Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Between Barack and a Hard Place

Last Saturday during the forced downtime of Snowmageddon Part 1, my mother and I were discussing President Obama’s recent woes. “Why don’t they just leave that man alone and let him do his job?” Mom asked. “How come they have to pick apart everything he says? Don’t they know he’s only human?"

“Well Mom,” I replied, “it’s because he’s President and not only that, he’s the first Black President, so of course they’re going to pick apart everything he says.”

She heartily agreed.

During her highly anticipated (and compensated) Tea Party keynote, Sarah Palin derisively referred to Obama as a “charismatic guy with a teleprompter” and a “law professor at a lectern” as if being charismatic and having a formidable intellect were somehow undesirable qualities to have in the leader of the free world.

But, ironically, these are precisely some of the qualities that make Obama such a perfect opponent for Palin and her compatriots — or indeed make him an opponent at all. Because if Obama had affected the folksy, befuddled persona of say, George W. Bush, during his campaign, he would have never been elected. Seriously. Think about it. If Obama (like Mary Poppins) hadn’t been nearly perfect in every way, if he hadn’t gone to Harvard, made Law Review, had an expert command of the English language, many voters would have never given him a second look.

Even though Obama doesn’t like to highlight his race, the fact that he is Black immediately places him under incredible scrutiny. Whether he likes it or not, his words are never entirely his own. When Barack Obama speaks, many Americans don’t see just a man speaking, they see a Black man speaking and his words are parsed with all the unspoken baggage that fact brings with it. He can’t, for instance, make a grammatical error, and have it just be an innocent (and maybe even an endearing) mistake. For some that error may just prove what they unconsciously have believed all along: that’s he’s Black, ignorant and therefore unfit for his office.

Being a Black woman who’s spent most of her life in extreme minority situations, I am quite familiar with that kind of pressure. From an early age, my parents taught me that it was not enough to merely be good; as the only Black kid in the school for much of my academic career, I had to be the best. So-called Black English and slang were discouraged even during casual family gatherings. If you didn’t learn how to properly read, speak and write the King’s English, the cruel White world was never going to give you a chance. If you dressed sloppily, had even a hair out of place, no one would bother trying to see your true potential. In short, you had to be perfect — just to have a crack at being human.

My lack of an obvious “ethnic” accent and command of standard English has allowed me to do some pretty amazing things like attend excellent schools, publish in an elite academic journal and do a two-hour telephone interview with a local skinhead with him never suspecting he was speaking with the enemy. It’s also gotten me labeled as uptight and elitist. (“You actually spell-check your e-mails?” a co-worker once asked me in disbelief.)

Similarly, President Obama’s considerable strengths cut both ways. The qualities that helped get him elected, namely his exceptional oratorical skills and quick mind, also get him labeled intellectual, elitist and out of touch with the people, even though before the sales of his books, Obama was a man of relatively modest means.

Recently Obama has been letting his hair down, speaking in his shirt sleeves, using more casual diction in his speeches in an effort to prove that yes, he hears us. But even this more populist Obama chooses his words deliberately and is keenly aware of the effect his language has on his image — which is as it should be. The President of the United States is not your beer buddy; he’s President and should carry himself as such. But I also suspect he knows — whether he likes to discuss it or not — that as a Black man his every word and deed are being watched and that even on a bad day, he has to give 120% just to break even.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your argument and enjoyed reading it. i'd like to offer another perspective, also from a black woman born and raised in America (as well as being queer identified). but come from a different place, figuratively, academically, grammatically and politically. and in an effort to keep it short, i'll be blunt.
    while race and race conscienceness will always be an issue in this country, the current state of affairs far supercede the usual relations that dictate the political ping-pong that captivates us, as a society. president obama is slowly, but surely, disappointing the people who put him in office. while that doesn't mean that all of America has turned on him, there has been a definite shift in his support, mainly because of the amount of time that has passed since he was elected and since he pledged to "change" the country and our political system. Americans wanted a quick fix and they got another politician who realized his mortality once he got settled into office. Americans want our economy to rebound and healthcare to be fixed. But still, a year later, we're in the same doo-doo Bush landed us in. The president not only has to watch how he says something but he has to have the guts to say something. He wants to be liked by everyone but that's not good politics- its politics as usual. While your blog wasn't about politics really, the politics are the undercurrent that steer our relationship with the president. his nature comes second to his business. and we, are his business. until people are no longer being tossed out of their homes, until we're no longer at war, until the economy continues to tank- he will be scrutinized. the true question is to what degree and how will he handle it. that's just my two cents.

    ~Innocence Bello

  2. I didn't mean to imply the only reason why Obama is having trouble is because of his race, but certainly that is a huge part of it -- especially among the Tea Party crowd, who may be small, but they're getting a huge amount of press right now.

    Frankly, I'm not sure if any one person could pull off the kind of change America needs without committing political suicide. America needs someone who's absolutely fearless.

    The economy can rebound, but things cannot go back to the way they were because the way things were was unsustainable. We cannot afford to fix healthcare, unemployment, and the country's infrastructure and fight wars all over the globe at the same time. I know of no politician who's willing to say to the American people. " Look, if you insist on buying these unwinnable wars, there will be no money left over to spend on healthcare, on jobs programs, on modifying bad mortgages so that people can stay in their homes. If we spend the bulk of our research dollars discovering new and exciting ways to kill people, there will be no money left over to cure disease or find an alternative energy source so we can stop buying oil from people who hate us. We can no longer afford to chase every rumor Al Queda puts up on the Web. That is the road to perdition and the true death of freedom." I don't know of any politician who would state the truth so directly — except maybe Dennis Kucinich or Bernie Sanders. It's easy for me to type on this blog, but its easy to play armchair President, too.

    I was kind of hoping Obama would have said something like that when he announced his policy decision on Afghanistan, since I was seriously hoping he would get us out of there, but no go. But maybe after a year, he'll discover that he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't and do something truly righteous and outrageous.

  3. Sister McMillian - thank you for sharing your insightful remarks. I got a nice laugh when you shared your friend's reactions to spell checking your email. Pressure turns black coal into translucent diamonds. Currently we place great value on diamonds - there may come a time when coal is more precious.

    My own view is that President Obama loves his job and enjoys the even greater scrutiny that must accompany the highest office in the land. He doesn't lament it - he thrives on it. He is a man on a mission unwilling to settle for defeat. He has American racism to thank for taking a very capable young man and creating a stellar divinely guided leader.

    I look forward to reading more of your perfectly penned prose.

    Summer Hill Seven (

  4. Personally, I dread the divinely guided, unless the prophecy they embrace is grounded in the realities of the stable, this world’s oppression. Just as FDR could not challenge the moneychangers without a powerful people’s movement, neither can or will Obama. That’s why I call for an art of prophetic power, one that breaks the spell imposed by the false prophecies of political expediency, credit default swaps, and Tea Party racism.

  5. “He is a man on a mission unwilling to settle for defeat………” Yes I used to think so. But the “change” I so wholeheartedly believed in is turning out to be just another “same-old-same-old” particularly after doing a thorough google search of Rahm Emanuel and few of his closest associates.
    I know, it hurts, me too.