There is a black Mount Rushmore in the minds of many. It shows, etched in magnificent granite, from left to right: Frederick Douglass, then Marcus Garvey, then Thurgood Marshall, then Malcolm X, then Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But since the 60s no one has taken the place that King had. Jesse tried but never really got there. Farrakhan and Sharpton never got close. Mandela is beloved and inspirational but not American, and no more of a leader here than Kofi Anan. For decades there was no black leader, no person who black America listened to and respected as our moral compass, directing us toward greatness.
Douglass helped us out of slavery, Marshall and X and King led us out of segregation and into the idea of black power, but the challenges today are more subtle and nuanced and complicated and varied in the different classes and ideologies of black people. Many thought that the black community had grown too complex to have a black leader, that the entire idea was antiquated. But now there is a new face on the black Mount Rushmore: Obama.
Obama will be the zenith of black America for as long as he lives.
Now that he’s been elected, and black America’s home team has won the political Super Bowl, and he's begun touring and planning to live in the most august mansion in America, he’s freed us from thinking this country’s promises don’t extend to us. He has liberated deep-seated chains in our minds—he is on that Mount Rushmore and he will be that zenith of black America for as long as he lives.
Obama is now the big Daddy in black culture and when he speaks it’ll matter. And his moral authority can and will dig deep. He’s already shown he’s willing to use his bully pulpit, saying on the campaign trail young brothers should pull their pants up and black men should be better fathers to their children. If he says forcefully the era of saying nigga is over, it will hold weight.
We have in the black community a virus running rampant—anti-intellectualism. There are some blacks who distrust school and education, as crazy as that sounds. Obama’s life renders that view null. Now, with a jazzman- cool, articulate, unapologetically brilliant black man on the throne won’t going to school and reading and writing and speaking proper suddenly look a lot cooler? Now how many millions of black boys will there be who want to Be Like Barack?
No matter what he does over the next four or eight years in the political realm, for the rest of his life he will be the #1 most respected, most inspirational, towering black leader, who will have the lofty esteem and moral authority that King had.
Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once. He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid, Soul City, and The Portable Promised Land. He was a Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN’s first Pop Culture Correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times.