Great Expectations And the Humanity of Others

At the end of the film “The Graduate,” when the protagonist has absconded away with the bride onto a bus (of all things), one of the last shots of the film is the look of stunned horror on their faces, after the levity and absurdity of the act has dissipated. Both realizing the gravity of what they have done.

After all the chest-thumping, parades, accolades and hootenany, I can see the president in the Oval office, alone, surrounded by all the pressures of the world and the great expectations of a nation and having that same expression.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, ‘Well … how did I get here?’ (“Once In A Lifetime,” Talking Heads)

One can assuage themselves in the belief that they got there via hard work, tenacity, political acumen, shrewdness, a well-run campaign, novelty, brilliance and an “Up With People” vision that many wanted to co-sign on.

And being relatively young, gifted and black didn’t exactly hurt either.

But still, at some point it has to hit you, when you’re alone surrounded by the ghosts of president’s past, that you are now, officially, “The Man,” for better or worse. You are where you have always dreamed to be and now what?


President Barack Obama can only go in one of three directions: down, up or to the Never Neverland of the “Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations” that plagued Bush 43. A political limbo where life feels like an episode of the landmark British sci-fi/spy series “The Prisoner.”

You can insist “I am not a number, I am a free man!” Yet 44 is your handle, your mark in time. With the White House as a virtual Erewhon, where all your needs are met and catered, but there is no escape. You got what you wanted, for better and for worse. Now it’s time to make the magic happen or die from the cut of a thousand critical tongues.

This isn’t to elicit sympathy of the president. He wanted this job. Badly. And he fought hard for it. Everyone who wants to be president is two steps from selling a kidney if it means they get the audacious title of “Leader of the Free World.” President Obama’s ambition is only matched by his ego, the healthy ego of an individual who thinks he could be the Allen Iverson of American politics — the Answer.

How will we follow, analyse, admire, criticize, romanticize, antagonize and realize this man? This human being filled with the same doubts and failings as all of us (but has the tact to not reveal his hold cards of emotion)?

There are a lot of novels that make me think of Obama’s ascension of power – some positive, some controversial. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and, of course, Ralph Ellison’s classic, “Invisible Man.”

All three stories surround the lives of intelligent men and their rise. In some cases it is duplicitous (Gatsby), Grimm fairy tale-like (Expectations) or a singularly Negro nightmare (Invisible Man). “Invisible Man” was the book that impacted me the most as a college student. To this day I could never get over those envelopes the unnamed protagonist opened, the ones written by a university man who claimed he was only trying to help the former student. Then the terrible reveal of how the letters were not of support, but of a Fool’s Errand, sending him on a goose hunt for work that would never come.

Keep that nigger boy running.”

That is the phrase that has echoed in my head since I first read those words in 1997 for I have been there. I have been the hamster in the wheel, hustling, but going no where. Whether it was because of my own short-comings or my gender or my race, so many times I could see it in the eyes of others to use what they could of my talent, then burn me out. To make promises that did not fall through. To push for “instant bonds” without a natural progression of trust building that bordered on stalking and brain-washing in a gross attempt to make me someone I am not.

You created an illusion and named it me
But I killed that dream, that’s not who I want to be
Took your words and made a soul cookie cutter
Making shapes out of my flesh hoping to form another
They call you Svengali Or Pygmalion
Berry Gordy or Russell Simmons
You take empty minds and mold them like clay
Turn people into the people they are today
Create talent where there’s none
Have lots of fun before what’s to become
You fell in love with a dream
But my good girl smile is not what it seems
You’ve left your psychological prison, but you still carry a shank
The pungent promise of damaged dank stank
Life turns you about
But you are surprised at my doubt
When my histories of you are non-existent
Insist to me you are the path, yet you’re something like a rejected skin graf
To infect the burns of a wandering soul
Yet despite your distortions, it’s God you thank
And I was there when you sold your soul to the devil,
As you blame the lack of faith in others, despite never being on the level
Call it love, call it love, call it possesion
I’ve been the battered wife before, I know the procession
Open your shuttered jaded heart, as you are want to do
Demand instant devotion, but I will never belong to you (“You Created An Illusion,” D. Belton)

In this era of “Great Expectations,” President Obama will do many things and we will study them all. But the main thing will be — how much of his actions will be of his own volition and how much will be the pressure of those expectations? To see T-shirts proclaiming Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Obama could run set Obama up for Black Messiah standards, rather than presidential standards.

To his credit he has both attempted to mute some of the hero-worship (re: his solem, serious inaugural speech) and has enjoyed the hype train. It did help him get elected after all.

He can lead by example. He can give us the positive images we crave. He can attempt to restore some order to Washington and finally put away the childish things of the Bush Administration. Those decisions always based on “gut,” rarely backed up with fact, logic or reason. But like the once sooty-faced Pip who rose out of poverty through the machinations of the mysterious man guiding his life, can Obama transcend the dreams of millions who have made him king when he’s scarcely had the chance to utter a word?

