Jake Lamar at Bookforum:
I sometimes think of Election Night 2008 as analogous to the first manned moon landing in 1969. Something that had seemed, just a few years earlier, imaginable only in speculative fiction had suddenly become real before our eyes. In both cases, an American achievement was celebrated by people around the world. Like Neil Armstrong’s “small step” on the lunar surface, the election of a black man to the highest office in the most powerful nation on earth seemed to expand human possibility. But within a couple of years, the public grew tired of moon shots and, after the sixth landing in 1972, NASA abandoned lunar travel. After all, what had walking on the moon done to improve life on Earth? It had certainly done nothing to help African Americans living in poverty. “A rat done bit my sister Nell,” Gil Scott-Heron wrote in his classic 1970 protest song: “I can’t pay no doctor bills / But Whitey’s on the moon.”
It’s impossible to know whether the landmark election of a black president will follow the novelty of the moon walk into the national memory hole. But some of the exhilaration of the 2008 campaign season began to erode as soon as Barack Obama assumed the presidency. He has since presided over an era of economic devastation in black America. What’s more, the age of Obama has witnessed the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and a grotesque series of killings of black Americans by white police officers in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Chicago, Obama’s political hometown, as well as by white private citizens in Florida and South Carolina. To many disappointed African Americans, having a black man in the White House has been as bitterly irrelevant as having a white man on the moon.