A Ta-Nehisi Coates Atlantic cover is always an event: reflective, and personal to at least some degree. But his recent piece “My President Was Black,” from the January/February 2017 issue of The Atlantic, is so much the epitome of those things that it feels almost categorically new. The piece doesn’t focus on policy or even (as a primary objective) history–it’s a treatise on President Obama’s blackness, and so, by extension, America’s blackness. It’s hard to read, not so much this time because it challenges paradigms or covers history many of us should have learned in school but didn’t, but mostly because it is sad.
The piece opens with a long recollection of Obama at a pre-election farewell party hosted by BET, touching on the authentic relationship between the Obama family and the hip-hop community, and black music more broadly. It segues quietly into the unfair demand white America continues to place upon black Americans to be, as the saying goes, twice as good–a demand to which Obama happened to meet in exemplary fashion.
“This would not happen again, and everyone knew it. It was not just that there might never be another African American president of the United States. It was the feeling that this particular black family, the Obamas, represented the best of black people, the ultimate credit to the race, incomparable in elegance and bearing. ‘There are no more,’ the comedian Sinbad joked back in 2010. ‘There are no black men raised in Kansas and Hawaii. That’s the last one. Y’all better treat this one right. The next one gonna be from Cleveland. He gonna wear a perm. Then you gonna see what it’s really like.’ Throughout their residency, the Obamas had refrained from showing America ‘what it’s really like,’ and had instead followed the first lady’s motto, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ This was the ideal—black and graceful under fire—saluted that evening. The president was lionized as ‘our crown jewel.’ The first lady was praised as the woman ‘who put the O in Obama.’”
Obama, as a larger-than-life ideal, derives much of his power from the symbolism of being the first black president, signaling to black America that, as Coates put it, a “prohibition” had been lifted. Yet this also made him a symbol of blackness to white America, the standard by which all others would be judged if he slipped up. He did not slip up, and the Obamas remain to this day an intelligent, successful, exemplary nuclear family “with two dogs to boot.” Obama has often been described by both sides as “acting white,” a common accusation leveled at African-Americans who attain any measure of success in a predominately white field, such as politics. The line he has been forced to walk here is unprecedented. Obama did not anticipate, and perhaps could not have been expected to, just how rabidly his fellow Americans would lash out against his blackness.
“Obama’s embrace of white innocence was demonstrably necessary as a matter of political survival. Whenever he attempted to buck this directive, he was disciplined.”
There are moments of frustration where we’re all prone to forgetting how amazing it is that a man facing such opposition from behind his own lines accomplished much of anything while in office, let alone enough to be remembered–by many, anyway–as one of the most consequential presidents in history. This piece has an unhurried feel, and not just because it is long. It is impossible to read it without feeling that Coates wanted to take his time, to savor Obama through what means he still could, reluctant to let go.
“A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama—a black man with deep roots in the white world—was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable.”
He takes readers back through recent history, sharing anecdotes from Obama’s childhood and descriptions of his family; these are vital not for just understanding Obama himself, but the way in which he grew up to become the sort of black person whom white people find palatable. The privilege he grew up with, and the unique sort of dual citizenship it afforded him between black culture and white society, created a political candidate not especially duplicable either today or eight or twelve years ago. Coates’ account of his perception as simultaneously too black and not black enough will also likely feel familiar to anyone who belongs to most any marginalized identity.
“African Americans, weary of high achievers who distanced themselves from their black roots, understood that Obama had paid a price for checking ‘black’ on his census form, and for living black, for hosting Common, for brushing dirt off his shoulder during the primaries, for marrying a woman who looked like Michelle Obama. If women, as a gender, must suffer the constant evaluations and denigrations of men, black women must suffer that, plus a broad dismissal from the realm of what American society deems to be beautiful. But Michelle Obama is beautiful in the way that black people know themselves to be. Her prominence as first lady directly attacks a poison that diminishes black girls from the moment they are capable of opening a magazine or turning on a television.”
The piece is sad to read because Coates does such an effective job of conveying Obama’s natural optimism while being open about the fact that he doesn’t keep much for himself. That Obama, whose most prominent hallmarks have always been patriotism and grace, is a man who had the good fortune to grow up considering himself the peer of white people and yet never resented any black communities who greeted him with skepticism. He believed, very nearly up until the end, that Donald Trump couldn’t win because “[t]his was America.”
“Obama’s greatest misstep was born directly out of his greatest insight. Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.”
Image: Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy’s Motorola Lecture (Sean Carter Photography, 2015)