Hero worship. It is not a bad thing. But blind devotion is. It sets yourself up for failure, disappointment and a turnabout of irrationality that could take today’s “Barack and Michelle Can Do No Wrong” T-shirt wearer and turn them into the latest bitter biter who spends their days expecting the worst so that they may never be disappointed.

I mock the word, but there is nothing wrong with hope. Hope for the better. Hope for change. Hope for a parting with the ways of the past. But hope should not be coupled with blindness. In our love and fondness for the new First Family we must keep our wits about ourselves, be fair and be understanding. President Barack Obama did not get us to the fabled mountain top, but he did force America to finally stop retuning our checks stamped “insufficient funds.” The promise of the American dream seems more tangible than ever and for that I hope he continues to lead by example — especially in the case of adoring his wife and children, showing us either inadvertently or on purpose that black people are capable of love, and giving the office of President the luster, status and stature that it deserves.

We often behave as if have two only choices: the cautious pessimism (but please prove me wrong) of those who want to believe and the blind devotion of those who will defend to the end even on the most ridiculous of points. I don’t know why we can’t have a marriage of both. The wary eye to make sure our needs and issues are addressed and the celebratory attitude and pride of a people finally seeing a living, breaking representation of PROGRESS. Why can’t we have our Hope Cake and eat/criticize it too?

For many blacks and other minorities around the world, Jan. 20th was yet more evidence that America’s ideals are closer to reality and less hype. That we truly are working towards that “more perfect union,” despite the bumps and setbacks that have come along the way.

You can view the next four years with a guarded heart and cynicism. You can worry about the hype. You can debate how much of this is part of Obama’s plan to inoculate himself against his critics versus what is the real. But like the poem I wrote, “You Created An Illusion,” more than five years ago after my divorce, I can see it applied to all blacks who reach a position of prominence. We have created an illusion of Barack, a loving illusion or a suspicious illusion, but we will never know the true man that his friends, wife and daughters know. We can only press our faces against the glass and analyze every executive order, proclaimation, kiss, cuddle, kind word and tick. We can only Monday Morning Quarterback what was real and what was Memorex.

I have chosen not to question the familial relations. I am the child of an affectionate mother with two affetionate sisters. No one, I repeat, no one can ever know the innerworkings of a marriage. It is a secret pact shared by only two. In my personal life, I know my parents love each other, but I don’t pretend to understand them in the way they understand each other. I can only look on the outside through the loving eyes of a daughter.

Obama can’t be everything we want him to be.

He can try to be his best. We will watch and judge accordingly. But we must remind ourselves that despite our fondness for the First Couple, we do not personally know them. That we are operating on illusions, on our projections of our desires, and while our beautiful dreams of love and bliss and pride are not malignant like the one’s that plagued my brief, soul-sucking marriage, they are still illusions. They are still the things of “Great Expectations.”

There was no sequel of “The Graduate.” I prefer to pretend that particular Jennifer Aniston film based in the aftermath of the original doesn’t exist. We don’t know what happens to that young couple. If they would regret the rash decision they made. If they were so caught up in the emotions and romanticism and hype and had not thought through their actions.

Or maybe everything turned out fine.

That’s the risk you take when you spend two years of your life consumed with the office of the president to now have it in your hands. Where do you take it? Will it change who you are? What’s next?

In an area where certainty of motives cannot be assured, we shouldn’t make President Obama and his wife Michelle what they are not. Observe, love, question, discuss and accept who they are. Just as I desire to one day be loved by some poor schlub for who I am, just as we all want to be measured by who we are and what we do — we should not immerse the First Couple into an illusion of Negro Fantasma that is impossible to live up to.

We could do our own psyches a favor — pro or con Obama, and take things as they are with a hope for the best after the initial stun has passed.

12 thoughts on “Great Expectations And the Humanity of Others

  1. Oh dam I wrote this whole long response and lost it all when i pressed preview post. Dammit.Let me try and remember what the hell I wrote.I don’t think that people are looking at him as some "messaiah" or through rolse colored glasses. I think the "press" wants you to think that, but that is not what is happening.People have come through 8 YEARS of carnaage of lies and useless wars and a economy almost destryed and a President who insisted nothing is wrong, it isn’t any wonder that people not only in the United States but all around the world, are Hopeful .A little Euphoria is not a bad thing. People are volunteering and organzing to Help out, that is not a sign of People whose eyes are blinding by a "halo". It people who know things will take time and hard work. I go to a lot of sites, and yes there is so much Hope, but also people wanting to be part of the process of change.This is nowhere what I wrote before, oh well

  2. @ CanuckWhile most folks are excited in a normal, happy fashion, like ourselves, just a quick cruise around the message boards of many blogs and Web sites will reveal that some are more realistic than others. The press, on the other hand, is doing what they always do — chasing a good story. If the winds change, they’ll chase that too. I don’t expect the Honeymoon phase to last too long considering all the tough decisions he has to make.But I’ve already read people ripping each others heads off (not on this blog, but others) over the most banal things — like not liking Michelle’s clothes and turning that into a "are you with us or against us" referendum on the administration. Or screaming over whether Michelle Obama’s hair is natural, but flat ironed or a perm. It seems so small in the scope of everything he has to do and accomplish in such a short time.That said, I’m bummed you lost your comment! I hate it when that happens.

