The Mandelas, Obama, Tavis and Black Expectations

Winnie Mandela's complaints about the South African icon sound a lot like some criticisms of the U.S. president.

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It may have seemed that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was talking out of both sides of her mouth or being "two-faced" as one South African newspaper blasted her for publicly criticizing her ex-husband, Nelson. But in fact, much of what she said was true--regardless of which face it came from. Some might have felt the way listening to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Julianne Malveaux and other black scholars and personalities as they called out the nation's first black president this past weekend for not setting a high enough priority for a national black agenda.

"He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks," Madikizela-Mandela was quoted as saying. "Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much 'white.' It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded," She went on to say that she could not forgive him for accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with F.W. de Klerk, the white South African president who released Mandela from prison in 1990.

Though the iconic Mandela is highly revered by blacks and whites in South Africa and around the world, Winnie is not the first to criticize aspects of his 1994-1999 tenure as South Africa's first black president. Many have complained that he devoted too much time seeking reconciliation with whites and too little improving the economic condition of black South Africans, who, 16 years after the end of apartheid, still remain mired in poverty. Sound familiar?

Indeed, many of the criticisms leveled at Nelson Mandela are similar to those now being fired at America's first black president, Barack Obama. Many here in the United States argue that Obama has spent way too much time courting Republicans, pushing bipartisanship and bailing out big corporations. They argue that he hasn't spent nearly enough time creating a "black agenda" to uplift the millions of African Americans who still lag far behind whites in employment, education, business ownership and just about every other measurable category of economic achievement. These inequities persist despite the great progress the United States has made in terms of ending racial inequalities in this country, best exemplified by Obama's election to the highest office in the land.

"I'm very proud that a black man sits in the White House," said Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan with a long pause for effect between the words "White" and "House" during a weekend panel discussion at Chicago State University on Obama and the "black agenda."  "[But] we have a right to expect something of the brother."

In many ways, Mandela and Obama share a common affliction of nearly all black people who become the first to make it to the top of their chosen profession: Their ascension is generally greeted with great elation--and even greater expectations for improved conditions for people who share his or her race. It is as if the election or appointment of one person of color can change a history of racial discrimination and oppression overnight. Of course, it cannot, and the elation quickly turns to anger and frustration when it seems that the black person at the pinnacle of power fails to embrace his people in the way they feel he should. In American politics, it was even difficult for black people to embrace Obama at first, for fear that he would be painted as "the black candidate." Conversely, many felt that he was keeping black people at arm's length in order to appease the fears of white people.

Intellectually, I understand and appreciate the very real limits of what a Nelson Mandela or a Barack Obama can do by themselves to improve the lots of black people in their respective countries. But I can also understand the frustration and anger of dashed expectations. I've felt the same way in my own profession. As a correspondent for Newsweek and Time magazines for 27 years, I was overjoyed when Mark Whitaker, a personal friend and respected colleague, was named Newsweek's first African-American top editor. But that joy quickly died down as I watched my old friend twist and turn trying to keep white corporate bosses and readers happy--often at the expense of black reporters and readers who had high hopes for his editorship. Whitaker has since moved on to NBC News. Meanwhile, the magazine has yet to see more and better black content--or more black staff, for that matter.

I remember sitting with Mrs. Mandela in the Cape Town city hall on the day Nelson was released from prison and asking her how she felt about having her husband back after 27 years. Her answer surprised me. "I am overjoyed for Nelson," she said. "But it is going to be difficult to be a proper African wife again and walk two paces behind my husband."

In many ways, it is just as difficult for black Americans to have one of their own in the White House and feel that they are being kept at arm's length, that they are, in effect, walking two paces behind their president. But like it or not, such are the realities of race in America. President Obama cannot be seen as pushing a black racial agenda or his days in the White House would surely be numbered. That's why it is up to the Jesse Jacksons, Louis Farrakhans and other African-American leaders to keep pushing that agenda. They have to keep pushing this agenda, even if President Obama cannot--just as Winnie Mandela is doing in South Africa. Because her ex-husband could not.

Sylvester Monroe is a Chicago-based journalist and author. He is a former White House correspondent for Newsweek.

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