Obama the black man

President bares his self in passionate speech
Associated Press
Jul 21, 2013

Something in President Barack Obama's voice caught Gregory C. Ellison's ear. It was fleeting, subtle, and easy to miss — unless you're a black man, too.

"In between his personal reflections on what it feels like to be an African-American man, and the history of pain and his strategic plan, there was what I call a very pregnant pause," says Ellison, a theology professor in Atlanta.

"If I ever have an opportunity to talk to President Obama, I would ask him what was he searching in his soul during that pregnant pause?"

Obama was wrapped in presidential authority Friday as he talked to a nation rubbed emotionally raw in the week since the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was acquitted in a Florida courtroom.

Then, in a move hardly anyone saw coming, Obama unwrapped himself, and put his own young, black face on Martin's dead, young, black body.

This first black president, the guy accused by some of running from his blackness, of trying to address black folks' needs on the down low, suddenly lifted the veil off his black male identity and showed it to the world. It was something no American president before him could have done.

He had to do it, Obama said, because "Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago."

And also because America needs to understand why so many of her citizens are in pain about Martin's death, and why black citizens, especially, are having a hard time looking at this as anything other than the latest manifestation of what Obama called "a history that doesn't go away."

All over the United States, millions of black men could painfully identify with what Obama said as he spoke about what he called their shared reality. Of being followed in department stores. Of hearing the "click" of car door locks as they walk by. Of women holding their purses close while standing next to them in elevators. Of police — or anybody, really — believing them to be criminals without knowing what's truly inside their heads or their hearts.

"That includes me," Obama said.

Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, thanked Obama for identifying with their son in such a personal way, and encouraging them as they work to turn their grief into a public "conduit" for racial healing.

"This is a beautiful tribute to our boy," they said.

Greg Carr, chairman of the Afro-American Studies department at Howard University in Washington, said the president "has an authenticity, because he does signal to the black community that he too has experienced what we experienced."

At the same time, Carr said, Obama danced with risk, daring to speculate on whether Martin, too, could have claimed self-defense under Florida's stand-your-ground law, which was often cited as grounds for George Zimmerman to fire the shot that killed the unarmed teenager in February 2012.

Obama asked the nation to search its soul about this. He invoked his "convening power" as president to bring people together to sort out ways to help young black men "feel that they're a full part of this society." He made clear he doesn't want a national dialogue on race that is steered by politicians because "I haven't seen that be particularly productive."

"I thought it was very wise of him," said Sterling Speirn, president and CEO of the Kellogg Foundation, one of 26 private philanthropies that agreed in April to work together on addressing the needs of young men of color.

"You can't just come out and pass laws and have a new initiative. ... It's not an abstract issue anymore, and perhaps this is the best way the president can lead the way," he said.

Obama's candor came just before "Justice for Trayvon" vigils and rallies scheduled Saturday in 100 cities. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, organizer of the demonstrations, said the fact that Obama weighed in about stand-your-ground laws, the focus of those demonstrations, will help "set a tone for both direct action, and needed dialogue," while the Justice Department considers whether to pursue civil rights violations in Martin's death.

White House aides said the president had quietly digested the public's reactions, especially those of African-Americans, since a six-member jury acquitted Zimmerman last Saturday. He had conversations with his family and friends, both inside and outside the White House.

He told senior advisers Thursday that he felt it was important for the country to hear from him on the subject in a broad yet much more personal context, beyond the statement he issued shortly after the verdict.

When he appeared in the White House briefing room Friday afternoon, he had no prepared text, no teleprompter. All he seemed to rely upon was his skin and the experiences he's had inside it.

Ellison, an assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said what Obama laid out was what it feels like to be "cut dead," a 19th century slang term meaning to be snubbed on purpose, or completely ignored.

This is where Ellison's head was as he listened to Obama's speech, and felt that the president appeared to check himself midway through — something black men tend to do, Ellison said, when they find themselves heading into an emotional place on racial matters. In that moment, Ellison sensed, Obama's black man sensibilities may have led him to think, "I am the president of the free world, I can't go there."

"Something happened in that pause," Ellison said. "And how many African-American men have to take that pause on a daily basis, you know?"

___

Ross is The Associated Press' Race and Ethnicity editor. AP writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.

 

Comments

J Cooper

Its called using race to further your own political agenda and catering to the base.

There you go again

This country has been more divided by race issues for the last, umm, 4-5 years. Hmmm, yep, since Obama was elected. Coincidence, nope I don't think so!

S w Rand 2016

I dunno about that, J Cooper. Because, if you really consider his statements since the verdict came down, he basically said that the jury did, indeed, make their decisions based on the evidence. He has even said that, regarding any civil rights lawsuits against Zimmerman, he hopes that people will not expect anything unrealistic.

I am pretty certain I recall both of these things being said by the president recently. And, if I am correct, then it seems to me that he has already indicated that many people have overreacted because of understandable emotions. He seems merely to want to comfort them and help the other side of the debate to understand why they overreacted. And also to impress upon people that we should try to find ways to better ensure that this kind of thing happens as little as humanly possible.

