Savior: a person who saves someone or something (especially a country or cause) from danger, or who is often regarded with the veneration of a religious figure.
In 2008, millions of African Americans converged to vote for a man who they believed would be a game changer. The result of that year’s presidential election was viewed by many as the realization of a prophecy delivered in 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The election was, and will always be, the most profound moment in Black history.
Former President Barack Obama was supposed to be a Godsend. He was supposed to mitigate the anguish caused by more than 400 years of enslavement and moral decadence. He was supposed to pick up the mantle that Dr. King and other civil rights leaders had laid down. He was supposed to be the consummate Black superhero. He was supposed to be the embodiment of a post-racial America. And while it may not have been clear to him at the time, winning the election was supposed to solidify his role as the Black community’s newly anointed “savior.” This was the end to a prolonged absence of color in the White House.
Finally, the tables were supposedly turning in the direction of progress.
On the night of the election, I recall flipping through channels on TV and stopping to watch live coverage of an “Obama 4 President” rally taking place outside of an aging community center in Chicago. The gathering was featured predominately by African American spectators, but as always, there were a few token White supporters in attendance waving handmade signs and gleefully chanting “O-BA-MA”. After weaving her way through the effusive cheering crowd, a blond-haired reporter tapped the shoulder of a tiny old woman dressed in a tattered winter coat and gloves.
“Why are you voting for Obama?,” the reporter asked. “Because he’s the second coming,’ explained the rally-goer. “God sent him to help us prosper. And yes, I’m voting for him because he’s Black. It’s my chance to be part of history.”
The elderly woman’s candor may have been off-putting to others—Whites in particular—but to me her words reflected the opinion of those who viewed Obama as the next “Great Black Hope.” This prognostication would go on to haunt him during the years following his victory over John McCain, and it would ultimately stand in the way of Obama ever reaching a status equal to Dr. King.
If African Americans had their way, then Obama would’ve spent eight years attempting to eliminate the obstructions that often lay in the way of Black progress. It doesn’t matter that he was fought at every turn by adversarial Republicans who made it their collective business to undermine his authority. This reality or “excuse”—as many have called it—is falling on deaf ears, and it’s causing Obama’s critics to question his moxie. In spite of the inevitable blowback, Obama was expected to eat, sleep and drink civil activism. That didn’t happen.
The Black community has, for centuries, exhibited a reluctance to function as a whole without the guidance of a divine figure. This dependency originated more than 400 years ago, when slaves were introduced to Christ by their owners. The belief that a supernatural being would liberate them from a life of bondage and emotional torment, coincided with the Bible’s description of when the children of Israel were delivered from captivity in ancient Egypt.
The eradication of American slavery resulted in tens of millions of newly freed individuals having to secure a survivable existence, many without the requisite skills to sufficiently provide for themselves. In fact, most of the freed slaves grappled with varying degrees of illiteracy. During this period in time, there was a desperate yearning for adequate leadership within the Black community.
This yearning opened the door for political activist Marcus Garvey to publicly endorse his vision of transporting assimilated Blacks across the Atlantic to the homeland of their forebears in Africa. However in retrospect,“the back-to-Africa movement” was simply a figment of Garvey’s Utopian imagination. Like any talented salesman, he used natural charm and flowery language to paint a picture of eternal bliss outside the boundaries of America. Garvey’s oratorical prowess and quixotic aspirations for the Negro population caused many of his supporters to view him as the second coming of Moses, a savior. This was a hope that ultimately dissipated after Garvey, a migrant from Saint Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, was deported by the government. Nevertheless, his contributions paved a path for others to serve their respective communities.
Obama’s emergence as president in 2008 sparked a robust wave of optimism that spread throughout every Black household in the U.S. Unfortunately, the progression of time—eight years and counting—has yielded further evidence of a very simple truism—emotions change. As Obama rides off into the sunset, there’s a growing collection of disenchanted Black voters who believe that he wasted most of his presidency tip-toeing around issues pertaining to race.
This premise isn’t entirely false, but it ignores the backlash that Obama would’ve inevitably suffered, had he shown even a modicum of favor toward a particular group, African Americans especially. Obama was expected to sacrifice his reputation—and potentially his safety—for the greater good of his flock. This expectation underscores a timeline of self-sacrifice by luminaries such as Dr. King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, the Kennedy brothers, Abraham Lincoln, and others. These men experienced death as a consequence of defending their private convictions, and they each built legacies on a foundation of unwavering altruism. Obama was supposed to join this hallowed list. He was supposed to be transcendent, not self-preserving.
The bitter truth in regard to Obama’s impact is that he ultimately failed to cure the ailing soul of Black America. At a time when being Black equates to being a target for unscrupulous police, the prevailing contention was that Obama fumbled his chance to bring about the “change” he touted during his election campaign in 2008. Moreover, Obama’s former status as the most powerful man on the planet should have theoretically, allowed him to prioritize the collective concerns of African Americans.
It’s no secret that reciprocity was the driving force behind why the Black majority faithfully supported the Obama administration. But apparently he didn’t get the memo. After all, it was the Black vote that propelled Obama to a landslide victory over Republican nominee John McCain in 2008, and through the repeated effort of Black voters, Obama convincingly defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the presidential election of 2012.
According to a new CNN/ORC poll, (Opinion Research Corporation) Obama departed from the White House with his highest approval rating since his first year in office. Obama’s outgoing approval rating was 60 percent, his highest rate since June 2009, six months into his first term as president. CNN reported that such high marks place Obama third among recent presidents’ outgoing approval rating, behind Bill Clinton’s 66 percent in January 2001 and Ronald Reagan’s 64 percent in January 1989. Additionally, the poll found, 65 percent of polled Americans said they believe the Obama presidency was a success.
Obama’s ascending popularity is undoubtedly linked to his success generating affordable healthcare, helping underprivileged students to pay for college, reducing unemployment, and pulling thousands of American troops out of Afghanistan (although new reports show that Obama has reneged on his promise to withdraw every soldier). These achievements will ultimately solidify his place among the most distinguished presidents in U.S. history. However, for years to come, many African Americans will ponder what could have been.