In a recent Salon interview, Georgetown University professor and political analyst Michael Eric Dyson asked, “[H]ow do you carry out a criticism of those with whom you disagree without losing your humanity or questioning theirs in the process?” He answers his own question in The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America. Driven by the hopes Obama raised with his historical rise to power, Dyson delivers a provocative scrutiny of a presidency as complex as the ongoing issues of race, and he does so with grace and wary empathy.
Some of Obama’s fellow African Americans, like civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and academic-activist Cornel West, can be brutally critical, while others, like Al Sharpton and Andrew Young, have been candid but kinder. Nationwide, blacks who voted in record numbers to help elect Obama have mostly given him a pass, according to Dyson, hesitant to speak too harshly because he is one of their own.
Dyson, though also black, is none of these. His review of Obama’s presidency is as unsparing as a parent practicing tough love. The love is there, but it grows tired. Why, he asks, does Obama so often point out the failings of his fellow African Americans while minimizing the context of racial inequality in America? Why can’t the president be as forthcoming as his wife Michelle in acknowledging the trials of being the first black family to occupy the White House? Why does he speak out about racial injustices less forcefully than his former attorney general, Eric Holder? Dyson carries his lengthy list of disappointments and complaints into the Oval Office and a revealing interview with the president himself.
Then come Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddy Gray and Charleston. The black president who had seemed so reluctant to address his own blackness is finally moved to speak from his spirit, in a eulogy that seems to deliver, Dyson says, on “the promise of his black presidency” at last. Time will tell whether Obama can include racial progress in his legacy. Dyson is cautiously holding onto that hope.
Priscilla Kipp is a writer in Townsend, Massachusetts.