  3. A great article Snob. Yes, we do have to be mindful of projecting our personal hopes and expectations onto the Obamas and just take things as they happen. President Obama has done well in rejuvenating the political sphere somewhat and showing the world the potential "black love" holds. He is no Messiah or superhero but a very capable, loving and confident man who may make mistakes, tow the party line and disappoint, we can’t control these things. His advancement has definitely been something the world needed to see.

  4. This is a good post, Snob. After the past 8 years, if he’s only a quarter as talented as we THINK he is, he’ll still outdo Shrub. I find it hard to believe that this country could get to a lower point, so my thinking is that there’s no way but up!I’ve been disappointed, and building on the bitter for 8 years, since the Supreme Court began shattering my belief in The Constitution. You can’t blame a girl to want to get rid of the bitter. It can sap the soul after awhile. I love my country. I really do. So, I’ll be on ‘the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself’, train. I just want to believe again. I don’t like being a cynic.

  5. Well written, I love what ideas you present here. I can’t get enough of your blog- Your post on Gaza/Israel was amazing and the way you so clearly and calmly debate with others in the comments- your writing is a delight to read.

  6. this is a great post.. as a brit i feel the mood to be one of hope as to what Obama can do to change and fix what 43 did over the past 8 years.. we watched and waited holding our collective breaths…we know it will be hard and most of us know there will be a few mistakes… a few side eyes along the way – just because america will be at odds with europe over a lot of issues but not because he is a bad president…it is a good day.. and i hope the ‘messiah complex’ wanes away as the months go by.. people need to get real… and some need to stop the petty, crabs in a barrel (michelle & black designers??) sniping already…

  7. I just want him to do his job and do it well. Period. he is not my Rorschach test @ all. I project nothing of what I want him to be onto him. I expect him to be comptent and don’t really care much about the rest. He seems a wonderful family man and husband. I want to make sure he’s a great President as well.

  8. Good post. I think you said it all. One of Americas strength is also it’s weakness when it comes to the dream vs the reality:"the American dream""I have dream"l "dream a little dream with me" LOL!The system being broken is the larger reality for me, and usurps all things. Let us "hope" his years are quiet and works out well.

  9. The greatest opening ever to a situtation; you find youself asking well how did I get here. Then to allude to the Prisoner something I bet damn near everyone who reads you is googling. Definitely one of your best ever

  10. Thank you Danielle for this lovely existential post. I also appreciate the picture from the Graduate, which is one of my favorite films, and the opportunity to ready your lovely poems. However, I must say, the chase scenes in the Graduate, played by Dustin Hoffman, would not have been the same, were it not for Ann Bancroft(the bride to be’s mother) who attempted to seduce him, If I am not mistaken, the would be bride, played by Katherine Ross, ran off when she discovered her boyfriend was being SEXUALLY EXPLOITED by her mother.This is all quite different from Obama. Obama has always been described as cool, secure and deliberate, the opposite of the Graduate. Obama is very well connected and well grounded, also the opposite of the Graduate. Obama was supported by a the most excellent campaign staff, a small army, which executed what people say was the most well run campaign in modern American history. He assumed the presidency with his key staff in place and ready to work on the first day. The Graduate was forced to work alone because of the sexual harassment and even molestation by his eventual mother-in-law. Her behavior (incest) was never discussed in the 1960s, especially among guys. Obama’s two best selling books about his life were part of his campaign, The Graduate couldn’t tell anyone what happened to him, ever! It would have brought shame on his wife’s family, and aside from that, no one would have believed him!

  11. @ SevenofnineYour assessment of "The Graduate" is correct, but I was merely trading off that look of "what now" at the very end, of how you go through a ton of machinations, get caught up in the moment and now you have what you want (of sorts) but now what?That’s pretty much where the comparison begins and ends — with a feeling. And I thought that look tied in well with both "The Prisoner" and the lyrics to Talking Heads’ "Once In A Lifetime." The three mixed together really gives off that feeling of "What the hell just happened here" even if what happened was a good thing.The rest of the lyrics of "Once In A Lifetime" is about losing those things or realizing those things you possessed were never really your possessions. It’s about disillusionment. And "The Prisoner," hoo-boy. That’s about mind-fuckery. I think "The Graduate" reference to solely a facial expression at the end was the least, um, heady of the three mixed metaphors.

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