The Obamas for Hillary: A misplaced faith as old as the White House

Long before Sasha and Malia Obama were playing with their dog on the White House lawn and five years before slaves began building it in 1792, a man published an address to the black slaves of his day, urging them towards patience and trust in their masters. Jupiter Hammon, one of the earliest figures in African American literary history, wrote hoping that a biblical perspective, informed by the life-long latitude his masters afforded him, would be a reminder to his fellow slaves that although they may be restless, salvation was upon them… but only if they remained obedient:

As we depend upon our masters, for what we eat and drink and wear, and for all our comfortable things in this world, we cannot be happy, unless we please them. This we cannot do without obeying them freely, without muttering or finding fault. If a servant strives to please his master and studies and takes pains to do it, I believe there are but few masters who would use such a servant cruelly. Good servants frequently make good masters.

At a time when the Democratic Party is stretched by scandal and doubt, the First Lady aimed for rigid trust in Hillary Clinton. Over the course of this election, Secretary Clinton has suffered as infamous soundbites, questionable usurpations, and email drama all bubble into dislike and speculation from the public. In order to repair the great fissure of faith among Democrats, Mrs. Obama took to the stage and explained that the source of her own sense of hope is the American Dream. The American Dream in this case is realized through the contrasting images of strong slaves, and her powerful husband. Obama’s promises at this week’s Democratic National Convention are of the same variety as Hammon’s. They are promises steeped in the sort of optimism that only the privileged can afford; a perspective that most often emerges on one side of the gate. The claim that “good servants frequently make good masters” is as supported as any claim of Clinton’s trustworthiness or disposition of servitude.

And yet we loved it — I certainly did. There was something lyrical and powerful about her delivery. Something drew me in about her speech, and provided me with a unearned sense of near-hope in that moment. It was an effect that I usually attribute to Hip Hop. Obama’s speech did to my skin and my pulse what the confident refrains, rags-to-riches stories, and soul samples so often did. There is one song in particular that seems to echo the sentiments of Michelle Obama’s DNC speech, written by a little-known rapper called the Notorious B.I.G. who also spoke about a dream of his:

And my whole crew is lounging
Celebrating every day, no more public housing
Thinking back on my one-room shack
Now my mom pimps a Ac with minks on her back

People love her speech and his song for the same reasons. But for all their good qualities, the two pieces share the same fatal flaw. They don’t tell a relatable story that could ring true for most Americans, least of all Black Americans. “No more public housing” for Biggie did not mean and end to public housing anymore than the Obamas’ occupation of the White House means an end to unwanted labor conditions, or forcible servitude. But people don’t vote according to the whims of rappers. When young people mistake their words as gospel the resounding mainstream chorus is there without fail to remind us that Biggie’s lifestyle up until his death is actually an anomoly. Teachers, parents, cops, judges, politicians, and pundits are all quick to remind urban black youth without high school diplomas what their lot in life truly is. When the status quo is at stake, our society reigns us all in with the gospel of averages, rather than the gospel of exception.

Passing off the Obama exception as progress and ultimately manufacture hope has been the genre of choice since before Barack first ran for president. The discord between the images of their beautiful, successful family, and those of Flint and Ferguson creates a confusion about how we measure progress. That’s because these claims are a deliberate attempt at pacification, good-natured as it might be. It’s because when the First Lady of the United States speaks, few reduce her words to just “spittin’ bars.” But on a political stage of Biggies selling the dream, where is the kind of sobering, candid, and sometimes depressing honesty that we need for this journey towards justice? When that kind of person finally emerges with a message that rings true for today’s downtrodden, it might sound like Tupac once did on his famous song, “I see no changes…”