Being Black in America; or, Was He My Black President?
Oh, she was pissed. Middle-aged, clad in camouflage leggings and her luggage, she was pissed. And loud. “These redneck muthafuckas” was a particularly favorite phrase of hers, as just moments before, she’d missed her flight due to a communication problem. The airport lady standing at the gate had made her usual round of announcements that the flight was about to leave, but she hadn’t heard them. And, as her voice raised at the counter, we realized why: she’d been directed to another gate, only to find that the gate she needed to be at was on the other side of the airport. She’d missed her flight, and she was pissed.
She was also black.
She wore a blond wig, and was beyond angry, not simply because she’d missed her flight, but because the Southwest customer service staff treated her poorly when she’d reported to them that she didn’t make it. We could hear her at the desk, yelling with a kind of ferocity that only comes from missing a flight that you had made it on time for. And when she sat next to us, we were uncomfortable.
Not because she yelled — both of us were used to people yelling when they were mad — but because of the treatment she received for being demonstrably angry. “Redneck muthafuckas” was her way of venting that frustration, of expressing her discontent and disgust at an airline that presumably had not done all it could to ensure her travel. She called everyone she could to vent, and the yelling got louder. And we sat next to her, silently, trying to determine what we could do to alleviate her frustration.
Or, at least that was Andrea’s motivation. I was pissed for this woman, not simply because she missed her flight, but also because white people — particularly white women — were also showing their disgust, albeit in the typical white-woman-passive-aggressive type way. The sly glances and nasty glares were becoming too much for me, although she seemed not too concerned about it.
At one point in time, one of the airport staff rudely told her not to swear because “Southwest is a family business.” And although that might have been the truth, I couldn’t help but wonder if this would’ve been the same treatment had this woman not been black. Sure, she probably could’ve kept the profanity down in an airport with children; but with videos of people loudly cursing in JC Penneys and other public areas, the response to this woman seemed different. And I felt helpless because I knew not what to do. Do I try and help her get another flight? Or do I cuss every single one of these “redneck muthafuckas” out for berating her in the most subtle and surreptitious fashion? I didn’t know what to do, and neither did bae, so we waited silently for our flight to leave, and did nothing at all.
Me. I did nothing at all.
This is part of the plight of being black in America.
2016 has been hard, to say the least. There is no reason to recount all of what happened; all we need to say is that Donald Trump is president. I won’t waste time berating him here; it’s no longer worth it. He won the race, and will take office in mid-January. But his election marks the nastiness of this year. It exposes the kind of hopelessness and restlessness many of us — black, white, or otherwise — feel about the nature of American social, political, and cultural life. The political narrative will suggest that poor, working-class whites felt ignored by political elites, and this is the primary reason for Trump’s ascendancy. And maybe that had something to do with it.
But the mere fact that analysts and pundits — again, white, black, and otherwise — seem to pin his election on a neglect of whites speaks to what it means to be black in America. I won’t expand black to “people of color” in this piece because, quite frankly, I only have some sense of what other communities of color are dealing with. But I know blackness; I know my blackness. And this blackness looks like disgusted glances and sly remarks in an airport. It also looks like mannequin challenges and Insecure.
But most of all, it looks like the lived answer to W.E.B. Du Bois’ question, asked over 100 years ago: how does it feel to be a problem?
Du Bois suggested that to be black meant that we live in two worlds — an “American” one, and a “Negro” one. And that living in these two worlds produces a kind of cognitive splitting, a “double-consciousness” that realizes that a world looks on you “with amused contempt and pity.” I know not if other people feel this double consciousness; I don’t know if they feel the tension between their own racial identity and the supposed “American” identity peddled to everyone who hits these shores, voluntarily or otherwise.
What I do know, however, is that even if all of us don’t have the language for articulating this tension, black people live the response to double consciousness on a daily basis, trying to navigate between our sincerest and most reasonable frustrations and our happiest and most joyful moments. Within this tension stands all of black America, as we — individually and collectively — attempt to make sense of what it means to be black and American. And, as 2016 comes to a close, I think it is important to take a look at the most famous person living out this tension: President Barack Hussein Obama.
Obama is as inspiring as he is disappointing (there’s that tension again). As I watched him speak at the DNC, I was almost moved to tears by his oratorical brilliance, his unmitigated passion, and yes, his unwavering hope in the face of what I now know are impossible circumstances. I’m not talking about him individually. We’ve somehow turned Obama into a kind of magical charm, as if being mixed and in a blended family is somehow a recipe for political success. Ta-Nehisi Coates surely seems to think so; his recent piece “My President was Black” attributes Obama’s political success to the specificity of his upbringing; when you have white parents and grandparents who encourage your blackness, it does become difficult to recognize the tension you embody. For Obama, it seems that “American” and “Negro” need not be in tension, even if it isn’t a happy synthesis. And it produced in him a kind of unwavering hope, not simply in America, but in the decency of white America. And, as Coates argues, it was this unwavering hope that propelled him to the presidency.
But, like Coates, I find this hope so incredibly out of touch with reality that it seems naïve. This unwavering hope has turned Obama into both the champion and the bane of black America. We champion Michelle and her husband because they are so poised, so free of scandal, so well-versed in respectability politics that they almost come off as miraculous. We’re proud of the fact that he never had any scandals, and that we can weigh his worth only on the basis of his policy decisions and his speeches to the public. We mourn his departure from the White House — a house built by slaves, as Michelle always reminds us — and we revel in the symbolic purchase of his blackness. We love him because he is black.
