By Leslye Joy Allen
Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student
Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All rights reserved.
I strongly urge every one to read “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates in September 2012’s Atlantic Magazine; and “Barack X: Race and the Obama Presidency” by Atlanta’s own Jelani Cobb posted on October 8, 2012 in The New Yorker. These are two superior essays that deal with the shifting attitudes about race as this nation examines the record of our current President Barack Obama. While I cannot give you an analysis of everything Coates and Cobb discussed, I can say that these essays are masterpieces by two very thoughtful Black scholars.
It is worth mentioning that Coates noticed a definitive and more negative shift in the manner in which some members of the Right viewed and spoke about Obama once he came out and stated that if he had a son that son would look like Trayvon Martin. He also stressed that the President did not point accusatory fingers at anyone, but simply asked for a thorough investigation of the killing of the unarmed teenager. However, Cobb beautifully and uniquely compared Obama to the late Malcolm X. Once Malcolm X returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca and reappraised his approach to dealing with America’s racial problems, he was confronted by many people, Black and White, who were not prepared to accept his evolution into an activist that would and could build multiracial coalitions to fight for racial and economic justice. Cobb underscored that like Malcolm X, Obama simultaneously represents different things to different sets of people, almost none of who are prepared to grant him much wiggle room to change.
In both essays Obama appears as much set free by his racial identity as he is boxed-in by it. Although Coates and Cobb’s commentary was deeply moving, I noticed how their and others’ discussions about President Obama and the death of Trayvon Martin have so rarely focused on gender, on the very idea of manhood and even Black manhood itself.
As a self-designated Black man—and please, let us not discuss the fantasy that Black Americans are racially pure because miscegenation, during and after slavery, ended that purity—President Obama has, according to many pundits, simply not been able to publically show anger because, God-forbid, he might appear to White voters as the stereotypical angry Black man. Black male aggression (and violence) is fine on a football field or against other Black people or in the movies. Yet, such imagined or real aggression is not acceptable in the Whitehouse or on a street in a gated suburban enclave: that is, if you believe the late Trayvon Martin was the aggressor against neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman who pulled the trigger on Martin allegedly in self-defense.
For Black men, any demonstration of a more forceful masculinity is fraught with dangers. If Black men act angry and are loud, they risk stigmatization as “thugs,” or worse they might conjure up that age-old stereotype, the “Black Buck.” The “Black Buck” was almost always a villainous rapist and/or thief and/or murderer or all of the above. The stereotype is almost as old as the American slavery that allowed White southern slave holders to manufacture it, in part, to justify Whites’ continued enslavement and persecution of Black people. Black people en masse, but Black men in particular, Whites reasoned, needed supervision.
President Obama knows this history of Black America. Was Trayvon Martin familiar with this history? Does George Zimmerman know anything about this narrative? We do not know. We also cannot know if Zimmerman saw (or sees) himself as somehow having transcended that category known as “person of color” due to his having a Jewish father. The media first described George Zimmerman as, “Hispanic White” or “White Hispanic,” to the surprise and confusion of many enlightened members of an ethnically and racially diverse Hispanic American population, many of who have some African and/or Amerindian ancestry themselves.
When protests over Martin’s death became a national and then an international cause célèbre, the media pivoted and identified Zimmerman as the visibly brown-complexioned man of Peruvian extraction on his mother’s side that most of us already assumed he was. So, what does all of this mean? Well, it means that President Obama and George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin have much in common, even if their commonality is not strikingly evident.
Obama, Martin, and Zimmerman are (and were) manipulated and trapped, by real and perceived definitions of masculinity—masculinity viewed through the prism of race and certain inter- and intra-racial expectations. All three males are confined not only by their own definitions of manhood, but also by classifications that come from others who place certain expectations on them for reasons that have everything to do with their race and gender.
