Monday, June 27, 2016

Summing up Obama: Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Prez and much more

I have to admit I was gobsmacked when I encountered this in a Playboy interview with the Atlantic author. (Side note: who knew there were still Playboy interviews? Didn't the internet kill that mag? Shows what I know.)

In my circles, expressing qualified approval for the President is rare; it feels as if progressive credibility requires disavowing the promise of hope that Obama's election embodied in 2008. Thinking well of Obama is for suckers. Coates is not towing that line, in either the black or white version.

Bomani Jones tossed questions at Coates:

How would you describe the eight years of Obama’s presidency?
I think he did a tremendous job, and I say that with all my criticism of how he talks about black folks and how he talks to black folks. I say that with all my criticism of the morality or the lack of morality in terms of drone warfare. You’re not voting for a civil rights leader; you’re voting for a president of the United States within the boundaries of what presidents do. And within the boundaries of what presidents do, he’s easily the greatest president in my lifetime.

I don’t think people understand what he had to navigate. It’s a hard job already. You’ve got people on TV—and this is just the small end of it—on the internet, everywhere, sending out pictures of you and your wife looking like apes. You’ve got officials in the opposing party e-mailing pictures of watermelon patches in front of the White House. You have an opposition party where somewhere on the order of 50 or 60 percent don’t think you are legally president. You’re giving the State of the Union address and some white dude from South Carolina stands up and yells, “You lie.” Just open, blatant disrespect. You say the most sensible things in the world and people lose their mind, almost scuttling your top agenda in terms of legislation.

You’ve got to be a certain motherfucker to be able to manage all that in your head. Their leading presidential candidate right now is the person who claimed our president was born somewhere else and asked to see his grades. You’re dealing with a party where racism is a significant undercurrent. I mean, whew.

Were you surprised by the level of obstruction?
I was surprised by how much his very presence drew out the racism in the country. I didn’t know these folks were basically going to double down. There’s stuff we don’t even remember. In the 2012 Republican primary, Newt Gingrich just comes out and calls this dude a food-stamp president. I mean, just says it. This is a respectable figure in American politics right now. Five years from now, people will be looking back on this presidency and talking about how great the times were. Ten years from now, Republicans will be talking about how whoever is the Democratic nominee at that point is not like Obama and how magisterial Obama was.

Twenty-five, 30 years from now, they’re going to put his face on the money, if we still have money. And 50 years from now—it might not even take that long—he will be considered one of the greatest presidents in American history.

I agree; we're going to miss Obama and we are beginning to feel it. While we've got him, let's criticize, but also appreciate.
Coates just won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Though I'd been reading his blog and articles in the Atlantic for years, I didn't rush to acquire the book. I listened to some author interviews and this seemed like a book not written for an old white woman. It's a letter to his black son about their black bodies in the world. While any author wants to be read, I felt this was mostly written for men and secondarily for black people of all genders. Reading it would be eavesdropping on somebody else's conversation.

But a cheap used copy came to hand and I picked it up. I'm not going to try to describe the book. It's a short, approachable, meditative soliloquy on Coates' unfolding black male life. Toni Morrison calls the writing "visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive." The book consists of Coates striving, in public, for the benefit of a son he adores, to speak truthfully. The result can seem harsh, but Coates believes that truth requires such rigor.

Here's a snippet about what he learned about survival growing up in a broken Baltimore neighborhood in the crack era.

There was also wisdom in those streets. I think now of the old rule that should a boy be set upon in someone else's chancy hood, his friends must stand with him, and they all must take their beating together. I now know that within this edict lay the key to all living.

None of us were promised to end the fight on our feet, fists raised to the sky. We could not control our enemies' number, strength, nor weaponry. Sometimes you just caught a bad one. But whether you fought or ran, you did it together, because that was in our control. ...

In the Playboy interview, Coates responds to the notion that he is "pessimistic." In the book, he simply tries to tell the truth as he understands it about the condition of black Americans:

It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country. It breaks too much what we would like to think about ourselves, our lives, the world we move through and the people who surround us. The struggle to understand is our only advantage over this madness. ... The struggle is really all I have for you [his son Samori] because it is the only portion of this world under your control.

I am sorry I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you -- but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe themselves white divides them from it. ... When their own vulnerability becomes real ... they are shocked in a way that those of us where were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them.

You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always in your face and hounds are always at your heels. And in varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact. ...

Coates is at pains to distance himself from any of the available spiritual traditions to which many around him have recourse. But he bravely confronts the Sisyphus-like reality that he believes is his. And no, it's not just pretentious. The guy is too down home for that.


Brandon said...

The Internet didn't kill Playboy, despite this article's title. Its circulation has been in decline for decades. Instead, Playboy abandoned frontal nudity, so freely available online, and now seems to position itself as a slightly more risqué Vanity Fair.

Hattie said...

I totally agree with Coates about Obama.

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