My President Was Black
December 13, 2016 7:19 AM   Subscribe

"The dream Ronald Reagan invoked in 1984—that “it’s morning again in America”—meant nothing to the inner cities, besieged as they were by decades of redlining policies, not to mention crack and Saturday-night specials. Likewise, Obama’s keynote address conflated the slave and the nation of immigrants who profited from him. To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased. That is the tradition to which the “skinny kid with a funny name” who would be president belonged. It is also the only tradition in existence that could have possibly put a black person in the White House." by Ta-Nehisi Coates
posted by roomthreeseventeen (29 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
"The dream Ronald Reagan invoked in 1984—that “it’s morning again in America”—meant nothing to the inner cities

Watch the ad. There's not a single black person and only two hispanics.

The dream is quite clear.
posted by Talez at 7:30 AM on December 13, 2016 [10 favorites]


This is an important and timely piece. Coates' point that Obama was only possible through an extraordinary set of circumstances (and an extraordinary mind) does depress me a little, that the past 8 years were a remarkable blip in an otherwise unchanged and damaged society.
posted by Think_Long at 7:53 AM on December 13, 2016 [15 favorites]


“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

That's a weird way to lead into this. The next line from Gatsby is:

“I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”
posted by chavenet at 7:56 AM on December 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


This man is an absolute national treasure. I hope he comes back from France someday.
posted by nevercalm at 8:06 AM on December 13, 2016


Reading TNC very often reminds me of what it would be like to read a version of the gospels that ended at the Crucifixion.
posted by PMdixon at 8:31 AM on December 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


This is an incredible piece- complex and woven through with feelings. I've been slowly reading it all morning and think it may just be his masterwork.
posted by corb at 8:47 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


That's a weird way to lead into this. The next line from Gatsby is:

“I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”


That line seems like it might reflect how Coates feels about Obama's view of America.
posted by ghharr at 8:54 AM on December 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


This makes me want to cry.

I think both Coates and Obama are among the best people this country has ever produced; and I fear that Coates is the one whom history will prove was right.
posted by suelac at 9:04 AM on December 13, 2016 [39 favorites]


These attitudes could even spill over to white Democratic politicians, because they are seen as representing the party of blacks. Studying the 2016 election, the political scientist Philip Klinkner found that the most predictive question for understanding whether a voter favored Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was “Is Barack Obama a Muslim?”

A clause of natural language likely revealed by Google's search "suggestions"...

Reading TNC very often reminds me of what it would be like to read a version of the gospels that ended at the Crucifixion.

Gospel of Mark's last line, in the earliest dated (no resurrection): They were terrified.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 9:09 AM on December 13, 2016 [11 favorites]


[A few comments deleted. Please don't drop in here with generic why-Obama-is-bad stuff; the article is about something much more specific.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:46 AM on December 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


Coates' point that Obama was only possible through an extraordinary set of circumstances (and an extraordinary mind) does depress me a little, that the past 8 years were a remarkable blip in an otherwise unchanged and damaged society.

I think of this blip as the first of many, merging into a strong and solid heartbeat.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:03 AM on December 13, 2016 [10 favorites]


For emphasis:
Millions of young people now know their only president to have been an African American.
This is not a bad thing.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:05 AM on December 13, 2016 [11 favorites]


Coates' point that Obama was only possible through an extraordinary set of circumstances (and an extraordinary mind) does depress me a little, that the past 8 years were a remarkable blip in an otherwise unchanged and damaged society.

A plurality of 2.8 million people voted against the regression represented by Trump. The only reason he won was ratfucking and dirty ticks. He's extremely unpopular, and Obama is extremely popular. Racism is still a big problem, as Coates so brilliantly elucidates, but Obama has changed America and for the better, and it will continue to change for the better. Trump is the blip.
posted by vibrotronica at 10:10 AM on December 13, 2016 [34 favorites]


Both of my children received birth congratulations from the Obama White House (anyone can get one). The thought of getting one from Trump, ugh.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:10 AM on December 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


chavenet - I think that pretty well encapsulates TNC's whole attitude towards Obama, I thought it was spot on.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:22 AM on December 13, 2016


And it seemed that they loved him for this, and I thought in those days, which now feel so long ago, that they might then love me, too, and love my wife, and love my child, and love us all in the manner that the God they so fervently cited had commanded.
posted by redsparkler at 10:39 AM on December 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


> Trump is the blip.

I like to believe that this is true, vibrotronica, and that Trump could have only got elected in a narrow window between 10/27/2016 and 12/9/2016 thanks to the concerted efforts of ratfuckers and a dystopian media landscape.

