On Slowly But Surely Accepting The Fact That President Obama Kinda Sucks When Talking To And About Black People
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A few months ago, I was asked to contribute to The Meaning of Michelle — a collection of essays about Michelle Obama’s influence and legacy. My chapter (“Crushing on Michelle: Or the Unapologetic Power of Blackness”) makes a reference to the psychic impact the Obama family’s presence has had on Black America, and how our collective cathartic desire for America’s HNIC to be an actual nigga — mined out of the historical context of the Black American in America — pushed him into office and then kept him there.
This psychic impact might seem intangible and arbitrary, and this intangibility and arbitrariness could allow someone to dismiss it as inessential, but that would be a mistake. It is as much a part of President Obama’s legacy as anything he’s actually done while in office. You could even argue that the importance of his mere existence — of him being the President and the Obamas being America’s first family — surpasses the importance of any policy he’s enacted or politics he’s pushed.
If this is still too intangible, let me share something a bit more real. VSB has existed for as long as Barack Obama has been President of the United States. We launched in the spring of 2008; he was elected in the fall. In that time, we’ve grown from a blog featuring two guys sharing their tongue-in-cheek musings about dating, relationships, and sex to a critically lauded and commercially successful platform for witty and irreverent and VantaBlack content. Personally, I’ve journeyed from a college administrator who blogged in my spare time to a full-time writer who’s had people from dream-level publications like GQ, EBONY, The New Yorker, The Guardian, NY Mag, and The Washington Post actually approach my lactose intolerant Black ass about writing/working for them, who’s been honored on lists like this year’s The Root 100, and who was included with a lineup of rock star-ass writers in an anthology about our First Lady.
It’s all still somewhat surreal. But not too surreal for me to be able to step back and acknowledge that it’s unlikely much of this would have happened without President Obama. No, he didn’t create VSB. And he wasn’t with me shooting in the gym during the thousands of hours I’ve spent writing, editing, reading, failing, and re-writing over the past eight years. But I can’t deny that his existence has helped to embolden and elevate me; ultimately expanding the scope of what I believe I’m able to do and possessed to say.
This considered, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that it’s difficult for me to be particularly objective about him. I am not so in the tank that I believe his every act to be perfect and his every day as President to be halcyon. But I do extend him a benefit of the doubt that far surpasses any I’ve ever given — and likely ever will give — anyone I don’t personally know. This is particularly true in regards to his public thoughts and words and actions regarding race — particularly how he speaks to and speaks of Black Americans — where he has been a consistent disappointment. So consistently disappointing that it’s no longer disappointing. Now, it’s just expected. It’s just him.
Of course, I’m aware that President Obama is in an unenviable (and, frankly, impossible) position. His status is such that even relatively milquetoast and benign race-related statements like “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin” immediately become weaponized by virtue of him saying it. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie articulated a couple weeks ago, The Beer Summit became a perfect synopsis of this absurd dynamic. It was the type of conciliatory, fence-mending gesture Obama has become known for. But many of us (Black people) were annoyed and even angered by it, because by inviting Sgt. James Crowley to the White House, it legitimized him; putting this aggressively mediocre White man on the same level of the fucking President and one of our most distinguished academics and thinkers.
This was also apparently the moment much of White America came to the collective realization that the Black person they elected to be President was actually Black.
From Bouie’s piece:
In 2009, millions of Americans were still caught in the heady daydream of “post-racial America,” sustained by a president who was black, but who wasn’t quite a black president. Fifty-three percent of Americans, according to a Pew survey, said that the country was “making ground” on racial discrimination. Obama’s observation—that black lives still faced unfair treatment—was an abrupt challenge to that idea, and it brought a backlash.
This is the environment President Obama has had to muck his way through during his term. A melange of post-racial fuckshit congealed with a never-ending undertow of unabashed and increasingly shameless bias. Shit, the guy who very well might be the President after him is only in this position because of a political ascension based on President Obama’s suspected illegitimacy.
I’ll also concede that, if I judged him strictly on his position as President instead of the person manning the position, I probably wouldn’t be as disappointed. But this is where the disappointment exists. Barack Obama is undeniably a Black American man. A 55-year-old, Harvard educated man who is usually the smartest person in every room he’s in. The type of Black man to have the wherewithal to decide that Michelle Robinson was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. A Black man who’s the father of two Black children. And with this context, I anticipated and expected him to be better. Not perfect. But just better. I expected him to be too aware of his words to do things like go to Morehouse and scold the graduates on making excuses. I didn’t expect the strain of respectability that persists in his words to and about Black America to exist.
But even as it did, I excused it as the language of a man walking a tightrope none of us have dared step on, and defended him against those who wanted our first Black president to be less President Obama and more Barack from Chicago. But even now, as he’s in the fuck-deficient last leg of his presidency — a phase we’ve collectively anticipated since he was elected — his language hasn’t changed much. Just last week, after defending Colin Kaepernick’s protest, he asked that Kaepernick consider the pain his protest is causing military families; a false equivalency that 1) puts the hurt feelings of those upset by Kaepernick’s symbolic and peaceful response to a symbol on the same level of the very real pain and fear many Black Americans feel in regards to the police and 2) implies that there’s a connection between Kaepernick’s protest and the United States military. There is none. And the military does not have exclusive ownership of the American flag. We — the American citizens (even those justifiably ambivalent about America) — do.
Of course, there is still the hope that President Obama will be more candid and progressive on race and just better in front of Black people once he leaves the Oval Office. He is, after-all, a relatively young man who will likely be a prominent figure in American politics and punditry for at least the next couple decades. But I’m no longer waiting for and anticipating that shift. If it happens, great! If it doesn’t, well, it’s just Barack being Barack.