I was in the fourth grade the first time someone told me that Obama’s role as “president of all Americans” neutralized his blackness.
It was 2008 and still primary season, but Mrs. Dowle was trying to get a heated political discourse going during afternoon snack time. She wanted to know which presidential candidates my 10-year-old classmates and I would cast an imaginary ballot for. I’ve never been the best at identifying social cues, or draining my thoughts through an “apolitical” colander before I voiced them. So my response was simple.
“I’m voting for Obama because he’s Black!”
I felt liberated! Set free!
Until Mrs. Dowle retaliated.
“You can’t vote for a candidate just because he’s Black. You can’t like a candidate just because he’s Black.”
And this is the point I want to focus on. These are the convoluted feelings I am forced to parse.
Black people are used to being told there are social spaces and capital to which we don’t have access. We know the stereotypes stitched onto our hair, our clothing and simply who we are. Because of it, our entire existence wraps around trying to maintain an image separate from the one reflected by white peers, teachers and politicians.
Obama spoke to Americans as if he were holding a can of beer at a barbeque to which we were all invited. But he never poured one out for Black Americans, and we forgave him for forgetting us when we shouldn’t have.
Fast forward eight years and President Obama didn’t do as much to combat white supremacy as he could’ve. He upheld it in totality.
Crystal Marie Fleming, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Stony Brook University, tweeted about this juxtaposition and others:
Obama allowed you to feel warm and fuzzy while Muslims were killed in your name. Your comfort was part of the problem.
— Nasty Professor (@alwaystheself) January 31, 2017
While in office, he spoke down to Black Lives Matter, implying that revolutionaries have to work with a broken system to get anywhere. He deported over 2.4 million people, more than any other president. He signed a bill in 2011 authorizing the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. In 2016 alone, he dropped at least 26,171 bombs on countries like Pakistan and Yemen (only a snapshot of the lives lost over the past ten years to drone strikes and more overseas).
I could go on forever.
To paraphrase, his rhetoric didn’t match his actions. He preached hope and change, yet never started any real dialogues. There was no space left for those who America’s violent history left most vulnerable and most desperate for this “change.”
So I found myself constantly waiting for Obama to see me.
And all of this is truth that can’t be justified. Obama’s Blackness by no means absolves him from accepting white nationalism as patriotism. It doesn’t pardon him from the moral repercussions of offering “The American Dream” to all Americans equally, without any substantive and specific action for the communities that need it most.
But at the end of the day, he was still a Black man occupying the highest office in the nation. His two Black daughters scoured the the backyard of the White House with the same intimacy that my siblings know the cracking blacktop in front of our Connecticut home. He signed bills into law with the same Black hands that I bare, open-palmed when I walk into corner stores, trying to assure the cashier I won’t steal anything.
I am human, and I will miss the illusion of Black progress he gave us.
Ta-Nehisi Coates described the feeling when he spoke at Pick-Staiger in January.
“He made Black folks feel proud. You see him and Michelle and the kids in the White House and you feel something about yourself,” he said. “You feel like the best of yourself is being represented and you got excited about that. It wasn’t just that he was the first Black president.”
I’ll miss seeing Barack and Michelle holding hands on the White House lawn, Bo and Sunny laying at their feet. I’ll reminisce about Obama’s stutter and sincerity with equal fondness. I’ll miss seeing those Black folks wield immense political and social power, a power our slave ancestors have never seen.
But, I won’t miss seeing him not use it.
We’re approaching the one-month mark of Trump’s presidency and so far it’s been utter chaos. Each day that white liberals try to make sense of his victory using the same structural white supremacy that they should be interrogating, the more unattainable equity feels.
For the Black community, living each day with an existential weight on our backs sometimes makes it seem more necessary to find internal peace than exhaust all of our energy rallying for external change. Donald Trump has clearly revealed the American political system for what it is: an “Easy” button for unkempt white aggression. There is no barbeque, there are no sweet nothings to console us.
But none of this is new. We’ve swapped out masked thugs for unmasked ones, still getting attacked either way. President Obama was a reprieve only because we could convince ourselves he was.
I will leave you with this: the Black experience is marked by remarkable joy and crippling discomfort alike—we are constantly finding new means to survive here. But as for who Barack Obama is and what he means to each Black American, that is just not my jurisdiction to decide.
My president was Black, your president was Black. But the foundation of the American political system is most definitely white.