Addressing a congregation at the Apostolic Church of God, one of Chicago’s largest black churches, on Father’s Day, Barack Obama said:
“Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.”
This was his “Sister Souljah” moment. Just as Bill Clinton during his 1992 campaign tried to reassure whites that he wasn’t too cozy with blacks by denouncing a rapper, Obama was appealing to whites by condemning his own.
Even so, I wasn’t surprised to hear him referred to black men as “boys.”
Obama has often taken to “playin’ blacks.” Playin’ in blackspeak means to fool or use a person or persons. (George Bush’s selling of a war on the Iraqi people to America is an example that readily comes to mind or – “Bush played us cheap” or “he played us for fools.” )
Early in the campaign year, Obama used one of the oldest racial stereotypes in a speech to black South Carolina state legislators: “In Chicago, sometimes when I talk to the black chambers of commerce, I say, ‘You know what would be a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren’t throwing their garbage out of their cars’.” Translation; black people are dirty and lazy.
One would think getting money is a better plan.
Then, the day before the Texas primary, he let loose again, in a predominantly black venue: “Y’all have Popeyes out in Beaumont? I know some of y’all, you got that cold Popeyes out for breakfast. I know. That’s why y’all laughing. … You can’t do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.” Translation; black people are fat, stupid and lazy.
How would people respond if John McCain (or any person of a different race, nationality or ethnicity) threw out stereotypes like these? What would we say if a white person had stood in the pulpit of a black church, or anywhere else for that matter, and referred to black men as “boys,” in any context?
But since it’s Obama, sounding like Bill Clinton before his fall from black grace, or Bill Cosby speaking out of his own personal pain, the change candidate’s remarks were met with hosannas mostly by a vapid, racist, white-dominated corporate media, the black people who say what their white bosses want to hear, and blacks and whites alike who shout amen even when Obama’s saying something plainly contradicted by their own life experiences.
It was no big surprise that after the speech those critical of Obama were dismissed “as out touch” with the new “post-racial” illusion. Bob Herbert of The New York Times appearing on MSNBC’s Hardball went so far as to say that anyone who disagreed with Obama’s Father’s Day admonition to black men was living in a racial “fog” of the past. Newspapers across the county affirmed the smear with headlines like “Obama tells black men to shape up” or “Obama speaks ‘inconvenient truth’ to black men” or “Obama calls black men irresponsible” or “He’s saying things people don’t want to hear” – with the inference that truth was flowing from his tongue.
I saw no headline lead with the word “some” black men.
Playin’ folk on any day is bad enough. But, as a father, grandfather and a black person, I see playin’ black men on Father’s Day as even more repulsive. The day is for honoring fathers. We don’t honor the vets on Veteran’s Day by pointing out those who choose not to fight, or the cowards, or even the enemy.
The Obama life narrative highlights that his dad abandoned him as a kid. So, maybe it’s his abandonment issues that he’s laying on the rest of us. That would explain why he kicked his father “under the bus” implying he had acted like a “boy” when he and his wife divorced each other. Was she acting like a “girl” at the time? It is as simple as one parent being good or a victim and the other a bad victimizer? And, what of the fact that both his mother and father remarried? Is it his wish that his mom and biological dad had remained unhappily married? Does he wish his half-sister had never been born? Is he against divorce? How does he feel about forced or even loveless marriages? Maybe he believes there should be a required economic declaration before a woman gives birth and that two signatures on paper are required before conception?
No doubt, there’s a difference between being a sperm donor and being a nurturing, involved parent. But you don’t have to share a living space with a child to have an influence on him or her. And you can share a living space and be a lousy father or mother. That’s life. I was very young when I first heard the phrase “staying together for the good of the kids.” As I grew I learned that oftentimes living arrangements between ex-lovers have to change for the good of the kids.
I’m not claiming to know the story behind the picture of Obama and his father at the airport, but I suspect that joint custody between Hawaii, Indonesia, Massachusetts, Kansas, New York, Illinois and Africa would have been tough.
