Welcome to yet another casebook study of brazen hagiography, hubris, denial, EGOMANIA, sophistry, careerism, pompous self entitlement, and rank solipsism in the insistently self deluding and self serving 'Age of Obama' led by that strutting peacock rhetorician and shameless gliberal opportunist Michael Eric Dyson. Yeah. Welcome once again to the land of the spree and home of the knave...
Sunday Book Review
‘The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America,’ by Michael Eric Dyson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
by N. D. B. CONNOLLY
February. 2, 2016
New York Times
Readers will recognize Dyson’s practiced flair for language and metaphor as he makes an important and layered argument about American political culture and the narrowness of presidential speech. The book argues that Americans live under a black presidency — not so much because the president is black, but because Obama’s presidency remains bound by the rules and rituals of black respectability and white supremacy. Even the leader of the free world, we learn in Dyson’s book, conforms principally to white expectations. (Dyson maintained in the November issue of The New Republic that Hillary Clinton may well do more for black people than Obama did.) But Obama’s presidency is “black” in a more hopeful way, too, providing Americans with an opportunity to better realize the nation’s democratic ideals and promises. “Obama’s achievement gestures toward what the state had not allowed at the highest level before his emergence,” Dyson writes. “Equality of opportunity, fairness in democracy and justice in society.”
A certain optimism ebbs and flows in “The Black Presidency,” but only occasionally does it refer to white Americans’ beliefs about race. Far more often, Dyson hangs hope on Obama’s impromptu shows of racial solidarity. One such moment was the president’s remarks after the 2009 arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who was arrested trying to get into his own home). Another was Obama’s public identification with Trayvon Martin. Both acts may have been politically risky, but they also greatly heartened African- Americans. Hope builds, and by book’s end, readers find a chapter-long celebration of the president’s soaring invocations of “Amazing Grace” during last year’s memorial service for the slain parishioners of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. For Dyson, the eulogy at Emanuel seems to serve as a sign of grace that black America may still yet enjoy from the Obama White House.
Its cresting invocations of hope aside, the book ably maintains a sharp critical edge. Dyson uncovers a troubling consistency to the president’s race speech and shows that in spite of Obama’s reliance on black political networks and black votes during his meteoric rise, the president chose to follow a governing and rhetorical template largely hewed by his white predecessors. As both candidate and president, Obama’s speeches have tended to allay white guilt. They have scolded African-American masses for cultural pathology and implied that blacks were to blame for lingering white antipathy. Obama’s speeches have also often consigned the worst forms of racism and anti-black violence to the past or to the fringes of American political culture. One finds passive-voice constructions everywhere in Obama’s race talk, as black folk are found suffering under pressures and at the hands of parties that go largely unnamed. “Obama is forced to exaggerate black responsibility,” Dyson advances, “because he must always underplay white responsibility.”
Critically, Dyson contends that the president’s tepid anti-racism comes from political pragmatism rather than a set of deeper ideological concerns. “Obama is anti-ideological,” Dyson maintains, and that is “the very reason he was electable.”
That characterization, however, overlooks how liberal pragmatism functions as ideology. What’s more, it ignores the marginalization and violence that black and brown people often suffer — at home and abroad — whenever moderates resolve to “get things done.” If the Obama era proved anything about liberalism, it’s that there remains little room for an explicit policy approach to racial justice — even, or perhaps especially, under a black president. As Obama himself explains to Dyson: “I have to appropriate dollars for any program which has to go through ways and means committees, or appropriations committees, that are not dominated by folks who read Cornel West or listen to Michael Eric Dyson.”
Upon a careful reading of Dyson’s book, loss seems always to arrive on the heels of hope. As we might expect, the author explores Obama’s estrangement from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008. He also attends to his own very public and more recent split from Cornel West. But even beyond these signal episodes, “The Black Presidency” is suffused with a bittersweet tone about relationships strained. President Obama seems to leave a host of people and political commitments at the White House door as he conforms to the racial demands of a historically white office. Even Dyson seems unaware of all the ways in which “The Black Presidency,” as a book, both explicates and illustrates how the Obama administration leaves black folk behind.
All but the last two of the book’s eight chapters begin with the author placing himself in close and often luxurious proximity to Obama. The repetition has the literary effect of a Facebook feed. Here is Michael at Oprah’s sumptuous California mansion during a 2007 fund-raiser, sharing a joke with Barack and Chris Rock. Here is Michael on the private plane and in the S.U.V., giving the candidate tips on how to use a “ ‘blacker’ rhetorical style” during his debate performances against a surging Hillary Clinton. Here he is in the V.I.P. section of the 50th-anniversary ceremony for the March on Washington and, yet again, at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Through these and similar moments, Dyson projects his status and, in ways less clear, his authority. Dyson knows Obama, the reader is assured, because he has kept his company. He has swapped playful taunts and bro-hugs with the president; he has been intimate, one might say, with history.
Moments like these have a secondary effect. They illuminate a tension cutting through and profoundly limiting “The Black Presidency” as a work of political commentary. Regardless of who Michael Eric Dyson may have been to Obama the candidate, Dyson now has barely any access to Obama the president. Time and circumstance have rendered Dyson, the man and the thinker, increasingly irrelevant to Obama’s presidency. He can be at the party, but not at the table.
Perhaps worse in relation to the book’s stated aim to be the first full measure of Obama and America’s race problem, Dyson, the author, has none but only the smallest role to play in assessing and narrating Obama’s legacy. When Bill Clinton decided to chronicle his own historic turn in the White House, he called on Taylor Branch and recorded with the historian some 150 hours of interviews over 79 separate sessions. Dyson, in 2015, gets far shabbier treatment. Chapter 5, “The Scold of Black Folk,” opens: “I was waiting outside the Oval Office to speak to President Obama. I had a tough time getting on his schedule.” In response to Dyson’s request for a presidential audience, the White House offered the author 10 whole minutes. By his own telling, Dyson “politely declined” and pressed Obama’s confidante, Valerie Jarrett, to remember his long history with and support of the president. “I eventually negotiated a 20-minute interview that turned into half an hour.” It appears to be the only interview Dyson conducted for the book.
In the end, “The Black Presidency” possesses a loaves-and-fishes quality. Drawing mostly on the news cycle, close readings of carefully crafted speeches and a handful of glittering encounters, Dyson has managed to do a lot with a little. The book might well be considered an interpretive miracle, one performed in fealty and hope for a future show of presidential grace, either from this president or, should she get elected, the next one.
THE BLACK PRESIDENCY
Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America
by Michael Eric Dyson
346 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
N. D. B. Connolly is the author of “A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida.”
A version of this review appears in print on February 7, 2016, on page BR20 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: What Obama Can’t Say.