I was almost afraid to read “My President Was Black.” Ta-Nehisi Coates is such a tour de force, I was afraid that his words would wipe away my thoughts, his insights obliterate my voice as I try to sort out what the end of this presidency means to me.
But by the second paragraph of his stirring Atlantic piece, the fear was gone. Coates seemed to be speaking directly to me. His voice — as casually and distinctly black as Barack Obama sashaying through a BET party – carves out a space for the rest of us in this national conversation.
Obama’s exotic background may have made him more palatable to whites, as Coates contends. But it also magnified his commitment to African Americans. He could have straddled the line; he chose to be one of us.
Coates captures the unbridled joy on display at a private Black Entertainment Television gala hosted by Obama at the White House in late October. But the scene also carries a sense of foreboding for readers — who know what the next weeks would bring. (It’s like when you’re watching a movie and the innocent young star is heading out on a date with a man she adores, and only the audience knows that he’s actually a serial killer.)
It hurts now to remember how naïve we were then.
But the BET party was also a way for Coates to signal to black readers, like me: This is our story, just as Obama was our president.
He shows us what this president, a model of restraint, looks like when he’s in his comfort zone, crowing about his “block party” and line-dancing with party-goers. It’s a backstage look at how we get our groove on; a view of the president that outsiders seldom see, but one that feels familiar to me.
There’s a very specific ethos to that kind of celebration. It’s a cultural touchstone for African Americans, one that transcends education or age, owes no allegiance to income or politics. Go to a 60th birthday house-party in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw area and you’ll find a less upscale but no less lively version of the celebrity-rich gala that Coates describes.
Coates’ inside jokes about the “good hair line” and “brown-paper-bag test” play like private messages, relying on tropes about skin color that are intimately familiar to black Americans. That Coates doesn’t pause his narrative to explain them to outsiders signals the intention of his choices.
Coates’ rendering of that night also suggests that Obama was aware of “first black president” vulnerabilities. In his welcome to the crowd, Obama made the point that White House party guests of John F. Kennedy had danced the Twist – “the twerking of their time”– casting whatever hijinks might unfold as a 2016 version of Camelot.
All through the piece there are moments when Coates perfectly captures the not-so-obvious gifts of Obama’s time in office. Like this line about the First Lady: “Michelle Obama is beautiful in the way that black people know themselves to be.” That truth speaks to generations of black women, who’ve been told we’re too big, too dark, too bossy, too loud. She liberated us from warped standards of beauty dictated by European values. Those ignoramuses with their “ape” memes don’t bother me anymore. Michelle’s class, grace and comfort with herself set the bar for a generation of young black women, like my three daughters.
I dove into Coates’ piece on a day when I was feeling morose. My home is decorated with reminders of Obama’s presidency. I attended both inaugurations. I’d interviewed him years before, when he was a senator from Chicago and I was a Los Angeles Times editorial writer. He’d called me back the day after the interview, to chat about the racial dynamics we’d explored. “Hey Sandy. It’s Barack.” I’ll never forget the confidence in his voice, as his hope battled my doubt that voters were ready for a black man in the White House.
I think Coates gets it right when he suggests that only this man, with his particular background and the outlook it bred, could have been our first black president.
Obama eschewed the “biracial” label — but he also had the privilege of moving through life unencumbered by the chains of history. There are no slaves in his ancestry. He neither reminds white Americans of collective guilt in this country’s original sin, nor carries the inherited burden of anger and shame that has shaped the psyche of so many black Americans. A sense of freedom, of unlimited horizons, has surrounded Obama’s life; something that most black men of his generation did not have access to.
Obama’s exotic background may have made him more palatable to whites, as Coates contends. But it also magnified his commitment to African Americans. He could have straddled the line; he chose to be one of us. That came through in subtle ways that others might not see: His cadence from the pulpit when he addressed the country’s grief. His comfort with dap and hugs as he greeted other black men. His familiarity with the urban slang my children have taught me.
For me, it’s never been just about whether he did or did not do enough politically for black people. His very presence was a perpetual reminder of the worth of our struggle, the value of our being. He represented blackness in its multi-faceted glory — we’re a family strong and generous enough to include and embrace both the president and the prison inmate.
“My President Was Black” reminds me of the magnitude of our loss. Coates’ essay made me feel proud, wistful, angry, empty and sad, but it also made me grateful for Barack Obama in ways that can’t be captured in slogans and statistics.
I belong to the last generation of black Americans with a personal connection to the state-sanctioned discrimination that Jim Crow laws allowed. As a child on summer visits to the Alabama farm where my mother grew up, we couldn’t stay in a Holiday Inn en route from Ohio or eat at a highway restaurant once we crossed the state line. I remember being guided by my mother toward “colored” drinking fountains and warned not to try on clothes when shopping in Montgomery.
I wish my mother had lived long enough to witness Obama’s presidency. And despite the fact that we seem to be moving backward now, I’m still amazed by how far this country has come in my lifetime.
I’m hanging on now to something my mother used to say, though it puzzled me when I was young. She’d fled to Cleveland from Alabama in the 1940s. But she wanted to return to Montgomery after she retired. One thing she liked about the South, she said, was that you always know where people stood. If a white person didn’t like black people, they didn’t hide it; you knew. And if they did like you, you knew you could trust and count on them. She appreciated the upfront honesty of that.
I’m beginning to understand what she meant, now that racists and hate-mongers feel they have license to flaunt their bigotry. I suppose there is some value in seeing clearly who the enemy is.
But those voices don’t define my country.
My president was black. And the power of his vision and force of his dignity will continue to sustain and inspire me.