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Yearning for a President to Call Our Own

With Trump in office, African American scholars, writers and artists wrestle with the realities of the past and the future.

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It was the mournful face of the accordion player, tears streaming down his face, that told the world black people in America had lost a friend. As Chief Petty Officer Graham W. Jackson, Sr. played, the body of President Franklin D. Roosevelt was leaving Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 13, 1945, for the president’s final journey to the nation’s capital. Jackson’s sense of loss, reflected the loss of the black community.

That loss resurfaced more deeply with the end of the two-term tenure of the nation’s – but mostly black America’s – first black president.

The recently published anthology Not our President: New Directions from the Pushed Out, the Others, and the Clear Majority in Trump’s Stolen America  (Third World Press Foundation, 2017) is a collection of essays by scholars and activists who seek to define progressive identity and radical resistance in the age of Donald Trump. Since January, we have witnessed the transition from the gentleman-president to the misogynist-in-chief who bathes in white nationalism and relishes divisiveness, while promoting a false patriotism that is inherently xenophobic, racist and sexist. African-Americans and our progressive allies are now a majority in the wilderness, growing anxious by the day, but determined to develop a new framework for collective-action to free ourselves from this new menace.

If racism enters the picture as stains on presidents, only Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Barack Obama can claim some of our allegiance; the rest have even deeper crevices of deceit than these five.”

— Molefi K. Asante

Historically, the New Deal was a watershed moment for democracy in America. Though history rightly records the Lincoln presidency as pivotal to black people’s conditional emancipation, the New Deal was `a defining period of black civic engagement. Though Jim Crow was in full flight, “our” president, and more so First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, conferred with his “dark” cabinet, or Federal Council of Negro Affairs. This Negro intelligentsia gained the president’s ear – if only a temporary seat at the table. Our voices were heard through the likes of Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune, Rayford Logan, Dr. Robert C. Weaver, and William H. Hastie.

FDR’s “Black Brain Trust,” the Federal Council of Negro Affairs

It all came to an end the day before Graham Jackson was captured for posterity as our surrogate mourner. We had lost “our” president. This loss was different than Abraham Lincoln, who enjoyed an association with the likes of Frederick Douglass, but whose politics was centered on saving the union with a portion of emancipation on the side. FDR was the first man in the Oval Office that the masses felt was our friend, was on our side. It was now over. Who was going to be “our” president now?

Claiming Our Allegiance

We have been searching for a friend ever since. As Asante, a professor at Temple University, asserts in Not our President: “If racism enters the picture as stains on presidents, only Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Barack Obama can claim some of our allegiance; the rest have even deeper crevices of deceit than these five.” Asante juxtaposes these five presidencies against those of Washington, Jefferson, Reagan and Eisenhower that the author suggests cannot be considered great as deemed by many whites. For the author, the greatness of an American president can be measured by the individual’s efforts relative to racism in America.

Enter Barack Obama. Here was an African-American with a distinct lineage – child of a mixed-race couple with paternal ties to Kenya. He was the ultimate black success story. What’s more, this young black Ivy League man with the culturally distinct name had toiled in the vineyards of community organizing in Chicago. Not perfect by any means, but here was our new friend. Howard Dodson Jr., the former director of both the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, notes: “Barack Obama was and is a firm believer in the ideals, principles and values espoused in the nation’s founding creed.” It was Obama’s idealism that attracted black and white voters and led many to believe that America had crossed a great racial divide. Yet, upon reflection, Cornel West, of Union Theological Seminary, challenges that narrative in the book’s foreword and suggests the optimism is misplaced. “When I heard my brother say America’s a magical land, I said, this brother’s going to have a Christopher Columbus experience. He’s going to discover America.” David O. Stovall, of the University of Illinois-Chicago, echoes the sentiments of West, when he writes: “The ‘gift’ of the current administration is that it awakens some of us from our Obama administration-era slumbering. It is confirmed that we are not post-racial. The multitudes of us have not made it over.’”