Don't get me wrong. I disagree with him on just about everything (even though we seem to want the same goals, but have an entirely different view on how best to get from here to there). But I still feel that we should consider what I said in the first two paragraphs.

I have to admit, I got watery eyes listening to him. I didn't hear the whole thing, tho. Just soundbytes. I would have to tip my hat to him on this, if it is indeed what I think it was.

deertracker

No it's not. Like it or not, blacks are citizen with rights too. He is the President of All the people. He was simply relating his experiences as a black man in America! I bet you Herman Cain will tell you the same thing!

Darwin's choice

He never had those "experiences"! He grew up going to private schools, was provided for by by wealthy white grandparents, and who knows who else, and jumps into this with both feet for the same reason as the NAACP. Selective sensationalism.

Perkins2060

Wasn't his mom white?

beepx22

If you think only black people have been followed in stores, or heard door locks click as they walk by, you're a moron.

Reva

I don't for one minute think Herman Cain would have stooped so low to continue to pull the race card. he had my vote! Why is it ok for blacks to play this all the time and they aren't racist. Nobody said anything about Trayvon Martin calling George Zimmerman a cracker but Paula Dean has lost much of her empire. That is a double standard!

deertracker

Your facts are incorrect! His grandparents were not wealthy, he actually went to a school in India at one point and used student loans to go to college. Read much?

brassman

Actually, his points were spot-on.

Tool Box

Don't listen to Deerpoop! He's just trying to stir the pot. Heck, he probably works for the register and is getting paid to keep the crack rock rolling!

deertracker

You clowns need to educate yourselves! Crack rock rolling? WTH is that?

JudgeMeNot

deerwacker, Obama was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has been playing the race card all his life.

His grandmother was a bank vice president, quite the achievement for a woman in the 1970's. Both grandparents attended college in the 1940's. Something that was certainly out of the reach of most “poor folks” in the 1940s.

Obama grew up in one of the wealthiest areas of Hawaii, Hardly a ghetto.

guess you dont read much.

herbie_hancock

If you don't know the facts that makes you ignorant, if you are presented with the facts and choose to ignore them that makes you an idiot. Not sure if deertracker is ignoring the facts or just circumventing them to save face.

deertracker

If you call that a silver spoon, you have very low standards. His grandmother did not give birth to him. Going to college does not put anyone in the upper class. Why does it matter where he grew up went to school, where he lived or any of that? He himself has spoken of recently paying off college debt. Were you of college age in the 40's? Were you poor or did you have a silver spoon hanging from your lips? He simply stated his experiences as a black man in America! What is the problem?

Mystery_Cheese

I think the problem is with the wording of things. It makes it seem as though Obama is saying that 'only' black men know what it's like to be watched for no reason, or ostracized, or abused by cops, or etc...

Clearly that's not what he's saying though, because if he were, he'd be a completely ignorant fool.

grumpy

As usual your "facts" leave much to be desired. He never went to school in India. He went to private schools in Indonesia for grades 1-4, well for 4th grade he went to a public school. Making it the only time he spent in public schooling, 1 year. Then went to the most expensive private school in Hawaii. His grandparents were solidly middle class. He didn't live in the projects, by any stretch of imagination.

deertracker

You are right. It was Indonesia, that very wealthy, developed one right? If all you say is true all you do is reinforce and confirm the treatment he spoke of in the speech. Hatorade is addicting to some!

herbie_hancock

Because everyone there is poor?

deertracker

You tell me!

Perkins2060

Wasn't his mom white?

huronguy

The only thing obama has in common with other blacks Is he likes eating chicken and water melon while watching basketball and getting free handouts from whites. His black daddy left him so his white mother and grandparents had to raise him while his black father contributes nothing. Thats what he has in common. i'm amazed that the first lady isnt a big fat white slob that the white man doesnt want so her only other alternative is hooking up with a black guy we all know a black guy with sleep with anything.
Thanks to all the ignorant white people that voted for this clown. Call me racist but just remember your president and attorney general are more racist than me.

deertracker

I used to run a very nice restaurant in Sandusky years ago. We would offer a Sunday brunch weekly. Boy did the white people really eat the watermelon and bbq ribs! Couldn't restock fast enough! The watermelon stereotype has been debunked years ago! I always wondered why the black guys want the white girl even the white guys don't want! Must be the money that's turning them on! BTW, skinny white girls like Mandingo too, they just like him on the low low so daddy does not find out!

herbie_hancock

Haha I agree with you there deertracker, I love watermelon and ribs.

deertracker

So do I. Well, ribs not so much but it is simply about personal preference!

KnuckleDragger

LOL, count me in, I can put away some ribs and watermelon. Throw in some fried chicken and I'm in a culinary heaven :)

coasterfan

Huronguy: your comments show not just racism, but ignorance. Please jump in your time machine and return to Alabama circa 1953.

herbie_hancock

Yeah I agree, that's uncalled for.

Julie R.

Wow, what a nasty vicious comment! I live in Huron and I don't have your mindset ...... and thank God for that!

J Cooper

Check your facts, he only attended private schools his entire life including a Catholic school in Indonesia, not India. In his own financial records disclosure going back to his college days no record of any student loans were found, he applied but never utilized them. Sorry the facts came back to bite you.

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