Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor for Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
During an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday, former President Barack Obama said he is “still the hope and change guy.”
When Obama was first elected, I was a hope and change guy, too. I no longer am in part because of what this country revealed itself to be in response to a Black family taking residence inside a White House built by slaves. It was painful watching him across from Cooper diagnosing what ails this nation, explaining why democracies don’t die with one grand punch but rather by a thousand little cuts.
That fateful night that Obama won the presidency in November 2008 seems a lifetime ago. As the election returns dribbled in and it became clear we would be electing the first Black man to lead the most powerful nation on the planet, I decided to drive to Wedgefield Plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina, one of more than 150 rice plantations in its county where enslaved Africans toiled during the height of the antebellum era. I wanted to be with the ancestors, those who endured to make a President Obama possible. I wanted to be the first to let them know how far we had come.
I parked my truck between a rotting slave cabin and a pool house on hundreds of acres of land that were redeveloped into a residential community with a country club and tennis courts and well-manicured golf holes. Obama had shown the world that we were ready to step out of our racist past — not into a post-racial society but something better, stronger, a society in which dark skin would become less of an impediment to the ultimate success, if only just a little. “No more,” I wrote then for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, about the significance of Obama’s victory, “do we have the luxury of assuming the worst because we are afraid that divided days of yesteryear will mean divided days tomorrow.”
Then came the overt racism, including from members of a mostly white evangelical church I had been attending. Then came Donald Trump using the bigoted birtherism lie to work his way up the ranks of the Republican Party. Then came all-out GOP opposition to Obama’s political agenda — even his efforts to dig us out of what then was the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Then came the anxiety of White people at the fact a Black man was president. Obama had gone from the Black dude proudly telling us there were no blue states or red states to being perceived as the tip of a demographic spear that was scaring the heck of not a few White Americans because it meant their majority was dwindling.
Still, I hoped. In my professional life, I more confidently took risks that paid off, inspired by Obama’s example. In my personal life, I could tell my kids that the Obamas had nappy-happy hair, too, and were living in the White House. I felt more fully American than I ever had. We’ve drifted so far from those days, Obama told Cooper.
Still, he said: “It’s also important for us to figure out how do we start once again being able to tell a common story about where this country goes.”
I don’t know where to start that process. We are in a period during which not even a literal attempted insurrection on our capital could bring us together. Since January 6, the Republican Party has kept passing new laws designed to restrict the vote of people they’d rather not bother trying to reach and decided that hyper-partisanship was more important than Covid-19 relief for desperate Americans if a Democratic president might get credit. More disturbingly, they’ve continued to spread the lie that the election was stolen from Trump and are so committed to that alternate reality that not even the few longtime Republicans who have spoken the truth can convince them otherwise. To top it off, a Democratic senator from West Virginia is so blinded by his narrow definition of bipartisanship, he’s willing to allow the GOP to undermine democracy itself.
Our nearly 250-year-old experiment is bleeding to death from a thousand small cuts, not by the bayonet or Russian bomb. And in a real sense, it began the moment the country decided to defy its own racist past to elect a Black man in the form of Obama. That’s why it was so hard to watch him with Cooper maintaining the same calm demeanor he clung to no matter what happened during his eight years in office.
“I didn’t expect that there would be so few people who would say, ‘Well, I don’t mind losing my office because this is too important. America is too important. Our democracy is too important,’” Obama said. “My hope is that the tides will turn. But that does require each of us to understand that this experiment in democracy is not self-executing. It doesn’t happen just automatically. It happens because each successive generation says these values, these truths we hold self-evident, this is important. We’re going to invest in it and sacrifice for it. And we’ll stand up for it, even when it’s not politically convenient.’”
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I’m glad Obama is still the hope and change guy. His ability to hold fast to that vision during a time such as this is admirable and should be emulated. It was particularly poignant watching him sitting across from Cooper and a handful of young Black men discussing the importance of education, maturity and fatherhood. It was a reminder for me of what his example once did for me.
“My hope is that the tides will turn,” the former president told Cooper.
This country surprised me before 13 years ago when it did the previously unthinkable. I hope it surprises me again.