Obama Is Not a Post-Racial President

The Enduring Political Legacy of Amiri Baraka

Barack Obama at the "door of no return" near Dakar, Senegal. (Courtesy Reuters)

In practically every activity he pursued, the poet, activist, and iconoclast Amiri Baraka, who died earlier this month, was an intellectual and creative lightning rod. His advocates saw in him a "truly free black man" who was unafraid to speak truth to power. His detractors saw someone who traded in insult, posturing, and conspiracy. Depending on your worldview, Baraka was either an eloquent sentinel guarding against the spread of white supremacy or a loudmouth who never stopped complaining about racial inequities. No matter where you stood, it was impossible to deny that Baraka was consistently racial -- blackness, after all, was his lifelong project.

But most of Baraka's obituaries failed to appreciate the full extent of that project. The narratives have focused on his intellectual and cultural commitment to blackness -- his early years as a Beat in Greenwich Village, his turn to a black nationalist creative aesthetic that ushered in the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s -- and on his removal as the poet laureate of New Jersey after he wrote "Somebody Blew Up America," a poem that was widely seen as anti-Semitic for its claim that Israelis had advance knowledge of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

What has gone neglected -- quite shockingly so -- was Baraka’s commitment to blackness as a political project. Of all his pursuits, his leadership in organizing a National Black Political Convention, which was an attempt to imbue formal politics with a fundamental sense of blackness, is perhaps the most relevant to the United States’ present cultural moment. One might be tempted dismiss Baraka’s political blackness as outmoded in the age of U.S. President Barack Obama, whose astonishing rise began with his keynote address at a very different political convention. But whatever Obama’s reputation as a post-racial political leader, his political success and his political sensibility owe plenty to Baraka’s explicitly racial precedent.

The idea for the National Black Political Convention grew out of a series of smaller meetings, helmed by Baraka in 1970 and 1971, that embraced the ideal of unity without uniformity. The mantra was meant to recognize that black Americans existed across the ideological spectrum, even as they shared the lived reality of being second-class citizens who always stood on the precipice of state-sanctioned racial humiliation or even violence.

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