Comments by President Obama, Bishop Jackson Raise Question of Embracing One’s Blackness

Comments of President Barack Obama in his Morehouse College and Bishop E.W. Jackson on Saturday raise the question of when African American politicians embrace their racial background.

I rarely wade into the waters of writing on the words of politicians.

But,  today I could not resist after reading news involving two prominent African American male politicians, one who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and other from my home state.  Both men happen to be Harvard Law School graduates.

President Obama addressed Morehouse graduates today in Atlanta. (Photo: Courtesy of Morehouse College)

As a proud Howard University graduate, I had to put the HBCU (historically black college and university) rivalries aside and watch with excitement the historic events earlier today at Morehouse College  in Atlanta.


Despite the rain, more than 500 graduates of the nation’s only all-male historically black college had a chance to hear the President of the United States, who himself became an honorary “Morehouse man.”

“Whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy — the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had — because there but for the grace of God go I,” President Obama said.

Elsewhere in his 45-minute address,  the President made another admission.

“Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down,” he said as he strongly urged the Morehouse men to remember there’s’ no room for excuses in 2013.

Bishop E.W. Jackson is founder and president of Staying True to America’s National Destiny (STAND). He pastors Exodus Faith Ministries in Chesapeake, Va.

Obama’s remarks came only hours after another African American male politician,  Bishop E.W. Jackson, accepted the Republican Party nomination to be the candidate for lieutenant governor of my home state of Virginia.

If elected, he would become the second African American-elected lieutenant governor since Reconstruction.  (The first was L. Douglas Wilder, who was later elected governor)

According to today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jackson received his greatest applause of the day from the thousands of delegates the Virginia GOP Convention he said the following:

“I’m no African-American, I’m an American!”

At the same time, in a YouTube video, Jackson appeals to Christians in “the black community”

“You and I cannot hide being black,”   Jackson said in the YouTube video that was posted September 2012.  He was criticizing those who compare the gay rights movement to the history of African Americans.

Matter of Politics?

So, whether or not you embrace your race  depends on who your audience is and the circumstances in which you’re speaking?

It matters who you’re trying to impress.

Now in the first year of his second term, President Obama has not made a great number of speeches on the issue of race. The Jeremiah Wright controversy prompted him to give his famous ” A More Perfect Union” address on race in Philadelphia in 2008 then as a presidential candidate.

Since then, today was one of the few times, he talked at length about his experience as a black man in America.   Keep in mind, Obama is bi-racial, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya.  But, his commencement address was made all the more significant because of his racial background.

It wasn’t just that this was the first time the President of the United States addressed a Morehouse graduation.  It was the fact that a fellow African American male who holds the highest office in the land addressed the graduating class.

So, in some groups, you embrace your race,  while in other settings, you don’t talk about the color of your skin.

PBS Anchor Gwen Ifill’s 2009 book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama addressed this issue.

Out of Context?

I’m sure Bishop Jackson would argue that I am taking his “I am not African American” quotation out of context.   Since I don’t have access to a transcript of his remarks at the Richmond Coliseum and was not there, I don’t have the benefit of hearing what came before and what came after the statement.

But,  I’m not sure the context would change the fact that he clearly wants to embrace his American-ness over his African American heritage.

As Jackson seeks to appeal to Virginia Voters this November, perhaps this tactic will serve him well.  We shall see.

As a devout Christian who calls Richmond, Va. home, I will definitely enjoy watching this particular election cycle from afar.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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