Post Obama Traumatic Stress in rear view: “Folks didn’t think about … white supremacy any more than a fish thinks about the wetness of water. But when you step out of a system that people have told you is the only way, and then you look around and there are these people in the world working under a different set of rules, it changes people’s imagination.”
White America, though, wasn’t ready for this New Negro. When these black soldiers returned home, many were greeted by the “Red Summer,” often described as a wave of deadly race riots that swept through at least 25 American cities in 1919. *
*From the PBS American Experience Series, The Great War, A Nation Comes of Age.
Therapeutic amnesia for survival
Startling isn’t it, how current historic events feel oddly déjà vu. During 4 centuries of white supremacy, we’ve used selective amnesia as a coping mechanism. We’ve used it to survive atrocities so routinely horrific, the will to live would’ve dissolved if we hadn’t blocked them out. We used it to maintain our humanity, while nursing infants who would be raised to deny the breast, exploit the milk, and lynch the children for whom breast and milk were intended. We used it to protect our hope for democracy despite daily terror and discrimination. Today, faced with a familiar madness, we use selective amnesia to protect our faith as we press for possibilities already paid for in blood.
Progress – legislative, social, political, and cultural, buoy that faith, but often have the dual effect of extending our amnesia. We deodorize the stench of pervasive inhumanity to embrace victories not yet won. An example was OJ Simpson’s criminal case. It was so exhilarating to watch a Black man win an acquittal against a white accuser, we cheered as if we had won something. Embedded in those cheers were memories of innocent men, women and communities destroyed by racial terrorists based on accusation. The absurdity of cheering for the verdict was selective amnesia in action. We chose to forget Simpson’s celebrity, wealth and special status as a non-threatening “crossover” buffoon were what moved the levers of “justice” on his behalf. He was the embodiment of selective amnesia.
The Obama years brought special kind of selective amnesia. We became, according to selective amnesia pundits, post-racial. This did not originate with Obama, but lit the skies of our imaginations like fireworks during his victory and first term. Obama inspired that kind of euphoria. There was no bigger victory than our personal, most revered POTUS! We had overcome!
Or was it just our imagination, running away with us?
Whether you were awestruck or bitterly disappointed with his 8 years in office, you were never going to forget November 4, 2008 – the day America changed forever, and the impossible became reality. If his first term didn’t convince you that we’d overcome, his second indicated a shift – we hoped– in the political landscape, and in the culture. We stopped hoping our children might aspire to become president as a distant article of faith. POTUS became a possibility.
A POTUS claiming a Black victim of a law enforcement shooting as his own theoretical son was profound. A POTUS singing Amazing Grace at a funeral of school shooting victims was galvanizing. It seemed enough for the moment to mitigate the urgency of addressing larger injustices, like mass incarceration, poverty, vote obstruction/ gerrymandering, and the tragic negligence of our public-school system. After all, Obama was to solve all that, right?
At least we did get health care. Sort of. For a while at least.
Obama’s presidency had to mean something changed. Hillary would never have garnered 90% of our vote if we hadn’t believed in the strength of his legacy. If not for selective amnesia, we’d paid a little closer attention to historical precedent in this land of the not-free. Perhaps people of color might’ve shared a more cynical expectation.
Post Obama Traumatic Stress Syndrome
It is clear, in retrospect; we should’ve anticipated the recoil of open racism, fascism, anti-immigration, and irrational hatred in response to the shotgun blast that was Barack Obama. We’re tagging that shock – not at the personality of 45 – but our dismay at the white supremacist, fear mongering agenda underpinning his election and sustaining his ridiculous presidency: we’re diagnosing it ‘Post Obama Traumatic Stress syndrome’ #POTS.
Also attributable to POTS are dysfunctional behaviors in the DNC: inability to articulate populous American voter needs, irrational fear of healthcare as a key issue, and failure to respect and protect the Black vote. While struggling for differentiation, it’s clear Democrats are addicted to same corporate dollars that compromise Republicans. Hindered by progressive phobia and Trump fixation disorder, they keep repeating the same mistakes. Eight years of Obama was as big a shock to Democrats as it was to Republicans. The latter’s response was based in irrational fear, hooked on the notion of the poor stealing from the rich. The former seemed to lurch, punch drunk in search of a middle road that no longer exists. Hence, Hillary.
An important note: selective amnesia and POTS are related phenomena. Democrats have been notably forgetful of the fact the Obama did win two terms. Perhaps it’s POTS blinding them to the fact that his election strategy and agenda got a few things right.
And now, the good news
By sheer resilience and critical mass across the socioeconomic spectrum, people of color have a legacy of resilience in the face of recoil. Americans of all hues could learn much from that legacy.
In 1920, returning WWI African American soldiers didn’t provoke rage, paranoia, and panic because of behavior or military uniforms. Instead, it was simply what they represented, much like what Obama represented during 8 years of service to this hypocrisy. Stoked by a paternalistic atmosphere of law and order, police brutality against African American men appears provoked by slight infractions similar to those that resulted in lynching and murder of returning WWI soldiers.
The good news, nothing wakes us up like a good recoil! Today, actual vs. fake history is being clarified, and dialogue is being engaged. African Americans’ engagement in local and national politics bears striking parallel to the Congress of 1870. Almost immediately following emancipation, because we had been organizing long before it, we saw Hiram Revels of Mississippi, among the first African Americans elected to the Senate and Congress. News media of the day called them “The Fifteenth Amendment in flesh and blood.” Likewise, 2018 saw a record 444 African American women running for office, including 276 in red states, and 176 in blue states. Another breakdown lists 179 for state seats, 191 for local seats, 38 in Alabama alone! The rise in constructive organizing, strategic planning and activism are the enduring echoes of Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, et al.
Better news yet is how traumatic stress yields ‘wokeness,’ a word already so overused it’s a shame to write it. It takes brutal experiences to provoke collective remembrance. Now that we’re woke, the real opportunity is to peel layers of amnesia to reclaim our history. Resisting despair, we can lend the clarity of legacy to a deeper appreciation of our staggering contribution to our nation, not as passive appreciation, but to build the future.
Times are bad. But we have been through worse…much worse! The best therapy for POTS: do what we have always done. Make do. Give thanks for how far we have come. Work for a better day.
Want to read Part I of this post? Read it here.