Why Barack Obama should attend the Black State of the Union
Tavis Smiley hosts and annual event called the Black State of the Union. The 2008 version will be on February 23rd in New Orleans, LA.
Last year, a big question around this event was whether or not Barack Obama was going to attend the event. He did not, but he was doing something that was much bigger: deciding to and formally announcing his run for the Presidency. Now, one year later, in the midst of a very competitive primary season, Obama faces the same question: will he go? Should he go?
Obama is not attending. Tavis Smiley is on record saying that he’s cool with that. Roland Martin at Essence Magazine thinks this was the right decision. His primary argument is that Obama must “look forward, not in the past” and that Obama “can’t be defined as the Black candidate.” He thinks that Obama should send his wife Michelle, and continue campaigning in Texas and Idaho.
I think that’s a terrible move and completely wrong, and here’s why.
Barack and Michelle Obama should both attend the Black State of the Union event. Any criticism of their attendance of this day, arguably the most important discussion of the state of this country’s Black affairs, would not only by unfounded and irresponsible, but easily refutable.
Don’t go backwards…
The first criticism, that Obama “should look forward” is off-base and ironically short-sighted. The reasoning for this position is that since Obama already won the Louisiana Primary, he does not need to go back to the state, and should be singularly focused on the upcoming, potentially decisive primaries in Ohio and Texas. The idea that a candidate should not interact with people that already voted for him is unwise. After being voted for and elected, you become an employee of those voters. Ignoring a voter at any time is a bad idea, but ignoring supporters is even worse.
Yes, the event is in New Orleans. Last time I checked though, people from outside of New Orleans attended, watched on TV, and/or participated in the event. I bet that
people voters in Texas and Ohio will be tuned into this event. Seems like a great opportunity to address those potential supporters. Another thing: Where did large number of people affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita migrate to? Texas!!! Maybe those Texans care about N.O. after all.
The more sinister, underlying message of this criticism is the frame of a discussion focused solely on Black America as a look backward. I know that Obama has unfairly had to exhibit dazzling acrobatics with regard to his Blackness. However, a decision not to attend this event unnecessarily demonstrates an implicit endorsement of that notion. The fact is that talking about Black issues directly is in no way a step backward. Dialouge that leads to enlightened action is never a step backward, and no community needs such a discussion more than ours.
The “Black candidate” conundrum
Another potential criticism of Obama’s attendance of this event is that he cannot be seen as the Black candidate. This line of thinking is fundamentally flawed. Attending this event does not define him as the Black candidate anymore than going to a meeting of Latin voters defines him as the Latin candidate. Last I checked, Barack Obama was Black. That by definition makes him the Black candidate. The real question though is: why is being the Black candidate a bad thing? Moreover, why is a Black man being the Black candidate a bad thing? Why must that part of his identity be dealt with so tenderly?
Part of Barack Obama’s appeal is based on his message of the broad idea of change. It’s based on the idea of uniqueness, newness, of a new direction, of inclusion, of a new kind of politics. Such a message should actually include all parts of Obama’s identity: the leader part, the Black part, the intelligent part, the change part, the hope part, etc. A lack of attendance to arguably the most important discussion on Black America does not hurt him. Who would it hurt him with? Republicans? No, since any Republican bothered by his attendance wouldn’t vote for him anyway. Latinos? No, since the wedge that is attempted to be driven between Black and Brown is a myth pushed by the Right. Black people? I don’t think so.
What kind of change?
Some may call this view naive. If you do, I challenge your definition of change and the change you want to see if you do not want to see this become a country where a Black man can run for president and not have to think twice about attending an event about Black issues.
It’s clear that Obama, for invalid and potentially valid reasons, has chosen to at least partially downplay his dealings with some outwardly Black discussions/issues (one exception that comes to mind is his statement on the Jena 6). I have always thought that this was not necessary and was out of sync with the messages of hope and change. It actually makes the point that there is only hope and change if we don’t talk directly on too many Black things. That’s not the kind of change that makes me hopeful.
One Love. One II.