Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Obama and the Black Autobiographical Tradition

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest piece in The Atlantic is My President Was Black, and it’s stunning. While hundreds of writers have recounted or will retell the story of the Obama years, Coates is one of the smartest and most talented writers alive, and it’s hard to imagine who can put the last decade in context better than him.

As a political junkie, not many of the Obama details were new to me; as a white guy, however, it was extremely educational. Here, Coates explains why Obama’s literary voice is unique among African-American writers.

Historically, in black autobiography, to be remanded into the black race has meant exposure to a myriad of traumas, often commencing in childhood. Frederick Douglass is separated from his grandmother. The enslaved Harriet Ann Jacobs must constantly cope with the threat of rape before she escapes. After telling his teacher he wants to be a lawyer, Malcolm X is told that the job isn’t for “niggers.” Black culture often serves as the balm for such traumas, or even the means to resist them. Douglass finds the courage to face the “slave-breaker” Edward Covey after being given an allegedly enchanted root by “a genuine African” possessing powers from “the eastern nations.” Malcolm X’s dancing connects him to his “long-suppressed African instincts.”

If black racial identity speaks to all the things done to people of recent African ancestry, black cultural identity was created in response to them. The division is not neat; the two are linked, and it is incredibly hard to be a full participant in the world of cultural identity without experiencing the trauma of racial identity.

Obama is somewhat different. He writes of bloodying the nose of a white kid who called him a “coon,” and of chafing at racist remarks from a tennis coach, and of feeling offended after a white woman in his apartment building told the manager that he was following her. But the kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of his generation—beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building—were mostly abstract for him. Moreover, the kind of spatial restriction that most black people feel at an early age—having rocks thrown at you for being on the wrong side of the tracks, for instance—was largely absent from his life. In its place, Obama was gifted with a well-stamped passport and admittance to elite private schools—all of which spoke of other identities, other lives and other worlds where the color line was neither determinative nor especially relevant. Obama could have grown into a raceless cosmopolitan. Surely he would have lived in a world of problems, but problems not embodied by him.

Given this background, Coates explains that Obama nonetheless voluntarily embraced “blackness,” capturing a feeling of authenticity among the African-American communities. The process by which Obama signaled this is obviously foreign to me, but was extremely educational and interesting. Likewise, the fact that he could signal “blackness” to one community while maintaining his unprecedented appeal to white voters is fascinating.

Coates’s essay is wonderful start to finish; he even gets an interview with President Obama after Trump is elected president. I can’t recommend it enough.