Saturday, January 21, 2012

Obama Syndrome

I stood before my classmates with a clean shirt, adjusting my cardboard-stiff collar. Anxiously flicking some cards in my hands,  I looked for somewhere to place my eyes. Searching my audience, most faces were blank, some hostile, some beaming. None were Black. I was 9-years-old and running for class secretary.

My teacher smiled and urged me to step forward. I edged away from the blackboard and delivered my 'stump speech.' I didn't even use the note cards as my blasted through my speech from sheer adrenaline. My classmates were stunned. For a second-grader to regurgitate a 2-minute written speech without uttering an 'um' or stutter was the equivalent of the Gettysburg Address. For the only Black student in class to do this was like delivery the Gettysburg Address while juggling flaming knives.

Waves of applause and smiles. One of my opponents shuddered and slumped in his seat. My other rival quickly raised his hand as soon the applause subsided. He was withdrawing. My slumping opponent quickly added a motion to invalidate his candidacy.

The following year the same thing happened. Applause and opponents running for the exits.
In elementary school, high school, and college I ran for various offices.  I never lost. My victories came in landslides, often with the opponent withdrawing their bid.  My standard speech guaranteed competence, communication, and working with others. Hardly riveting material but I realized at an early age what a professional salesman learns: it's more effective to sell yourself than a product. I crafted myself but realized that I didn't have complete control over my narrative. Often the audiences came with their own.

I call it Black articulitis but it could easily be renamed the Obama Syndrome.  They see me as a blank slate for dreams and nightmares. Post-race America offers a dangerous conundrum for Blacks. Freed from the civil rights movements, most of my friends don't think in terns of overt race and class status. It is,however, a mistake to then declare all things being equal. There is an identity vacuum for young Black adults. And this is being filled, oddly enough, by White mainstream culture. Blackness has become a white canvas that everyone paints on except Black people themselves. It's no coincidence that you have 60-year-old white male politicians coming forward with how they would act if they were Black. It's also no coincidence that youth culture funnels its lingo, clothes, and music directly from hip hop with no awareness. It's arrogance taken to a new level. Black culture and Blackness has more to do with people's false fears and delusional hopes than actual history.

From the benevolent but condescending left-wing perspective, the Obama syndrome means that they identify with their progressive roots by aligning themselves with Blackness. There's a secret thrill in validating their Black friend that turns the latter into a puppet. The actual views of said Black friend aren't really as important as their face and presence in the room. I have often felt as if I was an intellectual mascot sitting in on important decisions.

At North Miami Beach high school I was chair of our congressional debate team. In every tournament I competed in I won. Our school also won the Harvard Debate Tournament that year. When I began sweeping every tournament I entered, I remember a classmate turning to me and saying 'man I should really try out this congressional debate thing.' He wasn't asking for advice or guidance from an award-winning debater. He was, in effect, saying 'wow, if YOU can win, then it must be easy. I should try that out.' This person never sought my advice even though I was the chair of the debate section he wished to enter. He was stunned when he learned he would actually have to answer to me. It's fine to have a Black mascot but it's another thing when you have to take orders from one. Even more astonishing to his ego, he wasn't that successful in his debates. Unable to compute how I could be skilled at something he failed at, he quit and became a backbench critic of what I needed to do.

In our senior year we were encouraged to post our college of choice on a giant poster. A few debaters really wanted to go to Northwestern. I had never heard of the school but I applied, got some scholarships, and decided to go. I walked up to the poster and -with a purple marker- wrote Northwestern by my name.

"Oh. Wow. That's...great.'

They had an odd way of congratulating me. In fact it was so uncomfortable I felt as if I was the new kid in school who came in had stolen their dream girlfriend. I didn't want to talk about my alma mater because the questions would start.

"Is it a football scholarship?"

"Well you know the only reason they picked you is because you're Black. Hahaha! Just kidding."

At Northwestern University I worked for the school newspaper and was one of the few freshman students who had actually been paid as a reporter in high school. At the end of the year, the arts editor wanted me to take his place in the film section. There was another writer who wanted that position and was shocked that he has been passed over. He was a White man from a rich family. He came to me and suggested we co-edit the arts section. When I politely declined to share a position I was promoted to, he seemed outraged. He claimed that he was owed it. If I suggested that I was owed something, my parents would have beaten me. But to him, it was outrageous that he wasn't given his rightful due. I was being the uppity one and, in a phone conversation, he tried to put me in my place by suggesting my selection had more to do with articulitis than talent. He wasn't doing it as a favor to me. He could offer the 'skill' part of being the editor. As my knuckles turned white, I controlled my voice in biding my friend a goodbye.

I wasn't being seen. These were liberals, many of them my friends. l was their proof of racial inclusiveness, but it was only on their terms. When I excelled past the acceptable point I went from being a hopeful sign to a government quota, and then I had to be put in my place.

From the right-wing perspective the Obama syndrome causes mass paranoia, suspicion, and delusions of impotence. To a poor White audience, an articulate Black man embodies all their failures. They can acknowledge his success, but are quick to 'put him in his place.' It is, of course, their job to do this. And they love their job.

When Barack Obama came to the national stage in 2004 I found him charming. I wasn't prepared for mainstream drooling over his sharp, crisp demeanor. Granted, I think he's one of the best orators of our generation. But in 2004 most of this was unfounded. He was being compared to JFK, RFK, Lincoln, and Black Jesus all rolled into one.

Barack Obama was also a Muslim, radical Islamo-fascist, Madrassa-educated, Chicago socialist, radical totalitarian. He was going to take away our guns, our God, and our beloved capitalism. Nothing in Obama's words or actions suggests Jesus or Mussolini.  And yet the drumbeat of insanity continues. He has no control over his identity, his Blackness is the storm wall for graffiti artist from different gangs: constantly shifting, edited, embellished, and contradicted.