And as much as I love him because of his blackness, it is that same blackness that makes him such an incredible disappointment. In My President was Black, Coates makes it clear that symbols have incredible power. He references confederate flags amongst other symbols as proof. But Coates forgets that the power afforded to symbols is always consistent with the power of the people for whom these symbols have meaning. Obama-the-symbol is only as powerful as the people who find meaning in that symbol. And let’s be clear: the majority of people who find meaning in Obama’s symbolism are often dispossessed, frustrated, and held back by the very system for which he has held the highest office. Tension. Double consciousness.
Obama is disappointing, then, because he didn’t balance his policy with his rhetoric. I’m sure the 20 million people who have health insurance because of the ACA are grateful. I’m also glad that the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ is now more of a force to be reckoned with. But we don’t remember policies — especially when the next president threatens their existence. We remember words and moments; we’re moved not by the passage of bills, but by the demonstration of courage and integrity. People are mobilized behind passion, not legislation. And on this, Obama failed.
The truth is, I could forgive [Obama] if it weren’t his true disposition.
He didn’t fail because he’s not a man of integrity. In fact, my disappointment in him might stem from the fact that he was so consistent, so unwavering in his faith in the decency and greatness of America that he refused to tackle the nastiest of our problems head-on. The problem with Obama’s hope is that it is one-sided; like Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Obama has all the trappings of blackness, but is more disposed to care and speak for those who aren’t black. He’ll cry loudly about Newtown, only to have a throwaway line about kids in Chicago. He told genuinely and reasonably angry black people in Ferguson and Baltimore not to be violent when violence was an everyday reality for them. And he reminded us that the goal is to restore trust between law enforcement and communities when “trust” shouldn’t be part of the equation. We pay tax dollars for police forces across this country; it’s their job to protect and serve us. And when those tax dollars are abused through reckless uses of force and preventable murders, the question is not one of trust, but one of budget. Obama is equally inspiring and disappointing because he navigated his double consciousness with a bent toward the “American” part, struggling to fully embrace the “Negro” part.
I want to be clear here: on a policy level, I’m not sure there was much more he could’ve done — except swing the prison doors wide open, provide more robust and concrete funding for underserved public schools, and deny police departments military surplus resources. But maybe that wasn’t possible (although I know it is). And if it wasn’t possible (which it was), then the least he could’ve done was be as loud about racial injustice as he was about healthcare reform. Instead of allowing Eric Holder to speak for him, he could’ve done it himself, in tandem with Holder. As his trip to Newtown made clear, a president can stand for all of America when tending to a small segment of the population.
But he didn’t. He went to commencement ceremonies at black schools and emphasized personal responsibility at the expense of structural hurdles. He spoke about race in muddied and subtle ways, referring to his biracial heritage as a kind of Hegelian (or is it Sartrean?) racial synthesis moving toward progress. He waited too long to comment on Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s deaths. And I don’t even remember if he spoke on Korryn Gaines’ death.
The truth is, I could forgive him for all of this if it weren’t his true disposition. If I got the sense that he was hamstrung by his presidency; if there was any indication that his office dictated his speech; if there was any inkling that he was muted on race because he couldn’t do so, I would not be disappointed. But The Audacity of Hope and My President was Black make it clear that he was being true to himself when these racial crises spiked. Quite frankly, for both better and worse, Obama was himself, the very embodiment of racial compromise marked by an unwavering faith in a kind of universal humanity that does not exist. This country was built on white supremacy; it was fashioned off of the premise that white men are meant to rule and remain at the top. And nothing in Obama’s presidential heritage — save an underfunded and weak attempt at black mentorship (how do you forget about black women?) — sought to push against this. Not the Civil Rights Division nor the ACA were true attempts to try and wrestle with the systemic white supremacy that makes this country what it is. And for that, I am disappointed.
I think I’m even more disappointed because he knows. If Obama was an idiot, unread and even less thoughtful, it would be easy to attribute his racial naivete to ignorance. But the man reads. He knows Cornel West’s work (even if he doesn’t like it). He has to be familiar with Du Bois and Carter Woodson. He cannot be unfamiliar with Toni Morrison’s writings, or Maya Angelou’s poems. And he for damn sure can’t be unaware of Coates’ Between the World and Me. With all of this knowledge, he still chose to be hopeful in the possibilities of whiteness, to stand firm in what he thought were universals — and any African American studies scholar worth her salt will tell you that universal is always code for white. The truth is, the man knew, and he chose another path.
I may find Obama disappointing and inspiring as a president, but I find the same tension within my own life.
But I guess I’m disappointed in him as much as I am disappointed in myself. Like Obama, I did nothing to fight against what I knew were racially motivated attacks against that woman in the airport. Double consciousness is a bitch. It paralyzes you in the face of what you know is wrong, and it cripples you in the face of injustice. For those free of this kind of bind, there is a freedom to act for others. But for those of us hampered by this double consciousness and hidden by the Veil of blackness, there is always an unconscious navigation that has to occur. And this navigation will always and already present itself as limitations to what kinds of actions can be carried out. As Fanon tells us in Black Skin White Masks, black people are (un)consciously aware of every bodily movement they make; and this (un)consciousness is always a struggle to navigate, producing as much joy as it does pain. I may find Obama disappointing and inspiring as a president, but I find the same tension within my own life.
I guess this is what it means to be black in America.
And I guess, in this way, BHO is my black president.