When Barack Hussein Obama was elected to the presidency, I was optimistic. Initially, I believed that his election reflected a significant ideological shift in how white Americans perceived, conceptualized, and interpreted blackness. I thought this election marked the beginning of an atonement of sorts. The United States has been racially polarized from the time it was established; finally (so it seemed) we had found a way, democratically speaking, to be less so. Perhaps giving too much credence, even legitimacy to the “Yes, We Can” slogan, I felt that change was imminent.
But once Barack Obama assumed office, the widespread obstructionism among Republicans in the Capitol began in earnest, and the anti-Black vitriol and hate speech intensified on the airwaves, the internet, and in the streets. The controversial cover of the New Yorker in 2008 in which Barack and Michelle Obama were stereotyped as a Muslim terrorist and Black radical, respectively; conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh popularizing the song “Barack the Magic Negro” on his radio show; the racist birther allegations spearheaded by Trump and concomitant conspiracy theories surrounding Obama’s religious beliefs propagated by the far right; and the racism embedded in the conservative, right-wing Tea Party movement were undeniable illustrations of this. Without adequate bipartisan support, several of his policies and protections were thwarted, and his hands, to put it figuratively, often seemed tied. The inability to get a comprehensive immigration reform law passed, the blocked regulations on gun control, and even the failed nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016 substantiate this. United States representative Joe Wilson shouting, “You lie” when Obama revealed the details of his health care proposal in 2009 before Congress, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s refusal to shake Obama’s hand, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s decision to dispense with decorum or any semblance of respect by pointing her finger belligerently near the President’s face revealed the prevalence of antipathy among Republicans. In terms that could not be misunderstood, Michael Grunwald explained the “anti-Obama strategy” as “kicking the hell out of Obama all the time, treating him not just as a president from the opposing party but an extreme threat to the American way of life.” Throughout his presidency, Obama was constrained in ways that his predecessors were not. The scrutiny and criticism that surrounded his decision to wear a light-colored beige suit to a White House news conference is a glaring example of this double standard. Yet my intention is not to dismiss the legislative gains outlined by Paul Glastris and Nancy LeTourneau that occurred during Obama’s tenure in spite of the hostility and resistance he suffered, or to speculate on the implications of his legacy; instead, I would like to suggest that had race not mattered, in essence, had his (bi)racial identity been inconsequential, his experiences in office and, more specifically, his dealings with white Americans (as a collective, of course) would have been fundamentally different.
During his two terms, the adage “the more things change, the more they remain the same” became apparent to me, and my optimism began to wane. In retrospect, I recognize that what I thought was optimism was actually wishfulness. There is a difference. With optimism, it stands to reason that a desirable outcome is possible or even likely in light of something that has been demonstrated, observed, or (at the very least) intuited. On the other hand, the criterion for wishfulness is less stringent; truthfully, it is the stuff dreams are made of. Essentially, one can be wishful without rhyme or reason.
The danger of wishfulness, then, is that it is a point of view not grounded in lived experiences or contextualized in reality; it can be maintained without evidence or intimation that there is something more. As such, it translates well when applied to things that are of little consequence or fictitious, like daydreams and fantasies. But when it is used as an interpretive lens, wishfulness has a tendency to obscure the truth. It can become a smokescreen to thinking clearly and coherently about phenomena as they exist, in favor of thinking about them as they might be. Wishfulness does not require any evidence or indication that things will change for the better or for the worse, only a longing for something more.
Why am I using Barack Obama as a frame of reference on the eve of the official installation of Reuben E. Brigety II as the seventeenth vice-chancellor of the University of the South? I understand that the United States presidency, as the highest office in the land, bears little resemblance to the vice-chancellorship at a small liberal arts college in rural Tennessee. I draw this analogy not to diminish the responsibilities associated with the vice-chancellorship or to downplay any aspect of Sewanee’s reputation. However, the inhospitable terrain that Barack Obama was forced to navigate is not, to my mind, entirely different from the terrain that Dr. Reuben Brigety is attempting to negotiate and apparently reimagine.
Lest we forget, the vice-chancellor is living and laboring on a mountain where conservatism runs deep; arguably, this is a challenge. Despite my cognizance of the disputed nature of this term, I use it intentionally to signify the University’s history, elucidated by its Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, which is grounded in the Southern Confederacy and the extant political views and orientations that were formative in its founding “by slaveholders, for the benefit of slaveholders . . . to serve and advance a slaveholding society.” According to a statement issued by the Board of Regents in September 2020, “The University of the South was long entangled with, and played a role in, slavery, racial segregation, and white supremacy—forces that found particular and painful expression in the Confederacy and, later, in the ‘Lost Cause’ mythology of the white South.” In my estimation, one would be hard pressed to find rougher terrain than this for the University’s first Black vice-chancellor to not only negotiate but also to effect change.
Routinely referred to as “the Sewanee bubble” in ways that connote appreciation as well as derision, the University of the South, affectionately known as Sewanee, and sometimes the Mountain, is distinguished by its Gothic-inspired architecture and the beauty and vastness of the Domain, the more than 13,000 acres on which it is located. Within the campus community and among the alumni, there is a widely held sentiment that Sewanee is a unique place. I would not disagree. I suspect that there are traditions that exist here that might be difficult to find at other small, elite liberal arts colleges. There is no denying that, for better or (for) worse, Sewanee has a culture replete with traditions distinctly and intentionally its own. The Order of the Gown, the Honor Code, and the tacit class dress code are representative of these traditions. Somewhat whimsically, there is even a habit of releasing and retrieving your Sewanee angel as you enter or exit through the gates by lightly tapping your fist on the ceiling of your vehicle. Yet, despite its splendor and ostensible appeal, it is also a place that, until the inception of the aforementioned Roberson Project, has been reluctant to acknowledge its historical ties to the Confederacy and, by extension, to slavery and the white supremacist ideology that sought to protect and preserve it. I had a firsthand glimpse of this ethos one day as I walked to the Sewanee Memorial Cross in 2015. I noticed a black swastika that had been spray-painted on the ground; although faded, it was large enough to be visible from several feet away and clearly recognizable.
Until now, we have been unwilling to articulate and grapple with how this legacy affects the racial climate on campus and will likely inform our trajectory. More to the point, this conservative ethos reveals the ways in which, institutionally, we have been slow to theorize and subsequently put into practice the kind of radical changes relative to diversifying the curriculum, student body, and faculty and staff that would allow us to transcend who we have proven ourselves to be historically in order to pursue who we aspire to be today and during the next quarter of the twenty-first century.