Barack Obama: Diasporic Personality, Cultural Entrepreneur, American Emperor
by Cedrick Muhammad
The Following Are Remarks Given by Cedric Muhammad At George Mason University During The ‘Fall For The Book’ Festival On September 22, 2009 while participating in a Panel Discussion: “Understanding Obama: Three Views”
[The material and concepts of this speech are lightly drawn from the forthcoming book, ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ by Cedric Muhammad, available October 7th at BlackElectorate.com, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com]
Barack Obama arose at a time when Black America was somewhere in between a Cult of Personality and a Cult Of Ideology, in an era where partisan attachment to the Democratic Party somehow became equated with grassroots activism and where independent institution building as a priority – a hallmark of the Black power movement had waned [in no small part due to the success of the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)]. Community development, for many, has now come to take on the characteristics of personal transformation, with a focus on quality of life issues and not a raw or rigid form of Black nationalism. As an Ivy-league educated lawyer, community organizer, and member of the Black Church, Barack Obama maneuvered through the power centers of Civil Rights, Black Power, middle class-professionalism, civic participation, and the prophetic voice with relative success and without being absorbed by any of them.
The result: he is claimed by all because he is first and foremost a Diasporic Persona and a Cultural Entrepreneur.
What is that you ask?
He – Barrack Hussein Obama – is that rare individual skilled in navigating the waters and traveling through that space shared by an empire, a homeland, and a diaspora. He lives in and comes to power in the American empire (and its two dominant and separate societies: Black and White) while embracing his relationship to both an African and Islamic diaspora. Through emigration, dispersion, bloodline, creed or belief, the Disaporic personality and cultural entrepreneur have a connection to a homeland or broader civilization outside of the country in which they now live. By nature, he internationalizes the individuals, events, circumstances, and institutions that he engages, as he is claimed simultaneously by different communities: African, Muslim, Southeast Asian, Hawaiian, White American; Black American etc…
To understand how suddenly one can become a Diasporic personality, it is helpful to remember Muhammad Ali, for example. When the Honorable Elijah Muhammad gave him that name in place of ‘Cassius Clay,’ a Black American born in the American South, among an immobile people, who were denied freedom, justice, and equality, suddenly became an international figure upon whom an entire world (including the very wicked) would eventually project their hopes, aspirations, and fears.
Who is Barack Obama, the diasporic personality and cultural entrepreneur?
He’s mobile, cosmopolitan, sophisticated and a risk-taker. He embraces change – both technological and demographic. He deftly moves in and out of different perspectives and civilizations, which by the way dovetails nicely with the Aloha Spirit (which he absorbed in Hawaii, where he did middle and high school). His socialization skills and ability to adapt to different cultures is uncanny. But this also makes him the ultimate challenge to rigid forms of identity (tribe, race, religion, ethnicity, political ideology, partisanship, and nationalism). He is foremost a universalist. He resists and pushes back any time he is pigeon-holed or stereotyped.
Barack Obama is no ordinary personality or entrepreneur, because of his day job. As president of the United States, he is the representative of the American empire, which makes him something like the captain of the Titanic. He is in a situation where radical change is necessary but where only moderate and incremental improvement – gradual change – is tolerated (and barely that) by a two party system that manages the political process. So he has the power and baggage of representing an Empire while he carries the power and baggage of a persona and personality tied to several Diasporas. It is clear that much of the controversy around Barack Obama comes not from his words or policies but rather from the confusion and discomfort that comes from not knowing or not being sure on whose behalf, interest and perspective he speaks.
There are six speeches that make all of the above clear:
1) His speech at the Democratic Convention in July 26 of 2004 from Boston, Mass. (significant because he introduced his Diasporic persona and connected it to the American dream and empire).
2) His speech in Springfield, Massachusetts announcing his candidacy for President in February 10th 2007 (significant because he bypassed associating himself with the, at that time, influential ‘State of Black America’ forum convened by Tavis Smiley).
3) His speech on race-relations in America made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 18, 2009 (significant because he did not disown the Black American community in response to controversy stemming from media coverage of a rhetorical challenge to the American empire, made by his Pastor).
4) His speech to the Muslim World, delivered on June 4, 2009 – significant because he acknowledged the Islamic Diaspora and critiqued the Western empire’s (with America as its titular head) relationship to it. The two civilizations have been in an alternating state of conflict and cooperation in a unique way since the 15th century, a time period which brought the West into contact with a pan-Islamic community crossing borders and oceans (Portuguese imperialism meets the Islamic Diaspora in the Indian Ocean).
5) His speech from Accra, Ghana, July 11, 2009 (significant because it suggests that Obama will not necessarily use his Diasporic persona on behalf of real change in the foreign policy of the American empire). Some Africans are offended by his tone and even Kenyans are insulted by the manner in which President Obama’s chief foreign representative – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – lectured them on governance. Prime Minister Raila Odinga even spoke out against this saying America has a double standard – chastising Kenya but not Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Young Africans continue to be inspired by President Obama (whom they claim not as ‘Black’ or ‘American’ but as ‘African’) while they dislike the attitude and policies of his government toward Africa. Many Africans, based in America, express support for the tone of President Obama toward leaders back home, whom they find corrupt and believe should be removed from power.
