During the intense summer of 2013, made so by the societal heat and friction caused by the George Zimmerman trial, President Barack Obama spoke to the nation on July 19, a week after Zimmerman was acquitted by a Florida jury in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. As always, his words were thoughtful, yet measured, meant to heal, not wound.
Yet Tavis Smiley declared the president’s speech was “as weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid.” He continued: “I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. But he did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium. A week of protests outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House, pushed him to that podium.”
Also addressing the president’s remarks, Cornel West stated, “[Obama] hasn’t said a word until now, five years in office and can’t say a word about the new ‘Jim Crow’ … Obama and [Attorney General Eric] Holder, will they come through at the federal level for Trayvon Martin? We hope so, but don’t hold your breath … President Obama is a global George Zimmerman.”
At first enthralled by the new president, Smiley and West, two titans and icons of black American intellectualism, turned into two of his most vocal critics. They accused him of not being forceful, vocal and prophetic enough when it came to standing up and speaking up for black Americans, and his response to the Zimmerman acquittal was further proof.
Conversely, at the same time President Obama was being blasted by people like West and Smiley, many on the right were accusing him of being a “race baiter,” “racial agitator” or, in some cases, a flat-out “racist” who “hated white people.” Our first black president, who never, ever appealed to or tried to incite black anger, but valiantly tried to give voice to black pain in order to further a sense of national understanding and unity, often saw his words and actions twisted out of context by those who felt he should never broach the subject of race at all, and by those who felt he didn’t say enough.
If Obama’s election ushered in talk and thinking of a possible post-racial America, our first biracial president found out firsthand that such a time had not yet arrived. As the brilliant scholar Michael Eric Dyson pointedly stated, “Obama had always to field demands from some blacks to be blacker, and the wish of many whites to whitewash the story of American race and politics.”
If, as has been said, optimism and perseverance are two essential traits of leadership, President Obama embodied both. His ever-present warm and beaming smile, along with words that were consistently hopeful and pointed toward the possibilities of what could be — of what the nation could accomplish with a spirit of togetherness — never faded from his lexicon. In the face of unprecedented intransigence and obstructionism, he persevered.
Although the opposing party’s leadership stated early on that its main goal was to oppose basically everything the president wanted to do — or, in the words of retired Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, “If he was for it, we had to be against it.” — still, he persevered. The governor of Arizona was pictured wagging her finger in his face while talking to him. During his first State of the Union address, an opposition party member shouted that he was a liar. Still, he persevered.
Through so many personal slights, insults and disparagements, President Obama not only persevered, but did what would probably have been hard for many of us: he never became bitter, never allowed his inner light and optimism to be extinguished. He was a walking example of how to deal with adversity and ill-natured people.
For someone who was so comfortable and well-versed in the language, culture and nuances of black Christianity, he was strangely accused of being a Muslim. Yet it was his rooted connection to the black Christian tradition that led him, after delivering the eulogy for nine black parishioners who were murdered in their church by a deranged individual, to begin singing the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It moved the soul and teared the eyes of many. Finishing, he stated, “May God continue to shed his grace on the United States of America.” (Emphasizing the word “United.”)
The beautiful first couple made the White House truly the “People’s House” by opening its doors to host a multitude of children, groups, artists and events that communicated it may be the Obamas’ residence, but it was the nation’s home.
More importantly, whenever you saw the first couple there was no doubt you were looking at two people who were in love and loved the children they brought into this world. They epitomized American family values. No salacious scandals. No tarnishing improprieties. President Obama recently stated, “At some level, what the people want to feel is that the person leading them sees the best in them.” And in seeing the best in us, he and his wife tried to reflect that by displaying and embodying what is good and best about America.
One may differ on his policies, and that’s OK. But what can’t be disputed is that as he gets ready to exit the national stage and pass on the baton of leadership, he does so in a way and with a legacy that, for the good, is worth remembering.