Writing about Obama’s speech gave me a headache. I found myself getting testy just thinking it through and what it means to me and those around me. A lot of people have approached me to talk about Obama’s speech. People walk up to me at the gas checkout line and strike up a conversation about Obama. Just the other day, a black woman behind me in line pipes up and says, “Things sho’ gonna be better when Obama gets elected.” She was not pleased with my response to her uninvited optimism. But I don’t think what she said was or is helpful in real terms.
I was speaking to a single, black woman lawyer about my unease with the speech and she immediately went off on black men in general. Now, my lawyer friend is a smart, progressive person. She’s a former New York State prosecutor but I’ve never consciously deducted points from her humanity for her past employment choice. But in our conversation she threw out all the standard lines, “black men aren’t taking care of their kids,” and “they are sorry.” I countered by saying most social psychologists believe that an adolescent girl is more mature than an adolescent boy, so, who do we pin being the most irresponsible on? I asked her: If we believe that it is a woman’s right to chose whether or not to be a mother, then why should irresponsible black fathers be the sole point of Obama’s attack? And why should any aspect of black male-female relations be grist for the campaign mill?
What Obama’s “bash the black man” game leads to is an environment where black people – separate and not equal – is the issue.
Moreover, it passes on one of the lowest of all the smears and stereotypes: the lie that black men have no morals. It reinforces the white supremacists’ notion of blacks as irresponsible, overly sexual beasts; a notion that far too many black folk as well as white unwittingly buy into.
I happened to have what turned out to be a very short breakfast meeting with a white female friend who was also a former Hillary Clinton supporter. She’s now onboard with Obama. As we spoke, after not seeing each other for more than a month or so, the topic quickly went to Obama with me telling her I didn’t plan to vote for him, his speech being just one of the reasons. She responded by threatening never to speak to me again if I supported Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney. I don’t know if she was serious or not.
On the subject of the Father’s Day speech she followed up by asking in a somewhat careful way, “Aren’t black women more responsible than black men? That’s what I’ve always heard.”
She’s been married 3 times and has kids by her first husband.
But I didn’t mention that. Instead, what I think might have ended our breakfast prematurely was my black man race card response to the “irresponsibility” question. It’s the answer I give to anyone – black or white – who raises the question: A black man would have to be full of self or group hate to believe that black men are more irresponsible then white men or men of other races or ethnic backgrounds. George Bush, Dick Cheney, and a host of other white guys who lied America into the Iraqi war, which has resulted in countless deaths, prove the point. And that’s just the most recent example of white, male irresponsibility. The history of the United States is drenched in blood due to the decisions of immoral, irresponsible white men.
A couple of weeks after the Father’s Day speech while waiting for a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I found myself in a conversation with a white, female airport worker. The woman, also a mother of mixed-race children, worked out on the pad, most likely unloading baggage and other such laborious tasks. She was sitting down resting between flights in the employee section, just a couple of seats away from me. She overheard me talking to a friend about the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. This prompted her to tell me about her taking her two kids on a trip to the historic site. I felt her pride as she told her story of her trip. She remembered how she welled up with tears looking up at the balcony, and her kids asked why she was crying. She recalled how her kids responded when they got on the old ‘50s city bus and the recording yelled out, “Niggers move to the back of the bus!” She said it was then her kids understood why she had cried earlier. It presented her the opportunity to tell them how far things have come and what it took to get here. It was one of those moments when a parent feels like they’re teaching their kids something important.
At some point we started talking about Obama’s black man speech. She supports Obama. She told me of the pride her mixed-race kids felt in Obama’s success, him being mixed race like them. But at the end of our conversation she too concluded that Obama’s speech was aimed at white people.
When I first heard Obama’s Father’s Day speech, my immediate thoughts were of Camille, my recently married 30-year-old daughter. Around the time she turned 25, she informed me and her mother that she planned to have a baby. I simply told her it was her choice since she had to bear the primary burden of raising a child. Or, as the song goes, “if you dance to the music, ya gotta pay to the piper…”
When my daughter came to us, as parents, what we consciously didn’t do was lay a single-parent stigma on her, since nobody really raises a child alone. At least where I come from. So, we got a granddaughter to help raise and nurture along with our two other grandkids by my son and his wife who, coincidently, was a teenage mother before she and my son began dating in high school.