6) President Obama’s speech to the NAACP in New York on July 16, 2009 (significant because he gave an individual empowerment, and social responsibility speech before the nation’s oldest civil rights organization). He spoke to self-improvement and community development more than pending legislation, executive orders, or court decisions in response to historical discrimination. A vocal minority of Black Americans find the speech paternalistic and condescending, while others view it as badly needed truth-telling and a sign that a changing of the guard has taken place within Black American leadership where appeals to government will be less popular among the young. The debate over whether President Obama is fundamentally a political progressive or a cultural conservative where ‘his own people’ are concerned continues.
As President, Barack Obama makes everyone uncomfortable because he is uncomfortable operating inside of the confines of narrow ideology and partisanship. Therefore, pragmatism and triangulation (where he takes ideas from, or executes policies more often favored by his political opponents) are his modus operandi, strategy, and tactics. He throws down the gauntlet and challenge to almost every interest group, lobby or community. It isn’t enough that he likes, agrees, and knows you. To get his attention you have to speak the language of power. It is best represented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whose history Obama studies carefully) who told Civil Rights Leader A. Phillip Randolph in the 1940s that while he agreed with his agenda, intellectual agreement was not enough for him to change policy. Reportedly, Roosevelt told Randolph that he and the civil rights leaders would have to make him change policy. Presidents must be forced to do what is right, not just told.
I believe that in so many words, President Obama is ‘telling’ Blacks, Progressives and Liberals – his ‘base’ who may be suspicious of him – that they will have to force him to do what they want. His stance will either expose their current inability to mobilize people or influence the public debate, or it will inspire them to step their game up and be more effective.
He can get away with things that no other Democrat can, while he can never rise above a certain level of Republican support because of what he represents, and the fear he provokes in the minds of White Supremacists on the Right (they exist on the Left too, by the way). His unmistakable effort to go after ‘waste and fraud’ in social safety net programs like unemployment insurance, Medicaid and social security would never be accepted by a Republican president (“If only a Republican like Richard Nixon could be the first president to go to China, only a Democrat like Mr. Obama could persuade Democrats to cut payments for unemployment and disability, said Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.” We read this in a March 2009 Wall Street Journal article).
Yes, Bill Clinton got away with doing things that President Reagan and both Bushes could not (Crime Bill, Welfare Reform, talk of ‘mending’ Affirmative Action) and Barack Obama can get away with things Bill Clinton couldn’t.
For better and worse, this Cultural Entrepreneur, unlike Democratic-Blacks (a new hyphenated identity that perhaps should be added to the Census categories) understands that party loyalty does not mean being a parrot or slave to ideology (I didn’t forget about you sycophants on the Right either).
And now, in the controversy over the Governor’s race in New York, only Barack Obama – the first Black president – could get away with discouraging New York’s first Black governor from seeking office again. Apparently ‘Yes we can!’ also means ‘No you can’t.’ He does all of this while distancing himself from remarks made by former President Jimmy Carter who says racism is obviously a factor in the opposition of a certain segment of Obama’s opponents. Just when you think you have figured him out and can predict his behavior, he changes, adjusts and absorbs resistance because only two things matter to a Diasporic personality and cultural entrepreneur – getting a deal done in a diverse environment, and staying ahead of the curve.
He moves like a lawyer and a businessman. He takes the long view. He understands that in the etiquette of business and society subtlety rules and things like language, tone, and style are substance. On the September 13th edition of 60 Minutes he said, “One of the things that I’m trying to figure out is how can we make sure that civility is interesting…Hopefully I will be a good model for the fact that you don’t have to yell and holler to make your point and to be passionate about your position.’
Sounds like Negotiating and How To Make Moves 101. Is it any wonder that he is so popular among the most enthusiastic fans of mainstream Hip-Hop music?
Perhaps they – the young and the poor – understand that being a Diasporic Personality and Cultural Entrepreneur has nothing to do with elections, talking points, or political chatter, and everything to do with building personal power and leveraging it in pursuit of what you want in life, business, and on behalf of your community (or communities).
In closing, President Barack Obama’s greatest contribution is cultural, not political. He models behavior and attitudes in Black America that had been previously marginalized by the commercial projection of the poorest and worst kind of behavior – married life (While in Kenya in March I actually had a Sister from Zimbabwe tell me she did not know that there were hardly any married Black couples until she saw Barack and Michelle and that her view of Black American men came from the gangster rap music of the 1980s and 90s), high academic performance, polish and cultural refinement, and social etiquette do matter, after all.
And he does it all without entirely divorcing himself from a people and culture that has been most victimized and exploited.
Like him or not, for most, he is a Role-Model-In Chief, even Power Broker-In-Chief, more than the Commander-in-Chief.
The question now, for Barack Obama, Diasporic Personality and Cultural Entrepreneur, is what are the costs of representing the American empire?
Perhaps the question is the same for the rest of the radically hip and self-enlightened, living in the Disapora.
Remarks Given By Cedric Muhammad At The George Mason University ‘Fall For The Book’ Festival (September 22, 2009)