Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote what I found to be the best encapsulation of the tension that has come with being a Black president. Coates captured it all from the hope and sense of ownership to the disgust and frustration within our community as well as the reception of President Obama and what his blackness means outside of our community.
What gripped me most was the theme regarding what do we mean and what should we expect when we say we have a Black President (or really a Black anything, for that matter). As Coates noted in his article, we love President Obama’s employing cultural signals and behaviors, but we also long for that “speak- truth-to-power” defiance. We want that avatar of our anger and rage just as much as the effortless portrayal of who we are culturally by our own in high places. What real good is understanding the finer points of giving dap, a command of Al Greens lyrics, or a child touching his hair in the light of death of young Black men and women in Chicago, extra judicial murders of Black folk in general, and predator drones? For many, especially those of us with immediate survival needs: Federalism, the nature of political process, reelections and the calculus of race ring very hollow as explanations in the face of such an environment.
While Obama still has to bear that criticism, I find that I also have to weigh the potency of racism in this country that demands as Coates says,” twice as good and half as black”. A lot of times we discuss authenticity in terms of hair and one’s adherence to different models and I think Coates engagement of this theme injects the nuance of a given person’s situation into the understanding of what authenticity means. It is easier and far sexier for us to view authenticity as this unbending adherence to a particular set of rules rather than sort of struggle to embody what we believe. A journey that is often beset with challenges, experiences, and situations where we stray, modify, or confirm those principles. The philosophies and principles we live by are born of human experience and not the other way around. As such, these philosophies and principles cannot hope to cover every single situation we face. Our lived experience is too complex to be pinned in like that. So what happens when in a situation where you have every intention to do good but must compromise and risk your ability to use your position positively in the future? What happens when such a decision is a matter of survival or ability to provide for one’s family? As Coates discusses, such a calculation is as relevant to the President in his position as it is to us in our day to day lives.
In short, intent counts.