Let's Stay Together: Obama and the Swooning of Black Silence

Copyright 2012 by Ewuare X. Osayande

Given all the chatter about Obama’s recent appearance in Harlem, you would think he was a contestant on “Showtime at the Apollo” rather than a president running for reelection. Passing around the internet is a 90 second clip of him singing a line from Al Green’s classic song “Let’s Stay Together” during a speech at the legendary Apollo Theater. With not a word mentioned about what the man actually said, Black corporate media outlets and Black pundits have instead been raving about the president singing. And the Black community is officially swooned.

We’ve been here before. Remember when Slick Willy appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show and played the saxophone?

Is that really all it takes to win the Black vote? Evidently, it doesn’t matter where a candidate or incumbent stands on the issues as long as he or she can carry a tune. No wonder the Democratic Party has not made any real effort to respect the power of our vote. We give it up so easily. Even so, his selection of that song in particular is very telling. In an election year where Obama will need the Black vote to show up at the polls to win reelection, the song choice is most apropos. But notice Obama didn’t sing the next line: “Whatever you want to do is all right with me.” Sad part is, he doesn’t have to, hasn’t had to and doesn’t intend to do what is right by us.

Any substantial coverage of what the president actually said that night in Harlem has been drowned out by the sound of Obama’s crooning. This from a president that would not be in office were it not for the record turn-out of the Black community in 2008. Yet, since he took the oath of office, mum’s been the word when it comes to issues and concerns of dire import to the quality of life in Black America. It is a calculated silence that we are paying for with our very livelihoods.

Just a week before the president’s appearance, the national unemployment rate dropped, and this was cause for celebration. Yet, as the general unemployment rate decreased, the Black unemployment rate increased at an equal amount. If this coming election will be all about the economy, then where does that leave us, when the economy is but one of a host of issues that have so many of us without the proverbial pot to piss in? Public schools within majority Black districts sit on the verge of bankruptcy, our infant mortality rate continues to match those of so-called Third World countries, and the incarceration rate of African Americans has left our communities economically and culturally crippled. Under his watch, more African Americans have fallen out of the so-called Black middle class than ever before. Yet, not one word from the White House about us in four years.

We are told to simply be proud to have a Black family in the White House and defend him at all costs. But if the cost of electing a Black president is our collective silence, then where is the benefit when such symbolic victory doesn’t pay in dividends we can see? Pride doesn’t pay the bills or put food on the table or provide opportunity for our children. If our silence is the price of staying together, then it is high time we reevaluated this relationship.

There are those that would say that the president can’t speak on Black issues because that would cause him to lose critical support within white America. Fact is, Obama doesn’t have to speak on issues germane to the Black community in order to be tagged as Black by the Republican Party. His very Blackness is sufficient in itself. In the eyes of the white right, he is already sufficiently Black for them to raise his difference as scare tactic in their thinly veiled racially-coded script. No matter how much he panders to the white right, he will never get cross-over appeal or win the votes of those that didn’t vote for him in 2008.

While he keeps silent when it comes to us and we keep silent when it comes to him, the Republicans have been anything but silent about how they view us or him. They have thrown every vile and racist quip at him to see what will stick. In the eyes of their conservative constituents, he will always be Barack Hussein Obama, that “Muslim” “Socialist” “Food-Stamp” “who really isn’t an American” president that they would love to see assassinated but will rally to defeat at the polls if only to save face. It is this kind of racist diatribe that will find us at the voting booth throwing our considerable political weight behind the first Black president once again, only to be ignored for another four years.

This year is the 40th anniversary of The National Black Political Convention. Held in Gary, IN, it was an unprecedented political event that brought delegates from all corners of the continental United States to debate the issues of the day and create what would be called The Black Agenda. In part the convention sought to determine what direction the Black community should take toward political empowerment. The path we have meandered down finds us today at a political dead end. 40 years later, we are even more disempowered and politically inept then we were back then. So much so, that just last year our first Black president stood up in front of the Congressional Black Caucus and told us to stop whining and complaining, fall in line and follow him. Lacking a political agenda we have become his political lackeys.

Seems our greatest mistake has been equating the act of electing one of our own with political empowerment, when our empowerment lies in our ability to hold those elected accountable to an agenda we have designed. Until we do that, we will continue to be exploited by politicians who come into our community and give us nothing more than a song and a dance.

Malcolm X called us out in 1964 in his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”. He was talking about the Johnson administration then, but he could have easily been talking about our relationship to Obama today.

“The Democrats have been in Washington D.C. only because of the Negro vote. They've been down there four years, and all other legislation they wanted to bring up they brought it up and gotten it out of the way, and now they bring up you. And now, they bring up you. You put them first, and they put you last, 'cause you're a chump, a political chump.”

I think Malcolm would agree that we don’t need politicians who will come into our community singing when we need them to go out and do some “swinging” on our behalf. But in order for that to happen, we must first stop being “political chumps”.

Ewuare X. Osayande is a political activist, poet and author of several books including his latest Whose America?. He is founder of The People's Alliance for Justice Now! and teaches African American Studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.