These immortals have been men after all…
I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where number 44 once lived as a student at Harvard Law School, on the night he became the first black President of the United States. The celebrations in that cold winter went on into the early hours of the morning. College students braved the chilly night of New England, as they uncovered their chests, to wave their shirts wildly, in celebration at the political tour de force, which they had helped achieve. I vaguely recall kids jumping around in a puddle in the streets, and thinking “they must be freezing!”
I remember when I worked as a banker there in Massachusetts, and white mothers would walk in discussing in my office and in the bank lobby, how their kids had dropped out of MIT and Harvard, and other elite schools, to volunteer for Obama’s campaign for President. That’s when I started to believe too, that a black man or rather that Barack Obama, could really become President. I don’t know if I should feel guilty that until it was evident that he had a massive support among whites, did I believe that Obama was a viable candidate for President of the United States, since I knew long before then that he was among the most meritorious of candidates. They had formed the critical mass he needed. After all it is a white majority country.
I was not one of those who scorn and hate on fellow blacks, or are envious of the ascendancy of any among them, given their own relatively unimpressive circumstances. But I went to school in Alabama, and even with all my relative “opportunities” that I had been “grateful” for, I had learned that white supremacy was a fact upheld by the nation’s institutions, and could it have been more evident than in the nation’s most important office: President of the United States? All 43 American Presidents before Obama were white men. This wasn’t by accident, and you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out.
But in 2004, a young Nigerian immigrant friend told me that a then 43-year-old black man named Barack Hussein Obama was going to become the first black President of the United States. Because I didn’t watch television at the time, I hadn’t heard his speech at the Democratic National Convention like many Americans had. I remember looking askance as my Nigerian friend voiced his over exuberant optimism at the viability of a black U.S. President. Here was an immigrant making a bold-faced statement that the son of a Kenyan man, who was merely a state senator at the time, with African names and a Muslim name to boot, at a time of endemic Islamophobia, would become the first black U.S. President.
There was a debate over the issue on that day, and rather than dismiss the idea as silly talk, I decided to Google Barack Hussein Obama. There wasn’t much on him then, but I saw the speech on YouTube. I had never seen anything like it. He was a man who stood on his own unusual merits: I gave him that much.
Then someone bought me his autobiographical book, Dreams from My Father, which he wrote after graduating from Harvard Law School, where he was the first black President of the world’s most prestigious law journal, Harvard Law Review. And my admiration grew the more as I saw the evolution of the man, and the identity crisis he grappled with (was he black, was he African?).
I love history and historians essentially write biographies. But recently I have been reminded that historians may tend to color reality, and “re-image” our heroes and demonize our perception of our “enemies.” I often remark that I have studied the biographies of all U.S. Presidents (I did this as a kid in Nigeria), because I have, and I enjoyed learning of the development of the “men” who occupy America’s most revered office. Their biographers invariably glorified them rather than show their weaknesses or even their humanity. They tended to project immortals born to be President unlike other regular men (including Richard Nixon, whose autobiography – Nixon’s Memoirs – was on the shelf of my dad’s library. I remain grateful that my father had filled my home with books. It was a favor I had planned to pay to my own children as well).
Recently, in law school I have come to learn that President Woodrow Wilson was an unapologetic racist – even my white law professors acknowledge him as being racist and enacting egregiously racist laws and policies. As I sat in one of my law classes and I heard some of his clearly racist acts (prior to becoming President, Wilson had once argued in favor of preventing blacks from being taught how to read), I wondered if to expose myself and apologize for not realizing this in the past, and for once considering him as a man to aspire to be like because of his erudition and vision. He had struck me then as a man ahead of his times – almost like the Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci. Well, clearly not as the creative genius that Leonardo da Vinci was, but in terms of his visionary genius in international politics and his crafting of an international community of collaborating nations, to secure world peace.
We had studied Woodrow Wilson in history classes in Nigeria, because the League of Nations, which was the precursor of the United Nations was his brainchild. He saw the future, my professors in Nigeria thought. And so, did the books they had us read. He was portrayed as being intellectually gifted, and apart from the former Arkansas Governor, who had taught law briefly at the University of Arkansas—Bill Clinton—Woodrow Wilson, was the only President that had been a university professor – until President Barack Obama, who had lectured at University of Chicago Law School.
Nothing in Woodrow Wilson’s embellished biography suggested that he had shown animus towards blacks. So, many years ago in Alabama, when someone had asked me who my favorite U.S. Presidents were, I had unreservedly started with Lincoln…a few others, and Woodrow Wilson was on that list. His biographer had not revealed his weaknesses: other than he had health and physical maladies as a young man, which confined him to bed often and meant he read a lot. So, his biographer romanticizes his “frailty” and counterposes it as part of the scheme that led to his prodigious intellect. Mind you, although he possessed many degrees – being clearly the most educated U.S. President – as he had a law degree and a PhD in History, Political Science and German Language, he was not a stellar student, as he apparently suffered from dyslexia, which had an impact on his learning. Wilson did not start reading until he was 10 years old, and had to be very disciplined to make it through school. But his childhood and reading challenges did not stop him from becoming President of an Ivy League school, Princeton University, Governor of New Jersey, and eventually as the 28th President of the United States of America.
I guess it was this hardworking character and the indomitable persona of one who worked hard to overcome adversity and achieve erudition, that I had admired about Wilson’s biography. It is a common theme we can relate with in my extended family, which churns out Professors like they are going out of style: after my oldest brother had become a university Professor, and a brother before me wanted to do the same – study for his PhD – my mother exclaimed in utter dismay, “No!” She claimed our extended family had far too many professors, and “people” would at some point start to “talk” and aver that the family/clan must be “cursed” and all destined to become university professors. “You need to diversify your careers in this family,” my mom declared.
Coming from a family with an overabundance of professors, it was “natural” to admire the only President of a country I unreservedly admired, who had been a university professor, until Bill Clinton. It is unfortunate that he (Wilson) had been a racist.
Barack Obama’s autobiography, first written when he was about 30 years old, was skillfully done, as he draws you into his frailties, weaknesses, mistakes, fears and his humanity and capacity for empathy. He does not lionize himself like Nixon does. He does not show you how brilliant he really was like Nixon never fails to do (Nixon, prior to Obama, was usually considered as having the highest IQ among US Presidents – he had graduated third in his law school class).
Despite then “citizen” Donald Trump’s uncharitable insinuation that Barack Obama was a bad student in school, by his incessant demands for the President’s Columbia University undergraduate transcript, Obama graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law School, from a school level – graduate school – much more challenging than his undergraduate (the highest honors awarded in the year he graduated). Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan both earned the same honors as graduates of Harvard Law School. Besides we know, that it isn’t far-fetched to consider that when it comes to black men, the downward trends of their grades may be partly the result of prejudice from some professors. There are studies that indicate this.
Obama’s humility and compassion showed in his biography, despite showing his many weaknesses. It is this balance that many past biographers of former U.S. Presidents have sometimes failed to show, as they portray national heroes through a retrospective lens often too enamored with the office they held.
Perhaps, the “advantage” Obama has, is that his story was written long before he held any office. Lincoln’s biography is similarly peppered with his frailties, constant war with adversity and his fight with depression. But America’s love of the grass to grace story, and its identity with the suffering average Joe, still tends to lionize America’s heroes. It is kind of a paradox, that America seeks its heroes among the most humanized and most vulnerable…sometimes. Not unlike the heroes it votes for on American Idol.