Dear Mr. President:
“Barack Obama is not Jesus.”
Those were the first words of the first column I ever wrote about you – a poke in the eye to Democrats who were singing rhapsodic hosannas about a certain highly regarded young senator. “Yes,” I griped, “he has great potential. But is it asking too much that people wait until he actually does something before they starting chasing his name with a hallelujah chorus?”
Two years later, you were elected president. Shows what I know.
Now the time has come to say goodbye. Which means it’s also time for people like me to furrow our brows in summation. I will leave it to others to analyze your legacy with regard to the economy, health care, foreign policy, privacy rights and war.
As you head for the door, I find myself simply wanting to address you as one African-American man to another about the singular mark you made on American history: first black president. To be a first black anything significant has often been a thankless task. Jackie Robinson learned this when he crashed Major League Baseball in 1947. Your experience proves that it remains true 70 years later.
You got it from all sides, didn’t you, Mr. President?
Certain opinion leaders on the left held that you failed to speak – and act – boldly enough on issues of concern to African Americans. It’s an argument that did not take political reality into account – would the same drain clog of a Congress that couldn’t agree to routine measures to raise the debt ceiling really have passed some huge program to ameliorate African-American woes? I also think you get too little credit for quietly dismantling much of the ruinous War on Drugs and working to reform racist policing.
Meantime, the political right thought you the love child of Louis Farrakhan and Nat Turner. By simply existing, by acting as if winning two elections actually entitled you to be president, you drove them crazy. You made them reveal – even revel in – the ugliness, hatred and fear that have always undergirded so-called conservatism where race is concerned. It is telling that the folks who grasped at every untruth and exaggeration to make you out as an America-hating Other now watch in feckless silence as Donald Trump plants sloppy kisses on the autocratic thug Vladimir Putin.
For myself, Mr. President, I was frustrated by your naivete. You were surely the last person in America to recognize the degree to which racial resentment drove the rigid resistance and shrill hysteria you faced. You seemed to think you could win over your most hateful critics by being conspicuously even-handed, even-tempered and good. But it doesn’t work that way. Most any black person could have told you that.
That said, let me also say this:
A defining truth about black life in America is that each of us carries all of us wherever we go. The incompetence of a black man in Dallas will keep a black man in Miami from getting a job. The dishonesty of a black woman in Oakland will get a black woman in Baltimore arrested.
Each one of us is every one of us. Which places an inordinate weight on the one of us who is called to perform on a high public stage.
You have performed on the highest, most public stage there is, sir, faced headwinds unprecedented in American politics and nonstop disrespect from the GOP. But you did so with unflappable dignity, unshakable class … and urbane cool. No stench of personal scandal wafts after you as you leave office, and the country is better for your service. So allow me to say, as one African-American man to another:
Godspeed, brother. You did us proud.
Leonard Pitts Jr. can be reached at at firstname.lastname@example.org.