Barack Obama both fascinates and scares me. As he ends his first term in office, many of my concerns about his leadership have been justified, many of my hopes for his vision have been dashed, and some times I wonder if I made the right choice. The old nagging reactionary liberal voice screams 'should've been Hillary" as I watch with embarrassment as a great leader feels so much smaller in daily political discourse than in my dreams.

But there is no way he could have lived up to all my dreams and nightmares. I find myself falling under the same syndrome I have been a victim of in my life. I bought into the 'magical Negro' and there is nothing to suggest Obama was selling this. He's a moderate, competent, intelligent leader who happens to be Black. He's not Moses and nothing in his biography suggests a Biblical leader delivering us from our problems. And to be quite honest, if Barack Obama was Barry O'Donald from Kansas I doubt he would be this hated, this put-upon. Then again, Barry probably wouldn't be as dynamic and interesting as a public inkblot test.

A few years ago I applied for an editing job at a financial journal to practice my resume and cover letter skills. To my surprise they called me in for an interview. I was thoroughly unqualified for the position but I was told to never turn down an interview. I put on a clean shirt and adjusted the stiff collar as I sat in the waiting room. When the managing editor, a British woman,  saw that I was the one being interviewed, her face showed a slight confusion that turned into a smile. We went into the room and her looked over my resume as we talked. She knew I wasn't qualified and I didn't care; I wanted to practice my interview skills. I wondered if I still had that second-grader inside of me, able to tap into articulitis.

When she hinted that I didn't fit the background they were looking for, that made me even more determined. I was spinning the most creative answers from thin air and making them seem solid. What should have been a 10-minute interviewed stretched on for 30, 40 minutes and an hour. I was holding court, dazzling, joking, giving astute answers for a field of financial journalism I knew nothing about. Doubt crept into the editor's face. Maybe she had judged me wrong.

I was leveraging the Obama Syndrome, wrestling it back from her wary and mistrustful assumptions. I sold myself like a door-to-door insurance policy. I am the magical Negro. I articulate, gesticulate, and conversate at an A+ level with no hint of anger or animosity. I am aware of history but find it rather amusing instead of condemning. I am this company's best Black friend. Don't bother to read the fine-print. You must love me. Loving me means that you are forgiven. All will the dirt will be washed away once you sign on the dotted line and don't bother to read the fine print. Don't you want to feel clean and absolved of any nagging sense of privilege? Don't you want to be saved?

Adrenaline rushed through me as I fell under the spell of self-creation. We were both madly in love with a 3rd person, a scrappy, young, fierce (but not angry) outsider called "Aurin Squire." No, this was becoming something much bigger than an insurance sell. This was my beast and my baby. I looked at this noble statue-esque figure, warmly smiling with his head thrown back and eyes pointed toward the sunrise. My God, he was beautiful. I wanted to applaud. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I wanted to hail my creation, this lumbering child-like beast composed of a patchwork parts from the Sidney Poitier Cemetery of noble Negros. Sure this creation might scare some of the villagers into hysteria but I found it beautiful. And yes, this Frankenstein-ian being might find itself un-loved and un-approachable but look at how strong and big it looks compared to its inventor. I, the creator, am so much less. Filled with doubt, sarcasm, malice, and arrogance, I am merely human. But my frailties are viewed that much more unfavorably because I happen to be Black. And so I created in my image, this "Aurin Squire."

The editor rushed out of the room and quickly brought back another editor. Two more people came into the room. British who, no doubt, viewed their open-minded nature as superior to their gun-toting, cross-burning, slave-owning American counterparts.

"When can you start?"

I deflated. What? You want to hire me? But I don't even want or need this job. I just wanted to prove you wrong. Reality returned like a splash of cold water. I sobered up. I looked around at this room of smiling White faces. I began to stutter as 'ums' and 'ahhs' entered my now mundane vernacular. I was back to being just me. I told them I was just ending a job right now. Yes, of course, someone as epic as "Aurin Squire" doesn't just start tomorrow. Planets orbit around him and you can't expect him to drop his plans on the spot any more than you could expect the sun to shift its axis on a whim.

A pang of consciousness started beating in my chest. It grew louder and louder. I lead these people on out of my anger, out of my arrogance, and out of my fears of being rejected. I delayed and said I would have to think about it. The editors showed me around the office, where my desk would be, the co-workers who looked on approvingly. I felt as if I was the main float in a parade. Exiting the office, the beating grew louder in my chest. Acid ate at my stomach as I descended into the subway.

I wanted a short meaningless fling and they had their wedding dress on and were waiting at the chapel. But you don't enter into a relationship with the "Aurin Squire" I invented. You can't because my creation isn't real. There's no heart, no emotion, but just a patchwork of mythical parts. You wed yourself to that myth and all you'll have for your honeymoon is...me. And 'me' isn't mythical or epic. I mutter, I stutter, and have doubts. My anger runs hot and cold, I'm impetuous and aggravating. And I lead people on. People who are vulnerable, depressed, looking for something or someone to be hopeful about in their life. I use the blank canvas of my Blackness as a con game because it has been used against me so many times. I deceive people who are looking for nobility and honor in a world full of groundlings and serfs. I conjure Black magic for people looking for excitement. People like you.

Some times I feel like a chameleon who has changed so many times to suit so many different environments that he has forgotten his original skin. I wonder if President Obama ever sits up at night worrying about who he has to be tomorrow? What to paint on the canvas of "Barack Obama?"

Whenever I start to feel drunk on grand delusions, I catch myself.  I am not magical, nor am I the devil. I don't have to be my own God and yet I can live in grace. Black articulitis is not a lifelong sentence, only a passing flu. I just hope I'm not passing it on to others.


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