Is Obama Among the Greatest Black Men Ever?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

News One blogger Dr. Boyce Watkins checks in on President Barack Obama's place in history, asking if he is "an outstanding figure in black American history" in comparison with other black leaders. There is no clear-cut answer, he says.


For many centuries, the epitome of African American achievement has been to become the first black president. We once talked about it like it was the impossible dream, or the ultimate sign that we have arrived. Well, Barack Obama didn’t just talk about the dream, he went out and turned it into a reality.

So, here we are, with the keys to the Oval Office. When the Obamas moved in physically, many of “us” moved into the White House psychologically. The Obama’s marriage was our own, and our sense of protection of the president and his family was the kind that tends to be reserved for our closest relatives.

With that said, the question becomes, “How do we properly contextualize President Obama in black American history?”

Well, one thing we know is that it would be quite dangerous to describe President Obama as the most accomplished black man in the history of the United States. To make such a claim would be to say that being popular among white Americans might be an important precondition for African Americans to be “successful.” The gifts of true freedom, respect and equality are not granted willingly in a historically racist society. Typically, equality means competition, and it’s hard to compete with someone for valuable resources and expect them to like you at the same time.

So, in many ways, individuals such as the late Malcolm X and even Louis Farrakhan have achieved as much success as President Obama, even though they are/were not popular with mainstream America. Farrakhan and Malcolm have long taught lessons of self-sufficiency that empower African Americans, but also alienate us when we are perceived as being too “radical.”  Malcolm reminded us, very clearly, that someone liking you can be very different from someone actually respecting you.

Read Dr. Boyce Watkins’ entire blog entry at News One.