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.