Binary States of America: A Letter to Obama

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When I was in third grade, back in the late ’70s in Detroit, I wrote my first book—sort of.

It was a class assignment to create a handmade book about what we wanted to be when we grew up. My classmates picked the usual professions: doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers, and hairdressers, etc. But I wanted to be President. The Boss. Top Dog. The first black president. I thought it was time for some black blood in the White House. I wanted to be like Lincoln minus the beard, the tall fellow who freed the slaves and one who later took a fatal bullet. Lincoln was my main man. Now the fatal bullet was a bit troubling; it was the only thing gave me pause.

The project required us to write an essay describing the desired job and why we wanted it. I wrote that I wanted to feed the hungry in Africa and India, tax the rich, give people jobs, get drugs off the streets. I sounded like a cross between a typical democrat and a barbershop socialist. I wanted to be the good MLK president—the save-the-world president. I wrote:

I want to become because it is great opportunity to help people, like in Chicago and in other places. I want people in the United States to appreciate things that I do for them. I am just not going to help colored people, but other colors too. I just want to help mankind to love each other and not kill each other.

When I reach President, I bet I do good deeds in the presidency. When I become the president, one of the first things to do is help people across the water and sea. I am going to help them in many ways. I’m going stop drugs and all kinds of substances. I would rather for mankind to live rather than die.

I am going to be president no matter what happens to me in the United States of America. Man will live a good life after I become president of the United States. When I become a candidate, please vote for me.

Wow. I don’t know why my third-grade mind was so worried about Chicago when I was living in Detroit. Also I cannot believe I used the reference “colored.” Must have gotten that from granny. While I appreciate my younger self’s desire to help people far and wide, and emphasizing love over destruction, and concern for all colors, I sounded so determined and borderline over the top—like Trump. Maybe his appeal is that he speaks like a child in broad emotional strokes communicating to the inner children of mostly white working class America, who are afraid of the unknown and difference, impatient with intellectualism, and excited by late-night Twitter messages.

We also had to create our own illustrations and put everything together in book form. Inside I drew a portrait of Lincoln in oil paint, and for the cover of my book there is an older version of me who appears to be a white man with a moustache. What was I thinking? Was I thinking I needed to be a white man to get the top job? Or was some other sinister psycho-mess at play? Was it growing up in a single-parent family without a black father figure? Then I remembered that the reference for the self-portrait was Charles Bronson—my childhood Death Wish 1, 2, and 3 hero. Bronson was my man because he didn’t take any shit.

Deep down I guess I really wanted to be a Malcolm X President. Maybe deep down I wanted to be a screw whitey Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young kinda President. But I quickly realized I could not be president acting like Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, or Richard Pryor. I would have to be nice and diplomatic. Super educated. Maybe rich or a Hall of Famer. Something beyond belief. But, most remarkably, I would need to get a whole lot of white votes. How was I going to manage that? The idea of pandering to white folks, even as a kid, was a neurological event. Besides, I would have to be the president of everybody, even the KKK and Archie Bunker, and boy did I dislike Archie. I would have to have secret friendships or fake ones. I would have to wear that same-looking suit all the time and lose my cool haircut. Clearly American presidentialism is indeed a complicated notion, wherein leadership and personal expression might be oppositional. So by eighth grade, with Reagan in office, I was done with the idea of being president.

In 1984, I had a minor relapse when Rev. Jesse Jackson was trying to beat me to my abandoned dream job. Run Jesse Run: the slogan, the man, the energy brought such a powerful inspiration. His Rainbow coalition platform was a smart post-Civil Rights Movement attempt at expanding FDR’s Great Society, including everything from the War on Drugs, cutting defense spending, universal health care, reparations, and free community college, to supporting a Palestinian state. Some of this should sound familiar. This was the theme of my book on liberal steroids. One of my favorite Jackson 1988 campaign passages was: 

Common ground. America is not a blanket woven from one thread, one color, one cloth. When I was a child growing up in Greenville, South Carolina and grandmamma could not afford a blanket, she didn’t complain and we did not freeze. Instead she took pieces of old cloth—patches, wool, silk, gabardine, crockersack—only patches, barely good enough to wipe off your shoes with. But they didn’t stay that way very long. With sturdy hands and a strong cord, she sewed them together into a quilt, a thing of beauty and power and culture. Now, Democrats, we must build such a quilt.

I had hope. Then he lost to Walter Mondale in ’84. Then again to Dukakis in ’88. The W.E.B. Du Bois color line was real. The glass ceiling was actually concrete. And now I was really done with the idea that there would ever be a black president, at least in my lifetime.

Twenty-four years after Jackson’s initial run and thirty years after I created my book, Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America. There were tears, jubilation, fear, happiness, but mostly disbelief. After eight years and the finality of a historic tenure as president, there are again tears, jubilation, fears, happiness, and still, disbelief.

