Is President Obama Among The Greatest Black Men Ever?

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For many centuries, the epitome of African American achievement has been to become the first black president. We once talked about it like it was the impossible dream, or the ultimate sign that we have arrived. Well, Barack Obama didn’t just talk about the dream, he went out and turned it into a reality.

So, here we are, with the keys to the Oval Office. When the Obamas moved in physically, many of “us” moved into the White House psychologically. The Obama’s marriage was our own, and our sense of protection of the president and his family was the kind that tends to be reserved for our closest relatives.

With that said, the question becomes, “How do we properly contextualize President Obama in black American history?”

Well, one thing we know is that it would be quite dangerous to describe President Obama as the most accomplished black man in the history of the United States. To make such a claim would be to say that being popular among white Americans might be an important precondition for African Americans to be “successful.” The gifts of true freedom, respect and equality are not granted willingly in a historically racist society. Typically, equality means competition, and it’s hard to compete with someone for valuable resources and expect them to like you at the same time.

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So, in many ways, individuals such as the late Malcolm X and even Louis Farrakhan have achieved as much success as President Obama, even though they are/were not popular with mainstream America. Farrakhan and Malcolm have long taught lessons of self-sufficiency that empower African Americans, but also alienate us when we are perceived as being too “radical.”  Malcolm reminded us, very clearly, that someone liking you can be very different from someone actually respecting you.

It is also problematic to compare the feats of President Obama to those of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders of the past. President Obama is not a civil rights leader or a black leader; he is an American leader. In that regard, he can’t be compared directly with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or even the first runaway slave.  He has his own unique place in history, which will be debated for centuries, but his being black doesn’t automatically turn him into the next MLK.

Another thing that must be kept in mind is that having a national impact is not always the same as having an impact on the African American community. You can compare it to the parent who goes off and earns millions for himself vs. the parent who earns far less but gives all of his income to his family. President Obama’s contributions to America are undeniable. But we should not always assume that his gifts to America are gifts to the black community.  Our collective decision to remain politically silent during the Obama presidency argues that Obama’s gifts to America were largely the result of our decision to sacrifice our rights to true democracy.

Is President Obama an outstanding figure in black American history? Absolutely. Is he the greatest black man to have ever lived?  Probably not.  How Obama measures up is in the eye of the beholder, but we must make sure that our eyes are not blinded by the shine of wealth and power that comes with being in the White House. Obama’s legacy as an African American historical figure should be judged primarily by tangible evidence of his sacrifices and gifts to the black community, and not by his popularity among the descendants of our historical oppressors.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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