenth vanguard that W.E.B. DuBois imagined would lead the race to new heights and eventually prove to America that equality was not a theory, nor was it some charity dispensed by white folks when it moved them, but a fact, a reality. Obama is our fortunate son who carries the weight of this proof, and we worry for him, like all parents with great expectations worry for their children. We worry not only about how he is faring in his job, but about how he is doing — is he eating right, keeping his head on straight, keeping it together? The front pages of newspapers and websites keep up the purely political narrative — what’s happening in the White House, in the polls — while blacks keep up a parallel but shadow narrative whose core concern is how the political beast that Barack leadsis also trying to eat him alive.
This is the battle royale we have been watching, with Barack our accidental folk-hero protagonist fighting an enemy far bigger and more insidious than anything faced by folk heroes such as John Henry, Joe Louis, or Malcolm X. Those men were pitted against a machine, against white men in a boxing ring, against the self-doubt of black people. But Barack is pitted against America itself. America and its entire monstrous history of racism that has been roused anew because he has dared to try and show the country something, dared to be black and chiefly idealistic rather than black and chiefly critical, imploring or righteously angry. For this sin of initiative and imagination he is still being punished, and we are still watching the battle unfold (years later he is still standing tall, but he seems to be losing by degrees, sinking into the ground by quarter inches) in a kind of collective agony and fury that will take many more years to put into words. So much is at stake: If Obama loses his idealism, loses what he began this whole enterprise with, then blacks will have lost, too, even those of us who never believed in the enterprise of One America in the first place. The question about what would happen if there was ever a black president is no longer rhetorical. It is being answered.
Yet his presidential record has little to do with his heroism. Years from now, we will tell stories and sing songs about Obama’s great feat of becoming the first black president who did not ultimately change the real world in which we all suffer, who in fact succumbed to the political temptations of that world more than a little. But the feat was that he got to the top on his own volition. He did not get there as a black prop of white ideology, à la Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He succeeded as himself. And himself he has remained: though he lost many ideological skirmishes along the way, Obama the man / hero didn’t unravel or despair on the world stage that he’s occupied every day. Under terrible pressure he has kept his brilliant smile in reserve and his gravitas intact, even flashing the old agitation at times — the promise to use his veto pen in his last years of office, the quick seething at innumerable moments of hysterical opposition by the white right. Through all of it he has been approachable but unflappable and, to the puzzlement of many in the media, emotionally impervious. He bends, compromises, but does not bleed. This is what black folks appreciate and recognize as themselves, that Obama the idealist is also a survivor. He hews to a critical black tradition of forbearance in the face of great, almost inevitable disappointment, of soldiering on in spite of. This is what has endeared him to us, what ensures his place in our still-unresolved history as a hero for the ages; forbearance has already placed his image alongside the images of true freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, as well as folk-tale heroes such as John Henry. Like all of them, Obama risked for the sake of others. He dreamed of a different state of being. He tried.
Excerpted from "I Heart Obama" by Erin Aubry Kaplan. Copyright © 2016 by Erin Aubry Kaplan. Published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England.