What an unfortunate coincidence that the election happened to fall within that window.
posted by bunbury at 10:42 AM on December 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Great stuff. Coates is a treasure. But I found his brief analysis of Hillary a little unsettling:

"But the underlying presumption—that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could be swapped in for each other—exhibited a problem. Clinton was a candidate who’d won one competitive political race in her life, whose political instincts were questioned by her own advisers, who took more than half a million dollars in speaking fees from an investment bank because it was “what they offered,” who proposed to bring back to the White House a former president dogged by allegations of rape and sexual harassment. Obama was a candidate who’d become only the third black senator in the modern era; who’d twice been elected president, each time flipping red and purple states; who’d run one of the most scandal-free administrations in recent memory. Imagine an African American facsimile of Hillary Clinton: She would never be the nominee of a major political party and likely would not be in national politics at all."

As a Marylander I am well aware of how much it matters who the party lines up behind. The two GOP governors here in the past couple decades both won against well connected, but weak and not particularly politically skillful Democratic candidates. Obama is the outlier Dem candidate because he has insanely good political skills. I think folks will look back at his 8 years and wonder how the hell he did it.
posted by jetsetsc at 11:32 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, this is a good read but fuck Coates for a glib dismissal of HRC in a piece that didn't need her and wasn't about her.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:51 AM on December 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


Last night I finished reading The Black Presidency, Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book that covers much of the same territory, with similar findings. Dyson, though, doesn’t emphasize what Coates sees as very important: “What proved key for Barack Obama was not that he was born to a black man and a white woman, but that his white family approved of the union, and approved of the child who came from it... The first white people he ever knew, the ones who raised him, were decent in a way that very few black people of that era experienced.”
posted by LeLiLo at 11:56 AM on December 13, 2016 [11 favorites]


Obama is the outlier Dem candidate because he has insanely good political skills.

I mean that's a huge part of what Coates is saying isn't it? Obama was remarkably good at being the kind of politician who gets elected, and was able to clear all sorts of hurdles as a result. HRC, regardless of her qualification to hold office (and regardless of whether it's fair) was just never that candidate. (Actually the Democratic Party seems to have run a number of candidates like that over the years.)
posted by atoxyl at 12:28 PM on December 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


Yeah, this is a good read but fuck Coates for a glib dismissal of HRC in a piece that didn't need her and wasn't about her.

An enormous part of the piece is about how it is possible for this country to elect Trump when they had previously and consistently voted for Obama. If you can think of a way to talk about this that doesn't involve mentioning Hillary Clinton even briefly and still manages to be comprehensive, I'd be very fascinated to hear it.

Besides, it seems to me that most of his point about Hillary Clinton is similar to his point about Trump, to wit: Obama is a truly exceptional politician and would have had to be in order to gain office, because merely experienced black politicians wouldn't get anywhere near the gate. Coates asks us to posit an African-American version of Hillary Clinton. We don't have to invent one out of whole cloth; Condoleeza Rice exists, and it's not hard to understand why she has publicly stated that she never intends to run for elected office.

I think the new American Rorschach test is whether you believe that Trump or Obama is the political anomaly. I would not be at all surprised to discover that, on the left, most white people answer Trump and most people of color answer Obama, because white liberals seem to need to believe that people like Trump are an outlier, and left-leaning people of color know for a fact that he isn't.
posted by Errant at 12:32 PM on December 13, 2016 [26 favorites]


If you can think of a way to talk about this that doesn't involve mentioning Hillary Clinton even briefly and still manages to be comprehensive, I'd be very fascinated to hear it.

Clinton is in fact barely in the piece - Dave Chappelle’s dislike of her is mentioned, Obama’s campaigning for her is mentioned, his unwillingness to see racism because of how she and Bill Clinton were treated is quoted, her trouncing of Obama in West VA back in 2008 is raised as a confirmation of the electorate’s racism, it’s loosely hinted that she inherited a vestige of the racism of the president by both being in his circle and simply being a Democratic politician (this is also hinted about Biden, and would be an interesting dynamic to be explored in a think piece that I don’t want to read), and her past record is compared to his in order to make the (valid) point that a Black woman with her history couldn't even be a candidate.

