Barack Obama, invisible president: To truly see him requires white Americans to see themselves

When Obama shattered the racial glass ceiling, in the shards were the broken fragments of white illusion

Published August 12, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

Barack Obama   (Getty/Leigh Vogel)
Barack Obama (Getty/Leigh Vogel)

Adapted from "Barack Obama: Invisible Man" by David Masciotra. Copyright 2017, Eyewear Publishing. Excerpted with permission.

Barack Obama was the invisible president. He was invisible simply because people refused to see him. Just as Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator explained about his curious existence of permanent placement in the optical shadows, paranoiacs see him as a "figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy." Meanwhile, the mind best at dilution, and absent the intellectual equipment to deal with the complexity of humanity, reduces Obama to a symbol. He becomes a statue, but unlike a stone construction with a face locked into hospitable expression, he has the capability to challenge the onlooker and uplift the observer, just as he has the potential to disappoint the viewer.

The protagonist of "Invisible Man" diagnoses those whose minds erase his human features and characteristics as suffering from a "peculiar disposition of the eyes" – the "inner eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality." Psychologists would call the inner eyes "consciousness." An individuated consciousness frames the focus of all experience, and instructs and guides, sometimes with the inscrutable properties of the best mystery, the individual how to receive and perceive everything. The election of Barack Obama — a black man with an Arabic-rooted name after slavery and segregation, and at the height of cultural anxiety over Islam — collided with the consciousness of many white Americans. Among the wreckage and in the casualty count, was the vision of the American public, and the capacity to rationally observe, absorb and interpret the president.

The beautiful and brutal story of American development, always in progress and often moving backward, differs from the Shakespearean statement of existential despair. It is not, as Macbeth understood life, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The linearity of American history is traceable only according to the expansion of freedom and the enlargement of liberty. In 1776, only white men who owned property could vote, the indigenous wore a target for expulsion and exploitation, and men who looked like Barack Obama qualified only for chains. Before Americans can pop champagne bottles in a celebration of themselves, they must realize that every inch of conquest for liberty and justice required a bitter and bloody war of collision. Whenever a group of Americans — black, gay, female — demand inclusion in the American experiment of self-governance, they face violent and vicious opposition.

The struggle of American history pitting the outsider, the underdog, the underclass against the powerful, wealthy, and often elected is the tale told, not by an idiot, but often to idiots — idiots who make themselves ignorant with their refusal to open their eyes and see. The blindfold over the inner eyes is much too thick for the outer eyes to function properly. For millions of voluntarily blind Americans, the act of witnessing Barack Obama deliver his victory speech on November 4, 2008, shortly after the concession of an elderly, white war hero, caused post-traumatic stress disorder. They could no longer function as adults with clear eyes and clear thoughts. They would spend the next eight years speaking and acting as if they were habitual users of hallucinatory drugs — seeing the ominous signs of conspiracy, destruction, and subversion in every wink, grin, and gesture of the alien occupying the Oval Office. They believed and propagated the idea that Obama was an agent acting to undermine America, and in some ways — but not how they thought — they were correct. Regardless of policy, and his policies were not outside the mainstream, Obama undermined the mythic America of perfection — the "shining city on the hill" that Ronald Reagan, America’s greatest contemporary mythmaker, boasted of — by framing focus on reality; a reality that, despite its tragic and traumatic dimensions, maintains greater beauty and inspiration than the myth. Barack Obama’s election was only unprecedented, and for many, unpredictable, because of America’s history of bigotry and oppression. To the Americans who tacitly approve of oppression, or choose to act as if it does not exist, Obama’s victory sent a signal: Your story is not relevant.Your fantasy is no longer a believable story. It is not that America is or is not great, but that America must always strive to become great. The election of a black man, who would not have been able to vote just decades earlier, to the presidency is a significant hammer in the nail in the construction of greatness.