One of the jobs of a parent or grandparent is to prevent a child in their care from being saddled with guilt, self-hate or any other baggage society would strap on their backs – regardless of the circumstance of their birth, which a child has no say in. I see our job as rejecting the stigma, which paints a child as “a mistake.” Or, in political terms, it’s as simple as reinforcing Jesse Jackson’s “I am somebody” in a kid.
You don’t need to be Alvin Poussaint to know that a child – any child, regardless of color or economic status- who doesn’t value their life or feel their worth as a human or feels unloved grows up to be an adult who doesn’t value life – theirs or anyone else’s.
When Camille and her child’s father were going through their breakup, I had one of those heartfelt talks with the both of them. She and the young man had dated since middle school. And, although they had a child together, they were at a fork in the road with one another. It was one of those moments when young people learn adult things, such as the fact that a child does not always make a relationship better nor can it keep an unhealthy or loveless relationship together. And, when a couple splits, in the heat of it all, it’s important not to do or say something stupid that would scar not only their individual lives, but their child’s future as well. We told the young man that he was the father of our grandchild and nothing could alter that fact. We assured him that we didn’t expect anything less than him having a full relationship with his child. He has done just that over the years. But we didn’t call him an irresponsible boy. That seemed not only counter-productive but holier than thou. Of course, we weren’t running for president; we were just trying to give a kid a chance.
Camille married 5 years after NyAshia’s birth, but it wasn’t to her child’s biological dad. It was to a fellow who has three children of his own. He also shares joint parental custody with his ex-lovers. In the three or four years of his courtship of my daughter, his kids called my wife and me grandmama and granddaddy. While a marriage license and church service made it official, it didn’t take all that for us to be family. Everyone in this blended situation – the biological father of my granddaughter, the biological mother of our blended grandkids, and the rest of us – have always shared parental responsibilities.
Now, I’m not trying to universalize my family’s experience. But I sure wouldn’t lay Obama’s take on responsibility on the people around me. Nor would I suggest that they adopt his worldview of what a family is or should be. Because by his two-biological, heterosexual parents residing in same household definition of a family, every other type of family setup is inherently deficient in every sense of the word: economic, social, moral.
In the days after Obama’s speech, Ishmael Reed, Dr. Ron Walters and others rebutted the candidate’s targeting of black men with the Boston College study which revealed – surprisingly to some – that black fathers not living in the same domicile as their children are more likely to have a relationship with their kids than white fathers in similar circumstances. Walters, an Obama supporter, warned his candidate, “Black people are not voting for a moralist-in-chief.”
So, in light of the Brown study should we conclude that white men are more irresponsible than black men when it comes to spending time with their kids? Maybe Obama should find a white church and offer white men advice on Father’s Day? Can we expect to hear him call them “boys?”
Or maybe he should take a trip to the hollows of Appalachia and tell the “trailer park crowd” that if they would just “pick up the garbage” from around their trailers and “stop engaging in incest” (or whatever other stereotype that comes to mind) they would not have it so bad.
And shouldn’t he be advising the polygamist families out west? Or, hopping on a plane to Massachusetts to lecture the fathers and parents of the pregnant teens in Gloucester?
According to Health and Human Services, “throughout the 1990s, black teens have had the largest declines in teen childbearing rates of any group” while “Latinas have had the highest teen birth rate of any major ethnic/racial minority in the country since 1995.” Why doesn’t Obama take his message to the barrios? Maybe he could go to a Catholic Cathedral in the heart of an East L.A. Latino community and challenge Latino men’s machismo. He should use “boys” in his speech and admonish the parishioners not to eat so many burritos.
