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

Obama Is Not a Post-Racial President

The Enduring Political Legacy of Amiri Baraka

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.

When precursor meetings in Atlanta went smoothly, Baraka was joined by Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Indiana, and Representative Charles Diggs of Detroit, Michigan, as co-conveners of the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) in Gary in March 1972. Over the course of two days, close to 10,000 black Americans met to share political strategies, cross ideological boundaries, and work together to craft an agenda that would lead to the establishment of the National Black Political Assembly, a group that would identify and support blacks running for office who were committed to addressing issues most relevant to black America. It was an ambitious plan, and one that aggressively ignored the practical impossibility of finding common strategic ground between young black militants, established religious leaders, the various individuals (and egos) in the late Martin Luther King, Jr.'s leadership circles, businesspeople, and a new generation of black elected officials who held local, state, and federal offices. 

As it happened, when the convention issued the National Black Political Agenda at the conclusion of the meeting, many of the prominent black leaders who attended the gathering quickly distanced themselves from it, believing the agenda's strident tone and its nationalist ambitions to be too radical. Even though the mainstream black political operatives certainly agreed that the United States was facing a moment of reckoning, the first substantive lines of the agenda (also known as "The Gary Declaration: Black Politics at the Crossroads") were alienating to those who had placed their professional faith in the recognized structures of political process: 

    We come to Gary in an hour of great crisis and tremendous promise for Black America. While the white nation hovers on the brink of chaos, while its politicians offer no hope of real change, we stand on the edge of history and are faced with an amazing and frightening choice: We may choose in 1972 to slip back into the decadent white politics of American life, or we may press forward, moving relentlessly from Gary to the creation of our own Black life. The choice is large, but the time is very short. 
    Let there be no mistake. We come to Gary in a time of unrelieved crisis for our people. From every rural community in Alabama to the high-rise compounds of Chicago, we bring to this Convention the agonies of the masses of our people. From the sprawling Black cities of Watts and Nairobi in the West to the decay of Harlem and Roxbury in the East, the testimony we bear is the same. We are the witnesses to social disaster."

In these opening lines, we hear the echoes of an internationalist politics that black militants espoused, linking the problems of the developing world to problems closer to home and the belief that the United States' economic system was complicit in keeping black and brown people in their place everywhere. We also see the dividing lines being drawn between black and white politicians. The Gary Declaration did not traffic in subtlety:

    Here at Gary, let us never forget that while the times and the names and the parties have continually changed, one truth has faced us insistently, never changing: Both parties have betrayed us whenever their interests conflicted with ours (which was most of the time), and whenever our forces were unorganized and dependent, quiescent and compliant. Nor should this be surprising, for by now we must know that the American political system, like all other white institutions in America, was designed to operate for the benefit of the white race: It was never meant to do anything else.

Although the Gary Declaration was a group-authored document, Baraka’s influence on its language, tone, and approach is unmistakable. It was soon evident, however, that Baraka's commitment to the agenda was a lonely act. One prominent black leader after another -- Coretta Scott King, Coleman Young, and the membership of the Congressional Black Caucus among them -- rejected the agenda and its controversial resolutions against busing and its condemnation of Israel. Even Baraka's co-conveners, Hatcher and Diggs, distanced themselves from the convention's final document.

In the end, the breadth of black political consciousness -- the lack of uniformity -- left little place for unity. For this reason, black political gatherings in the following years never matched the 1972 National Black Political Convention in scale, scope, or ambition.

But the NBPC was not without successes. It demonstrated that undercurrents of a new black political sensibility were waiting to be tapped. Even if Baraka’s manifesto failed to win everyone over, the Gary meeting presented black nationalist thought in a different context, one that created more space for black candidates to run for elected office (the numbers of black elected officials doubled within years of the conference) and that pointed to new roles that black people might play in the political process. The creation of black think tanks, such as the Institute of the Black World; the escalating black presence in local councils and the executive chambers of the nation's leading cities; the civil rights activist Jesse Jackson's subsequent mainstream political campaigns; U.S. President Bill Clinton's endless tactical appeals to a sympathetic and patient black voting base -- all of these can trace their roots back to the noisy convention in Gary that said it was time for blacks to embrace the politics of "social transformation."

But if the National Black Political Convention changed the shape of black political possibility in the years that followed, what sort of imprint has it left on the politics of today? Put bluntly, does a politics of blackness still matter in the era of Obama?

It is tempting to answer that the racial politics of the 1970s are fundamentally different from those of the 2010s -- that Amiri Baraka and Barack Obama share little overlap in their political sensibilities. This is the line that talking heads have proffered since Obama’s election by claiming the post-racial age. Of course, what post-racial means, exactly, is up for grabs. For people such as former Secretary of Education William Bennett, Obama's election meant that an era of racial whining sanctioned by the excesses of the civil rights and black nationalist movements had ended. In Bennett's post-racial world, as he put it, "You don't take any excuses anymore from anybody who says, 'The deck is stacked, I can't do anything.'" For others, such as MSNBC's Chris Matthews, the post-racial era means that it is possible to be racially amnesiac. After Obama's first State of the Union Address, an exuberant (and perhaps flummoxed) Matthews declared, "I was trying to think about who he was tonight. It's interesting: he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour." For both men, Obama's election meant an end to a political sensibility informed by blackness -- a sensibility that called out structures of socioeconomic inequality that were formed by institutional racism, for example, or a sensibility that obviously linked a black person to black ideas and black politics. 

But this is precisely where we could use Baraka’s analysis. Appeals to a so-called post-racial moment have often been a convenient way to ignore that blackness is still a relevant political category. The idea of blackness as politics still informs the sensibilities and choices of many African-Americans -- including Obama.

Of course, Obama has largely avoided making this explicit in his public rhetoric. There have been exceptional moments, however, when he let down his post-racial guard and took the time to educate the public about the black experience. One example is his reflection upon leaving the Door of No Return at Gorée Island in Senegal, which pointed to the deep emotional connections between the people sent to the Americas on slave ships and black Americans today: "Obviously, for an African-American, an African-American president, to be able to visit this site… gives me even greater motivation in terms of human rights around the world." His extemporaneous comments in the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial are another example. On that occasion he spoke in the first person for nearly 15 minutes, sharing multiple examples of how racial profiling, even in our post-racial age, was at best inconvenient, at worst lethal. Obama also spoke to the long contextualizing history that shaped a black sensibility:

    You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.

In Senegal and in the White House briefing room, Obama's politics clearly aligned with his blackness.

Granted, there are many, many differences between the pyrotechnic declarations of a poet activist at a political convention being held in an impoverished Rust Belt city and the off-the-cuff thoughts of the most powerful person in the world who has made clear that he is the president for all Americans, not just black Americans. And yet there is a line connecting them that we cannot deny. It is a line rooted in experiences that demonstrate that black people -- despite differences in wealth, education, political orientation, and sexuality -- are still black before anything else.

The rhetorical and stylistic differences between Baraka and Obama speak less to changes in race relations in the United States than to shifts in how the U.S. public tolerates overt conversations about blackness in its politics and how the African-American community tolerates overt conversations about politics in its blackness. How blackness and politics will inform each other in a post-Obama world remains to be seen. It is difficult to imagine, however, that the current post-racial sensibility will be sustainable when a white person returns to the Oval Office while racial profiling, the tight linkage between income inequality and race, and the constant conflation of socio-cultural degradation and race remain in place. 

Perhaps it will be time to unify once again.

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