Can a President Be an Angry Black Man?

Frank James, National Public Radio, June 8, 2010

All the talk in recent weeks about President Barack Obama not being angry enough over the BP oil spill has gotten me thinking, isn’t that what helped him get elected in the first place, that his calm mien made him a non-threatening figure for many voters being asked to take a risk on a black politician from Illinois so relatively unknown nationally?

Over the course of American history, after all, the angry black man hasn’t exactly been embraced, not unless he was a sports star or a character from the entertainment world like Mr. T.

Real angry black men have been a decided turn off for most Americans, to say the least.

Take Nat Turner of Virginia slave uprising fame was probably the nation’s original angry black man, at least the one who got the earliest publicity.

Enraged about the cruelty and suffering visited upon him and his fellow enslaved blacks, he decided to do something about it, slaughtering whites as part of an ultimately unsuccessful slave revolt in 1831. He was caught and hanged.

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Even though he had mellowed in the years just before his death, it was the earlier Malcolm who said: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone, but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery” who remained stuck in the American psyche.

It’s probably no accident that one of the least publicly angry black men, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., became one of the nation’s greatest heroes. King knew his audience, which was white Americans at least as much as black Americans. Being non-threatening was the only way to melt white resistance and make civil rights progress.

Try as I might, I can’t come up with examples of black men, or women for that matter, who’ve been able to routinely flash anger publicly and still achieve success at the highest levels of government, corporate, or academia.

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The president seems on some level to have bought into the notion he needs to show more anger. Witness his comments Tuesday morning on the Today Show when he said if it were up to him, BP CEO Tony Hayward would be so fired already. Also, he said he needed to “know whose a** to kick” over getting results in stopping the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and cleaning up the damage.

Maybe he senses that America, having proven it was ready for a black president now is ready for an angry black man as president. Maybe he’s right.

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