Book Reviews: Cracks and Currents In The Obama Era

Redefining Black Power: Reflections on the State of Black America.
Edited by Joanne Griffith.
City Lights Books.
207 pp. $16.95.

The Classroom and The Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America.
Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill.
Third World Press.
177 pp. $14.95.

Three years in, and the major accomplishment of the Age of Obama is to create new topics—and new schisms—among the Black progressive Left. In the G.W. Bush era, Tavis Smiley and Tom Joyner were still blood brothers, Rev. Al Sharpton had no problem marching on what was unambiguously a White House, and Black activists of all stripes, Elders to hiphop heads, had national conventions to talk about the Black Agenda. That old newsreel was right: time does indeed march on—but as a lot of Nationalists used to say, all change is not progress.

The questions continue: How hard should they/we be on Obama? Is he relevant, and if so, how?

These two current-event books are not just about Obama; in fact, the second only has one chapter devoted to him. But in this election year, these new discussions have to be viewed through the largest mirror in the room. The term discussion is used because these are Black public documents—Black controlled, edited and oriented “public media,” so to speak. Both of these discussions would have been better, with more current charging through them, as substantive articles in national Black magazines. But Quickie Q+A is a book format more and more Black writers are choosing, because, lacking an African-centered “Charlie Rose”-type of nightly program, it has more permanence in the 140-character universe.

Griffith plays the skeptic, asking her guests about responsibility, but she’s clearly leading the witnesses—which include Michelle Alexander, Ramona Africa, Vincent Harding, Linn Washington Jr., Julianne Malveaux and other current African-American luminaries—to where she (and ultimately, they) wants to go: to the idea that it is up to us, not him, to change the current state of Black America. (Alexander’s chapter is particularly illuminating, because it becomes clear that she a worthy successor—and soon peer!—to Ancestor Derrick Bell.)  To the questioner Griffith, this book is just the middle of a long-ranging discussion that will continue as long as Obama is in office. The interviewees range from those who think he’s co-opted to those who think he’s handcuffed by what Martin Luther King called the triple evils of racism, militarism and economic exploitation. Including a harsh critic of Obama like, say, Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report (mentioned by two interviewees!) would have made this a much better book; then the discussion would have been expanded to Obama’s policies. (Disclaimer: this writer has contributed to Black Agenda Report.) So the range of dialogue stays in the realm of critically optimistic.

Ironically, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill have a more nuanced and critical discussion in their one, straightforward Obama chapter. As Abu-Jamal tells Hill: “We can claim Obama, but that don’t make us his. You can claim him, but it ain’t like he claiming you.” Hill’s directness matches Abu-Jamal’s: Talking about the imperialist philosophy Obama has embraced, the Black public intellectual and television host exclaims: “He’s doing the best possible rendition of a White president, and can’t even get credit for it!” He points out that Blacks defending Obama “is a vote against White supremacy,” but it’s ultimately a vote for a Black president who defends white power. Abu-Jamal doesn’t disagree.

These books, separately and especially together, successfully ground Black America with some facts and perspectives as 34 million descendants of slaves continue to argue on the way to the voting booth this November. (Reading these two books, one after the other, made me long for Smiley’s “State of the Black Union” discussions during African Heritage Month.) But eventually, either next January or January 2017, the Age of Obama will be over, and Black Leftist activists will again feel comfortable enough to retrieve their dashikis and book major halls for national Black political conventions. Will the recent taste of power leave a sour residual in their mouths, or will they realize they had no real power at all? Time will tweet as it marches.

One response to “Book Reviews: Cracks and Currents In The Obama Era

  1. Pingback: Pennsylvania’s Attempt to Silence Prison Activist Mumia Abu-Jamal | TALK REAL SOLUTIONS

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