Many other Americans, while not as deranged and demented as those who saw in Obama a monstrous force of evil and subversion, diminished Obama as person, dispossessed him as president, and deracinated him into symbol. Because his mere victory was a revolutionary act of symbolic transformation at the height of American power, many voters believed that his presidency would possess revolutionary potential of equal power. Any imperfection in policy or rhetoric from President Obama would undermine this unrealistic faith claim, and expose him, in the debilitated inner eyes, as a fraud. To the sympathetic, but delusional, white liberal, Obama was not a normal human being. He was a blank screen waiting for them to project their fondest fantasies and deepest wishes. Any blemish on that screen would result in its destruction. Fallibility is intolerable to those searching for a messiah. Unrealistic expectations, due to an overinvestment in Obama’s symbolic power, created conditions conducive to the eventual erasure of Obama’s identity and achievements. A statue does not speak. So, it certainly will not utter words unfriendly to the desires of the onlooker. A statue does not move. It cannot walk in a direction unfamiliar to the observer.

Simultaneous with the reduction of Obama into symbol was the refusal of many voters and critics to acknowledge the value of symbol, and the power of the symbolic alteration of the American image Obama authored. What would it mean for black children to have their formative experiences as citizens with a black man as national leader, chief executive, and commander? What would it mean for white children? What would it mean for the Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants and natural born Americans who had names like Barack and Hussein? What would it mean for all of the adults in interracial marriages, and more consequentially, the children conceived within those unions?

These important questions hung in the air like a thick fog on a city street. Americans, risking an emotional crash, drove through with abandon, foot on the gas and hands steady on the steering wheel. White America had grown so accustomed to, and physically and spiritually invested in, white leadership of American institutions that it could not fully grasp the black hue of the White House. Obama shattered the ultimate glass ceiling, and among the shards of glass, were the broken fragments of white illusion. White superiority, and perhaps more importantly, white authority could no longer be taken for granted. While symbolism is insufficient for the task of political improvement, it is through symbol that human beings develop an understanding of their own stories.

When Obama took the oath of office, he shattered a symbol that, for many white Americans, was essential to their story, and replaced it with something from an area of American history previously kept undercover. That high level act has a low level application. It moves from pathos to the pavement. When I developed into adolescence and then early adulthood, it seemed entirely natural that the president, along with the mayor and the governor, always looked like my father, or my uncle, or like a much older version of myself. Michele Wallace, a black writer and professor, recalls the opposite experience as a school child in 1960s New York. She writes that she can "still remember the stricken look" on her teacher’s face when she announced that she wanted to become president when she grew up. For much of its history, the subtext of the adjective, "American," was "white." White is normal and universal, while other races and ethnicities require their own special days on the calendar, television networks, subgenres of literature, and university departments. Obama’s ascension to the mountaintop of imperial and cultural command demolished all the natural assumptions of the American order. On night one, Obama’s impact created too large of a crater in the collective consciousness of the citizenry for him to enjoy a normal presidency. The right wing, in their distortion of him into a monster, set him up to fail, but so did the left wing, in their hopes of him as a messiah. The moderates in the middle often seemed disconnected from the essence and existence of Obama, having arguments about the man they treated as a pedestrian on a crosswalk during an afternoon stroll.

An interesting and revealing criticism of President Obama grew increasingly popular among conservative commentators at around the midway point of the presidency. National Review, Fox News, and other familiar sources of right wing reportage began to brand and bash Obama as "lazy" and "absentee" for his reportedly "unprecedented" and "excessive" vacation and golf getaways. Those same outlets soon issued a similar indictment of Obama’s "refusal" to host press conferences. Eventually, the mainstream media channeled the same story through their own, much louder amplifier, and the idea of Obama as a reclusive president has shaped public perception of his performance, with many Americans often commenting how they "never saw him."