Zimmerman has a police record.—He once fought a police officer that tried to arrest one of his friends. Such a brawl appears, on the surface, as one example of swaggering male bravado. If Trayvon Martin did in fact confront Zimmerman—the man who was following him—he probably did so in order not to appear weak or afraid. Remember, Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend, a young woman who told him to run. How many boys, to say nothing of men, want to appear weak or afraid in front of women who are important to them? While we will never have a complete account of that tragic night in February 2012, it is plausible that Martin’s flawed teenage wisdom incorrectly told him to “Stand His Ground,” pardon the pun. How many fathers and men (and mothers for that matter) have you heard tell sons, nephews, and any male friend or family member to, “Protect yourself; protect your mother, your sisters, your girlfriends, your wives. Do not start a fight, but do not allow anyone to push you around or run you away. BE A MAN!” For most of us, the opposite of being a man is to be a coward. And then…
There was President Obama’s polished and fact-filled, but rather lackluster, performance in the first Presidential debate of 2012. Critics rightfully thought he should have hammered away at some of Mitt Romney’s falsehoods. Instead, Obama seemingly held back, and people on all sides of the political spectrum saw Romney as the winner. The president appeared to many people as weak. Was he tired? Maybe. Has his notoriety as being cool and level headed, restricted his responses? Perhaps. We do not know. Yet, there is such a thing as being too calm or even too cautious. I would not wish the balancing act that the President has performed for nearly four years on anyone. However, there was something about the glee coming from many folks on the Right, that made Romney look like the Great White Hope—all puns intended—a man that had the stamina to beat a Black man.
I do not know what may happen in the next debate or in November 2012. Perhaps everything I have written here will become obsolete in just a few days. Yet, I do know this. At this late stage of the game, President Obama has little to lose if he shows a flash of righteous anger. In fact, I believe he is entitled to it. And here is why: In a gated community in Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman might not have followed a Black female for no other reason than her being Black. It is easy to dismiss a Black female as harmless even when they often are not. Zimmerman did not follow Trayvon Martin because of something Martin did or was doing. He followed Martin because of what he thought Martin might do. And Black males always might do something, right?
I do not want to give the impression that we Black females have not been and are not subjected to some of the worst brutalities and indignities. Yet, Black females, are too often dismissed as non-threatening simply because we are women. WE Black women fight for our personhood, not our womanhood. And because we are often dismissed, those of us with brains can use our inconsequentiality to get away with any number of things that Black men might be reprimanded for or killed for attempting to do. It is no accident that it was Black females who first refused to relinquish their seats to White passengers on those buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 (and there were several who did it before Rosa Parks). A Black man or boy might simply have been killed. WE sisters have always known how to use our persecutors’ varied and negative definitions of us against those same persecutors.
Now, too many folks followed President Obama in the mistaken belief that the sheer virility of his Black manhood, with all of its alleged hyper-masculine implications, would cause the earth to spin in a different direction and the “Magic Negro” would appear and solve everyone’s problems. Throughout history Black folks have often been viewed simultaneously as having some special qualities all the while being villainized, often by the same people. This is not new. When folks on the Left and the Right discovered the President to be a mere, albeit talented and highly intelligent, mortal Black man, the disappointment resonated everywhere. How dare he defy that racialized masculine stereotype of what Black manhood must be, should be. George Zimmerman bought into the flip side of this fallacy and followed and subsequently shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager in alleged self-defense. He has arrived at this tragic moment in his life precisely because he mistakenly believed that the boy needed to be followed in the first place. Yet, Zimmerman himself could not/cannot escape the stigma(s) that follow “men of color” either. He was first conveniently a “White Hispanic.” He became a “Brown man” the moment public opinion turned up the heat about the killing of Trayvon Martin. So here is my message to President Obama:
Your enemies will not acknowledge your triumphs no matter how gracious you are, no matter how genteel you are, no matter how big the victory, no matter how much you love and respect your wife or spend quality time with your daughters. Some of your allies worry that if you show any anger you will frighten someone–mainly some already nervous White folks. But here is the dilemma, you already frighten a lot of people for reasons we all understand. No matter how skinny or seemingly innocuous or peaceful or tempered your demeanor and responses may be, you remain a threat, a Black male threat. (WE also know that if you had been 17-years-old in Florida and walking back from the store wearing a hoodie, you too probably would have been followed or worse.) Now, I am not suggesting that you show up at a campaign rally or a staff meeting or a debate and punch somebody’s lights out. I have no desire for you or any other Black man to be violent, loud or profane. I expect decorum at all times. However, since you are already perceived as a threat, you might as well turn up the heat. History has shown that turning up the heat is all our enemies truly respect. WE, your sisters, know what real dignified Black manhood looks like. WE have been warmed by it, loved by it, respected by it, protected by it and defended by it; and WE have your back!
Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All rights reserved.
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