February 02, 2012

Obama and Big History

by Tiya Miles

Glistening with crisp, white linens, crystal dishware, and dangling stars, the holiday table was set for display. My aunt could dress a table equal to the pros on HGTV and bake a sweet potato pie equal to those of my late, dear grandmother. This year my aunt's tablescape conjured a celestial wintertime theme, but just as easily might be read as patriotic hyperbole. The combination of layered whites, pale blues, and decorative silver stars, together with the bright red bows draping the mantel and household nooks, brought an air of flag-waving fervor into a context where I had not expected it.

My family had never been big on USA boosterism, given the racism that had colored their lives. My uncle, third youngest of thirteen children and host of this holiday feast, had been bamboozled into the army as a young man by a recruiter who told him he would never amount to anything otherwise. He had returned from his military service quiet and closed, deadened by bitterness at the country that had done him — and so many other black people — wrong. But this year, pride in the national colors set the gathering's tone. The holiday table simply resounded with unparalleled joy. And when I say joy, I mean JOY — in the sense of thrilling at marvelous miracles, impossible dreams deferred come true. For less than two months before this annual meal, in November of 2008, the United States had elected its first African American president, the phantasmagorically talented Barack Obama.

My family members said, in undisguised church talk, that they "rejoiced" in Obama's election, that they had prayed for him every day. The women at the table agreed that nothing could get them down right now — even their certainty that Sarah Palin already had her outfits picked for the 2012 presidential race. A big, unfettered, neon-lit optimism carried the day. "Obama is a bad, bad mammajamma," my uncle said, "and a brother that bad can't help but do some good." My cousin, a twenty-two-year-old college student with a football player's physique, said that on November 5th for the first time in his life, he could look anyone in the eye and know he was their equal.

I had an inkling of what my cousin meant. Fifteen years his senior and long past college and graduate school, I, too, was seeing folks in a different light. I have moved in mostly white environments since I was a kindergartner, and my mother lied about our address to get me into a good public school; I am no stranger to interracial shoulder rubbing. Still, I have always been cautiously suspicious of white folks outside the protective circle of my personal friends and close workplace colleagues. When I encountered white people and they encountered me, I would instinctively wonder why they were looking at me in that way, what they saw in my hair and skin that seemed so different from their own. Did the clothing store clerk too close at hand expect me to swipe his stock? Did the grocery shopper gawking at the mound of diapers in my cart assume I was a welfare mom pumping out children like bunnies? That is the way I had moved through the world for thirty-odd years of my life, expecting the worse of white people whose motives I could not estimate from previous positive interaction. But now that Obama had been elected with much of the white vote, I found myself viewing white strangers in an entirely novel way. Any one of them might have supported Obama, after all. In this Obama-Biden epoch, anything was possible. That clothing store clerk could be trying to share the postelection love; that grocery store shopper might be thinking: "Right on, sister! A victory for the next generation!"

Almost without my knowing it, my views of unknown whites had changed dramatically and for the better. I recognized that some massive conglomeration of them had marked their ballot for a black head of state, that antiblack prejudice might not lurk behind every look, and they and I might just share a progressive political vision. My "fellow Americans" had transformed, and so had my estimation of them. The American populace was shiny and new to me after November the 4th — open-minded, openhearted, and ready for the dawn. My hard-edged skepticism of majority America began to ebb; my sense of critical distance from an American national identity began to give way. I wanted to feel a part of this national body, to revel in a moment when "we" — no matter our color or race — seemed to be the People.

And like many across the country, I turned to history to satisfy what was for me an unfamiliar longing. In my newfound desire for national connection, history — the formalization of memory's heartstrings, the story of a place and people over time — seemed just the thing. My hunger for a narrative in which to tuck and save this magical moment was more than easily satisfied. Every writer of every media outlet rushed to place Obama within a national historical context. Obama and his victory were constantly being compared with the times, challenges, and personal characteristics of Lincoln, FDR, LBJ, and JFK. Time magazine even featured a cover with Obama, sporting a vintage cigarette holder and hat, morphed onto a jaunty photo of FDR. A bust year for most Americans was a boom year for presidential historians, who migrated from PBS to the blowzy cable news networks to tell us that Obama's cabinet echoed Lincoln's "team of rivals." We learned from the presidential historians why Obama's ascent in perilous economic times paralleled Franklin D. Roosevelt's and how the President-elect's green energy policy might approximate a new New Deal. We found out that Obama's approval ratings are as high as any President-elect's since Eisenhower, that Obama shares a rare talent for inspirational rhetoric with Kennedy, and that Obama's inheritance of two ugly wars echoes the trial faced by the consummate but tragically failed Lyndon B. Johnson. Given his election at a time of extreme adversity, Obama, we heard, might just join the greatest presidents in American history's annals. The President-elect's self-selected Lincolnian inaugural theme, including a massive apple cheesecake in honor of Honest Abe's favorite fruit, only heightened this weighty sense of historic comparison, casting Obama as part of "a grand heritage of American giants."[1] Even now, as I write these words near the end of Obama's first hundred days in office, his public approval ratings remain remarkably high, and he is being praised both at home and abroad for his charm, facility, and sensitivity at the G20 economic summit in London.

