Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don't expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama's on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don't expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again. (In the private spaces of black homes, I see it all the time.) And no matter how many times I've seen it in my private life, at Howard, in my home, among my close friends, I don't ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.But here is where Coates exposes his struggle.
This symbolism has real meaning...And this messenger—who is Barack Obama—becomes something more to black people. He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities.
How does a black writer approach The Man when The Man is not just us, but the Champion of our ambitions? More, how do you approach the offices that have so often brutalized black people when those offices are occupied by the Champion? How do you acknowledge the president's many gifts, his actual accomplishments, while still and all outlining the depressing limits of his own imagination?Those "depressing limits" for Coates most often come when President Obama speaks to the African American community about personal responsibility. That's because Coates knows that the destruction of white supremacy in this country will NOT occur because African Americans embrace personal responsibility.
The young black man, coming out of storied Morehouse, should be personally responsible for the foiling of this new wave of poll taxing. He should be personally responsible for ensuring that the Medicaid expansion comes to Mississippi. He should be personally responsible for the end of this era of mass incarceration. He should be personally responsible for the destruction of the great enemy of his people—white supremacy.And so (to use a quote from Coates himself), it makes him "suck his teeth" when President Obama talks to African Americans about personal responsibility. I think he struggles with all this from an "either/or" perspective...that the President much chose to either focus on personal responsibility OR communal responsibility for white supremacy.
And I struggle to get my head around all of this. There are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of "twice as good" in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.Sometimes I want to reach out to Coates and suggest that this doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. I believe that in his earlier days, President Obama maneuvered this same dilemma, and it was in recognizing the both/and that he resolved it for himself. To ignore either the toll white supremacy takes on individuals or fail to challenge it on a systemic/communal level would undermine the struggle.
Ultimately I think Coates knows this. For example, he has articulated the culture of the street that affects young African American men better than any other writer I've seen.
The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward. In the main, it's been easy for me to discard the armor of West Baltimore, because I wore it so poorly. I was never, as they say, truly built for the streets. And still, even I struggled to take it off. But I know others who were masters. (My own brother, for instance.) Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.What I think Coates is missing is that the symbolism he described so well in that first quote has as much impact (in a different way) on white people as it does for blacks. One of the reasons so many have literally gone nuts during Obama's presidency is that the beauty, humanity and intelligence of this President challenge every fiber of white supremacy that has been hard-wired into our brains for centuries. That wound has festered for so long that it will not be lanced without tremendous pain and fury. And so, in addition to proactively tackling the major civil rights issues of our time, having the strength to maintain that beauty, humanity and intelligence in the face of the pain and fury that has been unleashed on them is perhaps the most powerful blow this President (and his family) can deliver to white supremacy.