It turns out that Obama had taken fewer vacation days than any president since Jimmy Carter, and that he averaged two press conferences a month — more than Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon, the same as Clinton, and slightly less than both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The attack on Obama’s absenteeism read like much more than mere partisan insult. In addition to playing on old stereotypes against black men, it also demonstrated the blindness of those who say it and believe it. They actually could not see Barack Obama. He was in the White House — not on vacation — and he was speaking to the press, but millions of Americans believed otherwise. They do not see him, because they cannot see him. They see only what their imaginations allow them to see, and from the vantage point of that odd and obstructed view, a postmodern mystery of politics emerges to haunt America in the 21st century: Does President Barack Obama exist?

Is the former President — not the monster, messiah, or statue — real? If so, who is he? What has he accomplished? What are his failures? What is his influence? How does he operate as symbol, and what is the substance of the man?

* * *

In the 21st century, America remains a riddle few people can figure out. Never a country with a clear or definitive character, it is the battleground for people attempting to negotiate and navigate the collision between two equally powerful and real stories of America. It is the story of domination and democracy. It is the story of repression and revolution. It is the story of exploitation and equality. It is the story of dogma and dialogue. It is the immigrant arriving at American shores with dreams of liberty and independence fueling him down the superhighways of commerce and bureaucracy. It is the American plane dropping bombs that decimates the city of that immigrant’s birth. As president, Obama contributed to both sides of the story. As a liberal reformer, he advanced the democratic and egalitarian side, always with an interest, even when it hurt him, in dialogue. As the commander-in-chief of an imperial military in the last gasp of empire, and as the face of political power, he also maintained the American tradition of dominion in foreign affairs. It is far too early to evaluate Obama’s influence on the at once mighty and filigreed psyche of America. The ink of the tattoo he’s made on American skin is not yet dry, and is not yet fully open to interpretation.

One of the few things that is certain is that the election of a living and breathing monument of multiculturalism, and a man who makes cheap puffery about diversity into magnificent reality — a black, white, African, American — is a triumph of the American story Walt Whitman put to poetry long before many others could develop the maturity and imagination to understand its wisdom. In Dreams from My Father, thirteen years before he would become president-elect, Barack Obama, articulated and advanced his own rendition of Whitman’s anthemic song, "the voice of democracy."

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ In those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life. I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. I hear the voices of the people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country’s borders, the weary, hungry bands crossing the Rio Grande. I hear all of these voices clamoring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life… In the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.

The presidency of Obama — irrespective of its policies and by the measure of its existence — amplified the voice of democracy, and underscored the promise of its victory. There does exist the dream of the ties that bind withstanding the tornadic pull of ignorance and tribal hatred. The terms of unity often land with the thud of cliché, but it is a cliché worthy of faith. It is the cliché that Obama elevated into poetry when he aced his national audition giving the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and it is the cliché he embodied behind the presidential seal at the most prominent pulpit in the world. Millions of people on the political right and left could not accurately see Obama, because they cannot actually see America. It is a land of too much complexity and too many contradictions. Obama, like a literary invention Ellison could imagine, has become an archetypal representation of all of those contradictions — a characterized capsule busting at the edges.

The election of Donald Trump signals to the world that many Americans are not yet prepared for the full implications of America. Walt Whitman sold precious few books in his lifetime. In his essay, "Democratic Vistas," he worried that "genuine belief had left" American culture. In its place existed only the cold and quixotic comfort of career advancement and material advantage. Over a century later, America has transitioned from Barack Obama — a learned, aspirational leader — to a man who presents America as nothing more than career advancement and material advantage. It is important, now more than ever, to consider the possibility that the idea of America is too radical even for most Americans.

President Obama, not always politically, but culturally, more thoroughly captured the idea of America than any other modern president. Of all the unanswerable and intractable questions that surround the Obama presidency and legacy, one conclusion is unavoidable for anyone with the intellectual honesty to look into the dark corridors of a personal and political belonging to a nation with an identity in constant flux and turmoil. It is the same conclusion Ellison’s narrator reached when he wrote, "Our fate is to become one, and yet many – This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going."

Barack Obama is invisible, because to see him would require that we all see ourselves. It would demand that we finally unmask the face we wear that is at once full of breathtaking beauty, but also irredeemably ugly.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters" (Bloomsbury Publishing) and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

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