There is no doubt that the Obama presidency will be analyzed for decades to come. Although the outgoing polls are decent, there are many who feel a sense of deflation and disappointment. In the black community there is certainly pride in a survived president and at the same time a hesitation to be deeply critical especially in light of a Trump administration, but if I could write Obama a note without trepidation, it would be something like this:

Dear Obama,

I am honored that you became President. Not only because you were black, but because you were smart and young and idealized the greatness of this country. The “Yes We Can” spirit was infectious in 2008. And you stayed president without getting shot, impeached, or falling victim to scandal. Black folks were certainly on edge about this, because we felt extremely protective, and knew that your coming to harm might unleash the fury of four hundred years of pain. I valued your incredible speeches and genius for balance and measured responses. I liked the Al Green cover you did and the “Amazing Grace” you sang in South Carolina at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney—one of nine gunned down in that A.M.E. church. You got some skills. Also the way you presented, supported, and protected your daughters and First Lady was beyond beautiful. I appreciated you getting Bin Laden, though I am not sure why you had to kill him. Just a Christian thought, I guess.

The Affordable Healthcare Act is a very important achievement. I got your point about how health insurance should be like car insurance. It makes sense if you value your health more than your car: but we Americans simply don’t. I was encouraged by how you evolved on the Marriage Equality issue. I am happy you went to visit Cuba. I had hoped that you would meet up with Fidel. I suspect you wanted to. And the US abstaining from the UN vote condemning Israel’s continued building in occupied territories was very ballsy. I was so hoping for you to recognize the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination and rule. But overall, I appreciate that the economy is growing, unemployment is down, and no major terrorist attacks happened under your watch. Lastly, the way you dropped the mic at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was pure dopeness.

However, I am not sure I liked the way you dissed Rev. Wright but embraced Larry “women can’t do science” Summers. That was a major red flag. Or how you let Wall Street walk and many mortgage holders crash and burn. That was mind-boggling. And US drones killing children in the Middle East seems very hard to justify, especially when in Chicago, your political hometown, there is a war zone, with over 700 murders in 2016 alone. And what about American race relations under your administration, during which Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Ferguson, Baltimore, Black Lives Matter, and “I can’t breathe” became household words? Things seem worse, and to lecture us on Democracy and empathetic listening seems hardly a vital strategy for addressing police brutality, mass incarceration, and foundational white supremacy.

I know you know how to use your mixed race privilege to access a certain conversation with white America that black people with slaves’ blood cannot. I know you are a real hybrid—a real African American in the most literal sense. I understand you being too white for some of us black folks and too black for many more white people. And I also understand this privilege or position got you elected and may have guided your sense for balance, mutual understanding, and playing the middle.

But sometimes there is no playing the middle. Sometimes we must advocate for short-term immediate action to achieve long-term balance. America is deeply divided. The color-class lines are deeper than ever. Black and brown folks do not feel safe in this country with the prospect of a Trump administration. With the rise of the alt-right, aka white supremacy, we cannot play the middle with them even if they remind us of family members. There is no “one” America. We are deeply divided between: rich and poor, black and white, Republicans and Democrats, workers and owners, police and citizens, hospitals and patients, inmates and “free,” and Fox News and sanity. The list of binaries is endless. We are a republic of states, of communities, of markets, of groups competing for the American Pie of debt, product consumption and off the rack living. If anything we are more like a quilt than a blanket, as Jesse Jackson suggested in the ’80s, where citizenship can be a death sentence when you are on the minority side of democracy.

In the end, although I wanted you to be more like Charles Bronson or Malcolm or Luke Cage, and more of a gladiator than a mediator, I am very proud to have witnessed your historic presidency—the successes, and even the disappointments. Because of your work, I am inspired to believe that more of us will follow you to continue the work, push the boundaries, and sit at the table of power and influence. And as this country continues to mature, I hope we will heed your most powerful words:

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.

And I hope when young children, wherever they may be in the world, think about what they want to be when they grow up, before they become jaded to the harsh reality of the world, will learn about your story and be inspired to dream big, act boldly, go against the odds and critically crush the many things that divide us, as a nation, as a civilization and as members of planet earth. And when things get bleak or dark and depressing,  I hope  they will know and say, as Abraham Lincoln did in 1863, Martin Luther King Jr, in ’63, and you did in ’08, “Yes I can”—make a difference, a big difference.

Thank You President Obama,

John Sims

P.S. One last thing: since I know you are an avid reader, I wanted to share a recent piece I wrote, “Get your armor on for Trump’s Confederate States of America.” Please check it out. Love to know what you think.

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Original artwork titled “Binary States of America” by John Sims. Photograph of book cover provided courtesy of author.

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Listen to John Sims discuss this piece with Reverend Billy on The Earth Wants YOU Hour on Thursday, January 19, at 5:15 p.m. ET.


John Sims, a Detroit native, is a multi-media conceptual artist, creating projects spanning the areas of mathematics, art, text, performance, and media activism. His main projects are informed by the vocabulary of mathematical structure, the politics of sacred symbols, and poetry as ally to the visual arts. He has lectured and exhibited both nationally and internationally and his work has been featured in Art in America, Sculpture, Transition, FiberArts, Guernica, Science News, CNN, NBCNews, New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and the science journal Nature. More from this author →