On The Narrative and Importance of Symbolism
So, it is the day after, and I've heard unequivocal pronouncement after pronouncement, largely from white individuals, about what Obama's victory means to me as an African American, many of which have been on this board. The narrative ranges on one end from "well, at least blacks can find pride in breaking a barrier" all the way to "this is a seismic shift in American race relations." There is a rather uncomfortable level of self-congratulation, and intellectual laziness that seems to accompany this narrative; it's meta to the core. Well, let me offer another or more perspective, and raise some questions about the narrative and importance of symbolism in politics.
First and foremost, there are all kinds of symbolism; positive and negative symbolism, empty and full symbalism, inherent and transferable symbolism, legitimate and illegimate symbolism, accurate and inaccurate symbolism, and the symbolism associated with being the first and the symbolism associated with being the best. When you're thinking about telling others what someone else means to them, ask yourself which of these kinds of symbolism that person represents.
Secondly, what is the level of importance of even positive, inherent, and legitimate symbolism (which I don't think Obama represents, BTW) in respect to someone running for high, public office, specifically? Furthermore, is it fair or legitimate to bestow upon someone symbolism that the person hadn't even been given in the past to them by their own community?
You see, I question with great seriousness the legitimacy of the claims of what Obama is supposed to represent to the black community, I question with great seriousness others declaring him the successor to the civil and human rights hero and warrior that was Martin Luther King, Junior. You see, Obama's history points to him being a fair and decent man, but an MLK he is not nor will ever be. In my opinon, he was someone that was brilliantly able to co-opt and borrow someone else's legacy.
All that I ask is that when people think about speaking for others and making grand pronouncements that they be a bit more careful, thoughtful, and honest and seriously think through the accuracy and level of importance of their symbolism.
In closing, I do hope that it's enough for Obama to represent an historic first without others having to project onto him contrived, inaccurate, and exaggerated social narratives. Perhaps, one day, Obama will accurately represent almost everything every one of his fans wishes him to be. Until then, why not simply celebrate him for what he is, instead of what you wish him to be?