At any other time, I'm sure I would have cried foul at this historical love fest, criticizing our willingness to embrace top-down metanarratives, fixate on larger-than-life iconic male figures, and sideline the reality that America is a society built on unjustly acquired indigenous American land. I am a scholar of African American and Native American histories, after all, whose work has focused on unearthing complex stories of racial formation, the development of slavery and experience of the enslaved, and nationalism gone awry. Big History — my personal nickname for national political and presidential history — had never interested me much. Perhaps I felt this genre had something to hide, with its sweeping stories that smuggled myths into the public imagination, overcoming necessary nuance with the sheer force of breadth. Big History was narrating a sham, I thought, a dramatic enticement to let my political guard down. I preferred, instead, to write and read microhistory, which dug down deep into the nitty-gritty of social and power relations. I avoided presidential biography. I refused to memorize the order in which the POTUSes served. I never claimed a favorite president, only a most despised one (a tie between slaveholder and child violator Thomas Jefferson and Indian fighter and Removal advocate Andrew Jackson). Even the celebrated Abraham Lincoln was a long-time disappointment to me for his sluggish, piecemeal stance on black emancipation and full equality. Despite the zestful fanfare over the 2009 bicentennial of his birth, I have yet to pick up a single Lincoln biography.

You might fault me for those appalling previous lines, or, depending on your political inclinations, for the ones I am about to write. Because now that Obama has won, I want to devour Big History. I am listening intently and dewy-eyed to what the presidential historians have to say and watching grainy old footage from C-SPAN's "White House Week." It occurs to me now as I bask in the glow of post-election nation love, that U.S. presidential history is not just the story of privilege and exclusion, but is also an individualized projection of our shared national drama, encompassing and shrinking to personified scale our crippling faults and remarkable spirit. This reach for Big History that I am experiencing — that the nation as a whole is experiencing — joins us together as one body; one beating, voting heart. For history, as author and Africa advocate Randall Robinson has so beautifully put it, binds "frail short lives into a people's ongoing epic."[2] And history, to adapt a notion from Cherokee and Euro-American poet Diane Glancy, is like the basket of our peoplehood — weaving our disparate lives together, containing and keeping our cherished ideals.[3]

In fact, much to my private chagrin, I have discovered, through my stirred reaction to Obama's meteoric rise and grasp for historical narratives to explain it, that through the years I have spent studying race in America, I was committing one of my self-designated cardinal sins of Big History. I was secretly searching for heroes — defined for me as women or men whose bold actions countered the worst abuses of our history, whose courage and willpower transcended the limitations of their specific, daunting circumstances. My research on black slavery in Native American nations has yet to turn up such a figure, and perhaps I thought I had glimpsed one in the person of Barack Obama. But despite the likes of the mythic Harriet Tubman (whose certain sufferings we tend to ignore), a stand-alone hero is hard to find in our national past, and, as it turns out, in our awe-inspiring, history-making present. Since taking the oath of office (twice) Barack Obama has made a series of what I view as disappointing missteps — his selection of cabinet members who failed to pay taxes on their wealth, his reticence on the subject of marriage as an equal right for all, and his escalation of American fighting forces in Afghanistan. The jury is still out on whether he can adroitly withstand the tax tea-partiers and cap-and-trade nay-sayers. But nevertheless, Obama and his incredible election remain for me a symbol of hope — for what they say about our heroic American collective enterprise. Even if he continues to stumble at points along the way — to be merely human, that is — Barack Obama's good heart and great gifts, and the American people's bravery in electing him to our highest political office, give me cause for celebration. This election, and the myriad people who made it happen, have created a dramatic turn of events worthy of sweeping, swashbuckling storytelling.

In the early stages of the primary campaign, a buxom, scantily clad model turned "Obama Girl" professed her crush on the candidate through video serenade. When her song came out online, launched by Barely Political, a website that linked nearly nude women to political commentary, my feminist sensibilities and I were up in arms. But now I, too, must confess a blushing, newfound crush — on my people, on my country, and the Big History we have made together. In likeness to the presidency of James Monroe, Obama's election has inspired for me a wholly unexpected Era of Good Feelings. My criticism of our country's still sexist, racist, and homophobic ways and of the historical narratives that mask them can wait — at least for as long as the feeling lasts. Viva 44.


  • Jennifer Loven and Nancy Benac, "Obama Rides Rail to D.C.," Associated Press, Ann Arbor News, January 18, 2009.
  • Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Plume, 2001), 15.
  • 3. Diane Glancy, Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996).
  • From Michigan Quarterly Review vol. XLVIII, no. 3, Summer 2009

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    is Elsa Barkley Brown Collegiate Professor of African American Women's History and Chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is also a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and author of The Ties That Bind.