Obama, Mandela and Trayvon

Basil Wilson's picture

President Obama visited Senegal on his three nation trip to Africa and in the midst of the ceremonial occasions found time with his wife and two daughters to visit Goree Island.  For black folks, Goree Island is an important symbol in the black historical experience in the New World as that is where the gory slave experience begun.  Goree Island should be a “must stop” in the visit of white or black Americans visiting Africa.

President Obama also visited South Africa where he hoped to meet with the former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.  During Obama’s visit to South Africa, it appeared that the political icon, Mandela, would not live to see his 95th birthday and the family and President Obama recognized that was not an appropriate time for such a visit.  But in recent days, Mandela unsurprisingly found the inner strength to be released from intensive care in the hospital and return to his home to celebrate his 95th birthday.

President Obama dutifully visited Robben Island where the apartheid regime held Mandela as a prisoner for 27 years.  Despite that deprivation of nigh three decades, Mandela alighted from prison not filled with bitterness but with the wisdom to dismantle the gory system of apartheid and build a South Africa predicated on truth and reconciliation.  

South Africa made the transition to a democratic country peacefully and even though the South African working class has not received his/her fair share of the spoils, South Africa remains one of the more industrialized countries on the continent.  While guiding the ship of state for the early years, President Mandela, citing his age, stepped down from the presidency to allow another generation waiting in the wings to govern.

Both Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama are historical figures with great vision and magnanimity.  Mandela has lived a long life and Barack Obama has had the distinction of being the first African American to serve as President of the United States.  They have lived long enough to achieve greatness.

The sixteen year old Trayvon Martin was not so fortunate. He had his life taken from him by a silly man who valued property over life.  We don’t know what Trayvon could have accomplished in life if allowed to grow into adulthood.  And the fact that his killer who behaved recklessly has been allowed to walk free is another historic episode in the black historical experience that black life can be erased with impunity.  The more conservative segments of white society have always been oblivious to the black historical experience and presume that the verdict of the jury was fair and black folks should not be incensed by another historical wrong.

Six days after the verdict the President of the United States, after he visited Gory Island in Senegal and Robben Island in South Africa, felt compelled to share his thoughts about the Trayvon Martin case.  The President intimately stated that when he stated previously that Trayvon Martin could have been his son, he meant that 25 years ago Trayvon Martin could have been him.  He went on to convey to the American people that the black male presence provokes unwanted fears.  The black male individually does not exist in the eyes of the white public.  Every black man is a suspect and in the NRA age of concealed weapons and Stand Your Ground Laws, it becomes open season for the paranoid to act out their fears and to use deadly force.

The civil rights movement put an end to de jure segregation and it made it possible for black folks to exercise the franchise without naked violence being used against them.  The entire country embraces Martin Luther King, Jr. as a hero and an American icon and lauded his strategy of nonviolence.  Yet culturally, America remains a nation obsessed with guns and the use of deadly force.  More and more the society has moved towards becoming a praetorian country.  Even the horrendous killing of children in an elementary school in Connecticut could not move the United States Congress to ban assault rifles or to tighten background checks.

Thus we are a nation overstocked with rifles and nuclear weapons.  When these incidents occur there is a reflex action on the part of white conservatives.  The illogic of this thought-process was rampant on the Sunday morning talk shows.  Black conservatives are not representative of the black community and their support in the community may be less than a fascist group but they bring great comfort to white media.  The fall back position is that the real problem is black on black violence and/or the high rate of out of wedlock births in America.  One black conservative on CNN conjured up the Moynihan Report arguing that the real problem is the collapse of the black family.

As the President pointed out the black historical experience is not understood by white America.  The black historical experience is unique but it is very much American.  Black folks in America are not undocumented aliens, they are American citizens with all the strengths and weaknesses of American civilization.  Violence, black or white, has to be contextualized and the violence in the inner cities is not replicated in middle class suburbs.  It is the outgrowth of a culture of violence that has taken hold of people who are trapped in generations of poverty and in the process of devalued life.

Trayvon Martin did not exemplify that lifestyle.  He was ensconced in a loving family committed to higher education and where mother and father were ever-present in his life.  The movement in the making around Trayvon’s modern day lynching must not only demand the rollback of Stand Your Ground legislation but demand an all out assault on poverty in America.  There has been neglect of cities in recent decades and there is the need for a “New Deal” for inner cities.  Before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he was fighting to improve the lives of poor people.  The Federal Government needs to go beyond Humphrey-Hawkins and bring about full employment at a living wage throughout America.

The President of the United States in his first term and in his second term has been magnanimous.  If he wishes to pay lasting tribute to the life of Trayvon Martin, he must develop an urban agenda.  Congress predictably will balk and bark but let the movement take to the streets and begin a new struggle in the history of the American republic.  That would not only be befitting for Trayvon’s senseless death but Nelson Mandela would be pleased with such a bold and timely initiative coming from the 44th President of the United States.