Race, Inequality

The Obamas are finally able to be unapologetically black

Gone is the need to be more acceptable to voters who may balk at a president both black in skin and in persona.

The First Family is my phone’s wallpaper. The photo was taken during the Canadian State Dinner and captures everything I love about the Obamas. They walk down the Cross Hall, the red carpet giving the distinct impression of Hollywood intrigue and glamour. Sasha and Michelle are in conversation while Malia walks ahead, lifting the hem of her gown and looking almost as enchanted by herself as I am by this photo. The Canadian Prime Minister and his wife are also there. So is the President of course, wearing a small smile as he brings up the rear. The Obamas, at ease among the classical musicians, the elaborate decorations and the White House photographer, exude grace and poise, steeped in fairytale glamour and political intrigue.  

I’d be lying if I said a lot of my love for the Obamas didn’t have a lot to do with their race. While I’ve disagreed with more than a few of President Obama’s policies (can we talk about drone strikes, Mr. President?), I’ve adored the first family and relished in the eight years in which a family that looked like me occupied the White House. The Obamas have always been charismatic, but as the president’s final term comes to an end, they’ve been freed from the albatross of the electorate. With no other immediate political ambitions (unless Michelle makes all my dreams come true and runs for office herself), there’s no need for the family to campaign. Gone is the need to be more acceptable to voters who may balk at a president both black in skin and in persona. Now the First Family can speak not only frankly, but proudly about their blackness. 

I remember when Barack Obama addressed the death of Trayvon Martin and the not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman. It’s the first moment that comes to me when I think of times President Obama has opened up about life as a black man in America.  His remarks were more personal and explicit than many of his previous ones. He said Trayvon Martin “could have been me 35 years ago” and speaks about his awareness of people locking their car doors as he walked down the street, of women holding their purses tighter. This sadly true discussion resonated at a time when we were being told our experiences as black Americans were invalid, exaggerated or simply imagined. After watching Obama, and his campaign, attempt to distance himself from his blackness more than once in an effort to keep white voters on his side, seeing him speak so frankly about it was not only refreshing, but comforting. That kind of honesty was sorely needed then, and it’s needed even more now.

There’s a chance our next president will be Donald Trump, so it’s vital we see his impassioned hatred, and that of those who support him, combatted with pride in the differences that others hate. In many ways, Trump’s rise, like the Obamas’ impending departure from the White House, gives them more license to weave their racial experiences into political conversation. By highlighting their blackness, the Obamas combat Trump’s racist rhetoric even if they don’t mention him by name.

In a commencement speech at City College of New York, Michelle indirectly criticized Trump when she said, “They seem to view our diversity as a threat to be contained rather than as a resource to be tapped.” This was after she said that she woke up “in a house built by slaves”, a remark radical only because a lot of Americans would like to pretend otherwise. More and more often the Obamas are having conversations about race. Like the president’s interview with Misty Copeland, the first black principal ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre. Like Larry Wilmore at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where he closed with “You did it my nigga” and the president responded with a good natured chest pound. Like President Obama’s commencement speech at Howard University where he told graduates to “be confident in your blackness”.

It’s an important piece of advice that is at times difficult to follow, but it’s immensely helpful to see people who look like you already accomplishing it. The Obamas found a way to flourish beneath the glare of political fame, with the added stressors of racism and additionally, for the Obama women, sexism. Sasha and Malia have grown into young women whose own progressive views are casually dropped in their father’s remarks, and Malia will continue on to Harvard (after a gap year), like her parents did before her. Being the First Family is hard enough without also having to navigate America’s unique maze of hatred and racial history, but the Obamas have made it look, if not easy, like it’s possible. 

But it is also deeply disconcerting to know that our first black president may be followed by a racist demagogue. I was never under the impression that an Obama presidency would resolve all of America’s racial issues, but I didn’t anticipate things would be as bad as this either. Like when men think a room’s population being 30% women means they’ve been outnumbered, a single black president has convinced many that they’re being oppressed. Now they’re taking drastic action to reclaim power they think has been lost. It’s a harsh reminder that our success isn’t always appreciated, that any indication of mobility will be met with fierce blowback.

But even so, with the Obamas I’ve seen the realization of our potential. I’ve seen a black family in the White House, influencing and making policy, walking down the Cross Hall with the Canadian Prime Minister and his wife. For almost eight years I’ve watched this family. I was a freshman in high-school when President Obama was elected. I’ve grown up with him as my president. The first presidential vote I cast was for him. I’ve taken a lot of pride in this First Family, and I’ll always be grateful to have watched them have these moments of honesty that I can hold up as reminders of the possibilities for myself.