U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Obama’s Historical Significance (As taught in an Af Am History class)

Tomorrow in my African American History class, I am going to teach about Obama’s historical significance (and the significance of his historical point of view). I thought you might be interested in my lesson plans and my prezi. I would of course appreciate your feedback before class tomorrow.

The reading for the day is Obama’s 2008 Speech on Race, sometimes titled “A More Perfect Union.” After discussing the content of the speech itself, we will ask what philosophy of history Obama is constructing in this speech. One of the questions on their take-home final is “Houston Bryan Roberson argues that African Americans have a distinctive history that runs counter to U.S. History. Agree or disagree and explain why.” Obama, in contrast, argues not only that African American history is definitively American history, but also that US History has been a history of upward progress–of becoming a more perfect union; “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” He identifies the kind of history espoused by Roberson and Jeremiah Wright as “a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” This is an even stronger pushback to Roberson’s viewpoint than our textbook’s.

Our textbook, by Darlene Clark Hine et al., suggests in its epilogue that African American history is a central part of American history, but that African Americans make up a “nation within a nation.” In these lines, Obama argues that African Americans need not be separated as such: “What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time” At the same time, he recognizes the distinct culture of black people, particularly as it is expressed in black churches like that led by Jeremiah Wright.

After discussing these varying interpretations of the trajectory of African American History, we will ask two questions–what has Obama’s presidency meant for African Americans and has it ushered in a “post-racial America. For the first question, I am suggesting there are symbolic meanings and functional meanings. For the symbolic, I base my prezi around this image:

In the New York Times article I link to above the journalist remarks, “the photo is tangible evidence of what polls also show: Mr. Obama remains a potent symbol for blacks, with a deep reservoir of support. As skittish as White House aides often are in discussing race, they also clearly revel in the power of their boss’s example.” At the same time, I think it is such a profoundly different image of a president–basically bowing to a small child, instead of being a grandiose bombastic face of American aggression.

After speaking about Obama’s symbolic power, I will let Tavis Smiley and Cornel West question the tangible results of Obama’s policies for African Americans through this video.

For the sake of time, I will probably stop the video after West calls Obama’s presidency “disastrous.”

After discussing these two different viewpoints on the meaning of Obama’s presidency, I will divide the students into groups of 2 and 3 to discuss the idea of “post-racial America.” One group will get Toure’s ardent dismisal of any sort of ushering in of “post-racial America.” The rest of the groups will get one of the pieces of this New York Times’ “Room for Debate” entitled “Under Obama, is America “Post-Racial?” The debate is about Obama’s lack of race-based policies, which Randall Kennedy has argued continued and increased politics of “transracial universalism.”*

Any suggestions before I teach?

I’ll let you know how it goes in the comments section.

*added at 1:06pm. In the review of Randall Kennedy’s book I link to, he argues that Obama’s speech on race was “little more than a carefully calibrated attempt to defuse the public relations crisis precipitated by the Wright affair. Far from frank, it understated the extent of the country’s racial divisions and sought to blame blacks and whites equally for them, when in fact, Kennedy writes, “black America and white America are not equally culpable. White America enslaved and Jim Crowed black America (not the other way around).” The speech was in keeping with the candidate’s wildly successful race strategy, which involved making white voters feel better about themselves whenever possible.” I’m going to point this out to students during the first part of the lesson.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This looks like it will spark some great discussion. I hope it does! I also hope you’ll post about how things went. I’m not sure of how you’ve structured your class, but one issue that popped into my mind is how Obama’s presidency has reminded America of the long-standing tension pluralism and national unity/cohesion in ways that past presidents have not/could not, with the exception, maybe, of JFK. (I’m not sure of how deeply anti-catholic America was to completely dismiss Kennedy.) That tension is clear when you contrast Roberson’s assertion and the president’s speech. Is this a topic that’s addressed in those specific terms in the textbook? If you have time, and if it doesn’t take the discussion too off-track, I think this would be a good subtopic to explore.

  2. I second the hope for great discussion. You may want to plan in some “pre-thinking” time by having them discuss with each other their initial answers to the questions about meaning for African-Americans and post-racial America. Then present the sources and have them discuss again. It might eat up too much time, but having them talk with each other about their responses (with you playing a distant moderator, perhaps) is often a great way to engage them in the content and help solidify the learning.

    Great questions, and the Prezi is cool – should be a great class.

  3. Well, the two students I know are conservative had their heads buried and wouldn’t look at me through most of the discussion.

    I asked them what they thought of Obama’s speech and some said that it was very moving, while one thought it was just a callous attempt to manage his image. A lot of students raised the question of what was politically feasible in terms of a black person being president offering a specifically race-based agenda.

    We didn’t end up having time to do more than report on the Room for Debate documents, so I’m planning to have a discussion about that at the beginning of class Friday. I thought the Room for Debate documents were interesting because, though Toure’ among many others argues that we don’t have a post-racial society, in many ways Obama has been acting as if he cannot take race into account in political decisions–what Raymond Kennedy calls “transracial universalism.” We’ll see if my students caught on to that on Friday.

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