“The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress”
By William Jelani Cobb. Walker & Company, 191 pages
With President Obama’s approval rating sinking as midterm elections approach, and with one in every four Americans convinced he’s a Muslim following his controversial support of a mosque near ground zero, a new book by an Atlanta historian steps back to consider what the first black president means to a black community that has its own doubts about him, and about America.
“The political ascent of Barack Obama stood at odds with all that we — black and white, poor and wealthy, conservative and liberal — thought we knew about this country,” William Jelani Cobb writes in “The Substance of Hope.” What everyone thought they knew, Cobb implies in this analysis of the multiple paradoxes surrounding the 2008 election, is that white Americans would never accept a black president. It is a sharp rebuke of America. Based partly on Cobb’s personal experiences as an Obama convention delegate and his conversations with prominent black leaders, the book offers astute insights along with repetitive meditations on the complexities of Obama’s candidacy and how a pessimistic black America reacted to him.
Black voters, who had seen the felling of Martin Luther King Jr. and knew all about the bruising inequities of the color divide, couldn’t conceive of presidential power passing into African-American hands, explains Cobb, a historian at Atlanta’s Spelman College who was initially skeptical of Obama. Black politicians had seen Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition defeated in 1988 after a promising beginning, dissipating their hopes for a black chief executive.
By the time Obama came around, neither African-American voters nor the black political establishment would let themselves believe in him. In fact, the elite of the black political leadership staunchly opposed him for a very long time, as their historical job had become to deliver the black vote to the friendliest white Democratic candidate, with the Clintons ranking at the top.
In any case, Obama didn’t even seem “black” enough for blacks to call their own. He was an exotic — biracial, foreign-bred to some extent, having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, his stepfather’s country. Cobb describes the distinct gulf that existed between a globalized hybrid like Obama, with a Kenyan father and Kansas-born mother, and the “descendant of slaves” that typically defines an African-American. (Michelle Obama later helped smooth Barack’s passage into the arms of the black community, according to Cobb, who sometimes gushes as if he has an outsized crush on proud, statuesque Michelle.)
Cobb makes an excellent case in arguing that it was precisely this difference between Obama and the majority of American blacks that allowed him the courage and self-belief to reach for the presidency. His early experiences outside the United States endowed him with an immigrant’s faith in possibility, whereas most African-Americans, discouraged by the obstacles of racism, lacked his optimism. The failures of Obama’s father and stepfather within corrupt regimes in their native countries perhaps drove him to accomplishments that might redeem them. From his unique multicultural history rose a personality, no doubt charismatic, in whom many people, Cobb rightly points out, not just blacks but various ethnic groups, saw themselves reflected.
In Chicago the summer before the election, I was among a throng of reporters who rushed forward to shake Obama’s hand at a convention of minority journalists. All of us — Asian, black, Hispanic and Native American — were oddly hushed in his presence. I had the feeling, as we each reached out to him, that he was the vessel into which we all silently poured our hopes and aspirations. He became the revered point that contained our multitudes.
Yet Cobb points to the irony that it took the white vote to validate Obama in black America’s eyes. He pinpoints the early victory in the Iowa caucuses — Iowa being an almost all-white state — as the turning point when blacks decided to shed their fears. What black voters most had to overcome, it seems, was a deep-seated sense of their second-class status. “[Obama] was challenging black voters as much as white ones,” Cobb writes. “He was asking black America to step away from its own perspective of history and believe that a black man could become president.”
Much has been made of the youth movement that drove Obama’s campaign. Among African-Americans, Cobb notes, the young were the first to eagerly and overwhelmingly embrace him. Cobb, in his late 30s, counts himself among those who thirsted for change, and in very wittily describing his own hotly contested election as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, gently mocks the old guard. The greatest paradox of the election, he maintains, is that the top echelon of black political leaders with civil rights credentials — Andrew Young, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, Jesse Jackson and others — resisted endorsing Obama even though their life’s work had paved the way for a black president to rise up. The problem, he contends, is that they had become accustomed to their role as gatekeepers of the black vote, directing it to an established white Democratic candidate in exchange for some personal gain or favor.
Hilary Clinton was to be the beneficiary of the black political machine in 2008, but its leaders couldn’t persuade blacks to vote for her. When they realized late in the game that Obama might supersede her, they didn’t really matter anymore. Obama didn’t need them to deliver the black vote; the black vote delivered itself almost unanimously to him. Cobb points to the irony that, at the very moment when the dream of the civil rights movement was realized, with Obama’s nomination, the aging architects of that dream were swept into obsolescence.
By “masterfully positioning himself as an outsider,” deploying his unique biography as an advantage, Obama became enormously successful. Unlike Jesse Jackson, who had once bragged that he was “president of black America,” Obama smoothly avoided discussing race. He had no desire to confront and alienate white voters. Not until the controversy over inflammatory remarks made by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, threatened to derail his campaign did Obama finally address the issue of race in America. Cobb, like so many others, was moved by his honest eloquence.
Cobb indicates that the black community rightfully expects Obama to address, through policy and action, the causes of black hurt in America. Interestingly, he recalls watching black leaders on television excoriate Obama’s Democratic nomination acceptance speech in Denver for its lack of references to black history. Princeton intellectual Cornel West raged that Obama had omitted a “critique of white supremacy.” While Cobb recognizes that this would not have helped win white voters, he decides that Obama will be measured by whether he prioritizes black issues during his presidency. He’s willing to take a wait-and-see approach.
To an outsider, it seems that Obama’s great worth to the black community, so wounded and battered in confidence, as Cobb says, might paradoxically be as a symbol: the embodiment of black achievement. Maybe he is changing the landscape of young black minds simply by being there, occupying the Oval Office as if he belongs there.