In a lengthy new piece for The Atlantic, prominent cultural critic (and Black Panther scribe) Ta-Nehisi Coates digs into Barack Obama’s presidential legacy as seen from the perspective of the Trump era. Titled “My President Was Black,” the piece is part historical analysis and part personal reflection on the time Coates spent with the president. Most of those conversations happened before the election, although Coates was able to speak with Obama once after Trump’s unlikely success as well. And like much of his writing, Coates’ latest piece is both dense and nuanced; it celebrates the president but critiques him as well. Coates writes:
Over the next 12 years [following Obamas 2004 DNC speech], I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history. He was phenomenal—the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people. This was the core of his 2004 keynote, and it marked his historic race speech during the 2008 campaign at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center—and blinded him to the appeal of Trump. (“As a general proposition, it’s hard to run for president by telling people how terrible things are,” Obama once said to me.)
But if the president’s inability to cement his legacy in the form of Hillary Clinton proved the limits of his optimism, it also revealed the exceptional nature of his presidential victories. For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell. Nothing in that time suggested that straight talk on the facts of racism in American life would have given him surer footing.
Coates is specifically interested in the ways in which Obama, a mixed-raced man who grew up in Hawaii, relates to both white and black culture. Coates argues, “Obama’s early positive interactions with his white family members gave him a fundamentally different outlook toward the wider world than most blacks of the 1960s had.” And he spends much of the article teasing out Obama’s unique relationship to race relations in America, touching on everything from the president’s thoughts on activism to his relationship with his white grandparents.
The article also explores the extraordinary racist pushback Obama faced during his presidency, including from the Donald Trump-led birther movement. And Coates largely frames Trump’s unexpected victory as a racist reaction to the country’s first black president. He also casts a quick but harsh light on Hillary Clinton, arguing her political successes have been incredibly limited and only made possible because of her white privilege. Among the flaws that set her apart from Obama (including her Wall Street speeches), Coates lists her proposal “to bring back to the White House a former president dogged by allegations of rape and sexual harassment.”
But most of the article remains focused on Obama himself, and what his presidency—as well as the incoming presidency of Donald Trump—represents to black Americans. Equal parts hopeful and bittersweet, “My President Was Black” paints a complicated portrait of both a man and a nation.