Whenever I’ve heard the phrase ‘first Black president’ with regards to former U.S. President William J. Clinton, it’s always disturbed me.
It’s reminded me of many things, but among them is the aphorism launched by Black comedian, Paul Mooney, who quips: “Everybody wanna be a ni—-, but don’t nobody wanna be a ni—-.”
What is disturbing is how nonchalant some Black folks are about the honorific, as if it is truly something intrinsically ‘Black’ about the behavior of Clinton. When the brilliant novelist, Toni Morrison, was credited with making the claim, it was clear that this celebrated fiction writer was utilizing metaphor to speak about how Blackness is perceived in the American mind, but not to ceremoniously award Mr. Clinton de facto admission into the tribe of the Sons of Africa.
This sense of nonchalance seems to suggest that being ‘black’ is synonymous with dillydallying with women (not one’s wife), or playing a musical instrument that has been closely identified with Black music (jazz).
If one examines this claim a little further, it is far less promising than at first glance.
For, while Black elites have rushed to embrace him as ‘one of their own’, this embrace has been decidedly one-sided.
His lifetime may have coincided with the rise and emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, but his own rise has been, not as a part of that movement, but indeed, as an exploiter of it.
He has never missed an opportunity to use his public power to discipline a Black person, or, as they used to say in the deep South, ‘put them in their place.’
His well reported conflicts with leading figures of that movement, like Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, has been to cut him down to size. Like most politicians, he speaks loftily of the late Rev. Martin L. King, but if King were alive, ha would be finding ways to ignore his counsel at every turn.
For King would’ve been among his most severe critics, not a yes-man.
In his presidency, he consistently sacrificed Black supporters and interests, whenever they didn’t seem subservient enough. He jettisoned law professor, Lani Guinier, when she was in consideration of the #2 spot at the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division. When his former Surgeon General, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, was criticized by conservatives, he unceremoniously dumped her. He has betrayed virtually every constituency that supported him to bring into being his brand of neo liberalism, a kind of conservatism with a smile.
He interrupted his first presidential campaign to return to Little Rock to execute a brain damaged Black man on the Arkansas Death Row.
His vow to ‘end welfare as we know it’ was a sop to whites, who saw poor Blacks as getting something undeserved, and his own Cabinet secretary, Richard Rubin, has said as much! That he would countenance so much human suffering of the poor, so that the worst feelings of whites could be sated, is proof that the claim of being the ‘first black president’ was little more than a cruel, ironic joke.
With ‘bruthas’ like these, who needs enemies?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL is the author of Live From Death Row.