Barack Obama

Then came 45. How do we reconcile the intentionality of this president’s racism with our continued belief that his office should represent the hope of a nation for the construction of a society full of opportunity for all, and free of bigotry and hatred? The Trump era has presented a conundrum in the shadow of the Obama years. We are lost for words to describe our anger, dread, worry and despair over 45s intent to unravel whatever good his predecessor accomplished.

Donald Trump

Our reaction to Trump, while understandable, is also somewhat perplexing. This is America, after all. In this anthology Bill Ayers, a retired University of Illinois-Chicago professor, reminds us: “To be shocked at the outcome of the presidential election is understandable; but to be shocked and disbelieving a few days (or months) later indicates a lack of understanding about the nature of the country we live in, its terrible unresolved history and its living white supremacist base.”

What Donald Trump represents is the accumulation of pent-up racism and bigotry that was only held in-check by the intermittent courage of a few American presidents. The torrent of white nationalism that has been unleashed represents the reclamation of the White House by factions among this citizenry that never have nor ever will honor and respect the humanity of black people. The writer Jonita Davis puts the rise of Donald Trump in proper historical context. “For as long as we have been a country, Americans – specifically white Americans – have held themselves as superior to other foreign, dark and different groups. This attitude goes all the way back to the first settlers.” In other words, the rise of the so-called Alt-Right is simply the recycling of white supremacy. Kelly Harris, of Chicago State University, notes that Trump embraced the optics of white nationalism – “Indeed, his campaign was one long marketing ploy to construct a narrative about America that privileged whiteness.” It is an accurate observation when one considers the tone of whites who feel offended by any notion that people of color have any claim to American citizenship and the constitutional rights it confers.

Resistance

The challenge posed in Not our President is how do we construct a resistance movement, build a collective consciousness to fight the neo-fascism that Erica Davila, of Lewis University, correctly points out is promoted subliminally by a president whose real message many believe is “Make America White Again.” It is not an easy task when considering the array of interests that take refuge under the progressive tent. How do we move beyond Trump? How can we construct a nation upon a foundation of equity that embraces income equality, gender equality, sexual identity rights, the right to health care and housing, quality public education, human rights and full democratic participation? Is that even possible when our politics is often predicated by our class interests? We can declare Trump not our president, but we are still stuck with the racial baggage and class conflicts of our inherited homeland.

How do we fight back? In Not our President, Talib Kweli Greene, the hip-hop recording artist, suggests “we show solidarity with marginalized groups that will be further marginalized in Trump’s America.” He is right in noting the potential power of a coalition of the abused. We also need some specific steps to organize resistance. Aminifu R. Harvey, a retired professor from Fayetteville State University, offers a 19-step action plan based upon citizens’ discussions that examines the Trump presidency in the context of the 42 Declarations of Innocence ancient Egyptians used as a moral code.

Given the tactic of misinformation and deception employed by the Trump White House, the role our media plays in reinforcing Trumpism in our nation also cannot be underestimated or overlooked. Trump has weaponized presidential press briefings to the point that they injure public understanding of critical issues and further polarize an already divided public. Lasana Kazembe, a professor at Indiana University-Indianapolis who is the book’s co-author, encourages Americans to use alternative, non-corporate news sources and provides a list of those he believes will promote a deeper awareness and scrutiny of political issues. His point should not be taken lightly. The corporatization of our national news media has left many, on both sides of the partisan political spectrum, suspicious and distrustful of reporting that only seems to serve political ends. For the African-American community, the resuscitation and reconstruction of the black press is an essential prerequisite to collective action.

The real challenge raised in Not our President is not necessarily how we find peace with this administration. It is really how we find meaning in America. We are a scant nine years away from this nation’s 250th birthday, and the climate in this country now recalls the worse periods of American history for its black progeny. Perhaps it has always been this bad and the Obama presidency just gave us a reprieve. Still, it can’t be denied by any objective observer that the ominous cloud that now hangs over our nation is the climate change that Donald Trump caused. He’s not our president, but this is still our nation and we must summon the will and the strength to save America from itself.

 

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