Truth be told, I don’t wish to see a particular racial, sexual, religious or ethnic group singled out for derision or used as a campaign prop. Stereotypical remarks about blacks, Latinos and whites in Appalachia are just as inappropriate and stupid as remarks about Jewish materialism or Irish drunkenness.
I’m old fashioned about some things. My mother is prone to say, “Keep your business out the streets.” I’m only putting out my family’s personal stories to illustrate why I’m leery about Obama.
Many of those around me plan to vote for him. For the most part, my response is to ask folks to look at their lives and check whether or not what Obama is saying squares with their reality. Never mind how they “should” be living – never mind how Obama’s “current” family looks. I just ask if, with all the troubles of getting along day to day, is it helpful to have his polish on how they should be living piled on top?
My new son-in-law has two young boys and a daughter. Like so many other black teens who weren’t as lucky as Obama, he got busted in his teen years and did a little time on a drug arrest. Obviously his life has turned around. Luckily, he’s a brick mason. If he didn’t work for himself in a skilled trade, it would be hard for him to find work. He knows that because he went to jail and his sons have 60 percent likelihood of going to jail. He has to fight extra hard to make sure his kids are not that statistic. And it’s a tricky thing. You want your kids to understand the many race traps but not be defined by them.
After Obama won the South Carolina primary, whenever I was asked, I’d say that in the general election my vote was his to lose. Prior to and after their wedding, my ex-offender son-in-law, somewhat of a race man (he planned to vote for Obama “because he is black”), who just recently found out he could vote despite his conviction, constantly reminded me of what I had said, “Remember, you said your vote was his to lose.”
Shortly after his and my daughter’s wedding, a couple of day after Obama’s Father’s Day speech, we were sitting together with a friend of his, a young, married father of one, who was in their wedding party. Once again he reminded me of what I had said about “my vote to lose.” I let loose with just about everything I’ve said in this article. I told him to look at his own life and then tell me what he thinks about Obama.
I asked my son-in-law to think about his wedding and the people who were there. There were lots of young mothers and fathers and children, divorcees, second marriages, common-law arrangements, ex-lovers, step-parents and grandparents, etc. Many of those people, if they believed Obama, could be passed off as being “irresponsible” and their kids dismissed as “mistakes.” I asked him: Did he truly believe that many of the people in that church, whose lives he knew, were less moral or responsible than others, as Obama inferred? Ex-offender, former unmarried father of three, rap music producer, isn’t he one of those whom Obama is condemning? On paper, anyway. Yet, he has raised three good kids.
Whenever I suggest to Obama insiders that he’s a lot like Bill Clinton, they go apoplectic. Yet, as race-baiting and race politics goes, Obama has proven himself to be as good, if not better than Clinton, long considered the modern master of race politics. If you believe, as I do, that he “played black men to court white voters,” then all Obama’s protestations about Bill Clinton’s race-baiting were just a ruse. And, in that light he is no better than Clinton when it comes to using race fears. He may even be worse than Clinton because he plays it both ways – assaulted and assailant. I’ll be willing to bet that if Clinton were honest in revealing how he really felt about Obama, that would be at the heart of his grievance.
No doubt, people are excited about the prospect of a young, vibrant, black person as president. They see their choice as between John McCain and Obama, and conclude that Obama is “the only option,” or say “He will never be as bad as Bush. He will never be bad as Reagan.” Or they say their man Obama “has a chance to win. We need to give him some latitude.” “We need to let the man do what he needs to do to win.” “We should trust him.” “Barack is one of us, no matter what he sounds like right now.”
As critical as I am, I actually want to believe he’s “one of us.” But I don’t see it.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Obama. If people like me don’t see Obama as “one of us,” that strengthens the belief of the powerful that he is “one of them.”
For sure, Obama has most black voters in the bag. I’m pretty sure that my vote falls in the “doesn’t matter so much” column. And from listening to Obama, a whole lot of my family members’ lives don’t matter much either.
I’m not really looking for change from Obama should he win. I’m looking for the fight to come.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics which will be published this fall by CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at: email@example.com