That last mention is the only substantial one, getting a full paragraph, and it is entirely framed within the context of voters who went for Obama in the past and then flipped for Trump. Within that context it strikes me as insane to elide the actual candidate for the presidency as if she were simply a proxy for the black man. It’s true that a black woman couldn’t have even been on the ballot, but that isn’t actually germane to the election that we had. Make that point, but make it somewhere else - it’s telling to me that Coates seems fine describing Clinton as a co-victim of racism against Obama and a beneficiary of racism relative to a black woman but to not even mention that she happened to victim of sexism. Just because your piece is about race, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be read that way.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:45 PM on December 13, 2016 [10 favorites]


Obama is a truly exceptional politician and would have had to be in order to gain office, because merely experienced black politicians wouldn't get anywhere near the gate

You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.
posted by Think_Long at 1:54 PM on December 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


It’s true that a black woman couldn’t have even been on the ballot, but that isn’t actually germane to the election that we had. Make that point, but make it somewhere else - it’s telling to me that Coates seems fine describing Clinton as a co-victim of racism against Obama and a beneficiary of racism relative to a black woman but to not even mention that she happened to victim of sexism. Just because your piece is about race, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be read that way.

Thank you for expanding on your first post...it was necessary I think. I invested some time in reading that piece and your criticism is substantial and meaningful.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 3:39 PM on December 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Such a beautiful article.
I think it goes for most of us that what raises us is also what brings us down. With a historically unique person such as President Obama, that is magnified.
posted by mumimor at 3:46 PM on December 13, 2016


A response from Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I screamed a lot while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s My President Was Black. When I was done reading and screaming, I cried.
The last time I felt this far removed from this president was when I first worked so hard to elect him.
posted by rewil at 3:53 PM on December 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


I think of this blip as the first of many, merging into a strong and solid heartbeat.

A timeline of Black representation in the Senate and House:
  • May 9th, 1865: Civil War Ends
  • 1870-1876 (6 years) House of Representatives: 14 (all from the South) Senate: 2 (all from the South) Eight of these Representatives and one Senator were born into slavery.
  • 1877: Reconstruction ends, Jim Crow begins.
  • 1878-1887 (9 years) House of Representatives: 3 (all from the South, but only one is a non-incumbent) Senate: 0
  • 1888-1964 (79 years) House of Representatives: 13 (none from the South, none elected at all from 1900-1928) Senate: 0
  • ~1910~1970: The Great Migration. Millions of Black Americans escape from the South to a number of large cities across the USA. One side-effect is the reduction of Black majorities within the South, an effect that is accentuated by redistricting.
  • 1965: Passage of the Voting Rights Act
  • 1966-current (50 years) House of Representatives: 104 (the bulk are from aforementioned Great Migration targets) Senate: 7 (also mostly Great Migration targets)
----------------------------------

A timeline of voting in the modern era:
  • 2008: Barack Hussein Obama, the Democratic nominee, is elected as President of the United States was elected. He is the first Black president in the country's history.
  • 2010: The Tea Party, a new reactionary conservative movement, sweeps the Republican Party and the USA's midterm elections, taking over national and state legislatures. This new power is used to gerrymander local districts and enact new voter restriction laws.
  • 2010-2012: Six states enact voter restriction laws. Affected 2016 battlegrounds* - Florida, Iowa (35 EV total)
  • 2012: Barack Obama is re-elected as POTUS, in a considerably closer race than 2008.
  • 2013: Key provisions of the Voting Rights Act are struck down, effectively removing all oversight of states and counties previously identified as engaging in voter discrimination. States no longer require approval for various voter registration and restriction laws as well as bureaucratic choices like moving or reducing polling places, reducing poll hours, and eliminating early voting. This also emboldens non-VRA states to enact their own laws. Affected 2016 battlegrounds - Florida, North Carolina, Virginia (57 EV total)
  • 2012-2016: An additional fourteen states enact new voter restriction laws that remained active as of November 8th, 2016. Affected 2016 battlegrounds - Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia (69 EV total)
By 2016, of the 146 "battleground" electoral votes, 104 are held by states that have implemented voter restrictions and/or were formerly required to seek preclearance under the VRA. 69 of these votes are in states whose policies did not exist in the 2012 election.
  • 2016: Donald Trump defeats Hillary Clinton for the presidency of the United States. Despite losing the popular vote, he ekes out 306 electoral votes. 114 of these come from swing states; 78/114 are from the 104 electoral votes affected by voter restriction laws. Everyone is extremely shocked. Analysts conclude Clinton should've focused more on white people.

You can think of a heartbeat, but frankly . . . I don't have much hope.

*Defining the 2016 battlegrounds as Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
posted by schroedinger at 11:25 PM on December 13, 2016 [19 favorites]


“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

That’s a weird way to lead into this. The next line from Gatsby is:

“I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”

“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

That line seems like it might reflect how Coates feels about Obama's view of America.


Or, perhaps, Obama himself - this column will be the last uncritical thing he writes about the President, a final (only?) love song to one aspect of these last eight years.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:18 AM on December 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


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