Essay — From the March 2017 issue

Black Like Who?

How Obama negotiated America’s racial tightrope

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I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

Politics in Chicago is a blood sport, and growing up, we followed it the way we did prizefighting. As my mother described the contenders in colorful detail, I accepted her judgment. There was something in her voice that morning that made me take special note. A tone usually reserved for her children and grandchildren. It was pride.

President Barack Obama at his farewell address, Chicago, January 10, 2017.

President Barack Obama at his farewell address, Chicago, January 10, 2017. All photographs © Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

Robert Kennedy, in a 1968 radio broadcast, predicted to the day when the first black president would be elected. “There’s no question about it,” he said. “In the next forty years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has.” When Kennedy made this pronouncement, the rate of social change was approaching a historic apogee, and his words reflect an unalloyed optimism, despite the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. less than two months earlier. (Kennedy himself would be felled by an assassin ten days later.) The concerted backlash against civil rights, which began under Nixon, had yet to pick up steam, and Kennedy spoke for many Americans when he insisted, “We are not going to accept the status quo.”

My mother, who migrated to the North with my grandparents in the 1950s after a childhood in the Jim Crow South, lived through those forty long years. As she spoke in the kitchen that April morning, I was struck by the difference in our perspectives. I was part of the first post-civil-rights generation, and had taken for granted that I would see an African-American president in my lifetime. She had seen the struggle firsthand, and feared that things would progress no further. Her certainty about an Obama presidency came less from her political astuteness, which is substantial, than from a deep conviction, shared with nearly every black voter, that needed it to be so. He had connected to her faith. Soon he would have a similar effect on 70 million others, of all races.

For people who had been denied the vote for most of this nation’s history, of course, seeing a black person elected to the highest office was a transfiguring experience. Obama himself was well aware of this. In his memoir Dreams from My Father, he recalls sitting in a chair in a South Side barbershop soon after his arrival in Chicago, listening to the other men discuss Harold Washington, the only black person ever elected mayor of a city that boasts the second-largest black population in America. “That’s how black people talked about Chicago’s mayor, with a familiarity and affection normally reserved for a relative,” Obama writes. The barber, an older man, explains to him that “people weren’t just proud of Harold. They were proud of themselves.” He added that you “had to be here to understand.”

That last comment haunted the young Obama. On a literal level, the barber was talking about Chicago. Yet his words also spoke to a generational and experiential gap that separated the new arrival from the middle-aged denizens of the barbershop. Could Obama put himself in their shoes? And hard behind that: could they accept him as one of their own?

I asked myself if I could truly understand that. I assumed, took for granted, that I could. Seeing me, these men had made the same assumption. Would they feel the same way if they knew more about me? I wondered.

Twenty-four years later, during Obama’s first presidential campaign, similar questions were posed by his supporters and detractors alike. Indeed, his identity was challenged in ways few if any candidates had experienced before. All the questions pointed back to America’s racial neuroses. But by 2008, four years after that conversation in my mother’s kitchen, it wasn’t only black people who had invested his candidacy with extraordinary hopes. In late September, during the closing days of the general election, I bumped into a white colleague in Manhattan as he was returning from a MoveOn rally. Like the majority of New York liberals, he had been a Clinton man in the primaries and was now newly converted to Obama’s cause.

Polaroids from Obama’s first presidential inauguration, Washington, January 20, 2009. All photographs © Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

Polaroids from Obama’s first presidential inauguration, Washington, January 20, 2009.

“He’s going to end the wars,” my colleague said. “He’s going to close Guantánamo.” There was rapture in his voice and on his face, as if he had just returned from a revival. He had become a Dreamer.

“No,” I said, “he’s not.” Such claims seemed to deny the laws of political calculus, which are as immutable as the laws of thermodynamics. Just as France’s Indochine became Eisenhower’s Vietnam, then Kennedy’s, then Johnson’s, then Nixon’s, so would Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their squandered lives and chaos, belong to the next president, whatever his personal beliefs. It was delusional to expect otherwise.

Still, as I gauged my colleague’s response — pained, crestfallen, belligerent — I realized I should have kept such thoughts to myself. Like many progressive white Americans, he saw Obama as a nearly magical figure. He nourished the hope, perhaps not fully articulated even to himself, that by casting a single vote he could not only right our economic ills and reverse our foreign misadventures but absolve himself of bigotry, complicity, shame, guilt. He wished to be, as the phrase goes, on the right side of history. Who could blame him? It is a history from which both blacks and whites wished to be redeemed — even if their pathways through it have often been mutually unrecognizable.

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is the author of four novels, including Dominion (Grove Press) and Grace (Tyrus Books). He teaches at Yale University and at the Graduate School of the Arts at Columbia University.

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