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Closing the Door

Obama, Pink, 2010. Nicola Green. Screenprint, 52 2/5 × 40 in. Courtesy Candida Stevens Fine Art.

Moving Stars

The Obamas are the rare First Family to leave the White House stronger than when they arrived—never victims, even when hatefully victimized. Is it too late for the rest of us to learn how?

The truth is, I couldn’t bring myself to watch that first strange meeting.

I knew President Obama would rise to the occasion, would do what needed to be done. But I didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to see him humbled, didn’t want to watch a dignified and decent president, the first black one the United States has known, forced to welcome a race-baiting demagogue to the People’s House.

But one can only turn so long from history.

So when Obama held a post-election press conference a few days later, I poured myself a glass of wine and buckled up, prepared to be depressed. But no—Obama came out smiling. Not the forced grimace of the defeated nor the smirk of the victor but a warm and genuine smile. He joked with the press corps about their question-stacking habits and spoke movingly about the death of journalist Gwen Ifill. He covered issues ranging from Syria to climate change, and for over an hour fielded questions about the election, the state of the nation, the president-elect. He calmly and understatedly made clear the difference between the man going out and the man coming in:

“This office is bigger than any one person. And that’s why ensuring a smooth transition is so important. It’s not something that the Constitution explicitly requires, but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy—similar to norms of civility and tolerance, and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis. It’s part of what makes this country work. And as long as I’m president, we are going to uphold those norms and cherish and uphold those ideals.”

Hey, what’s the temperature there, in the presidential shade?

What was most striking during that hour-long exercise in leadership and maturity was not his steadiness, his tact and diplomacy in the face of defeat. What was most striking was just how undefeated Barack Obama really was.

Of all the accomplishments of Michelle and Barack Obama, individually and together, this may be their greatest: They leave the White House not only strong, but actually stronger than when they entered. All visible evidence points to two people utterly centered, at perfect peace with themselves, each other and their place in history.

See Michelle’s ease as she oversees the arrival of the White House Christmas tree or shushes yet another desperate voter calling for her to run for president. See her joke with James Corden and dance with Jimmy Fallon. See her going peacefully to bed on Election Night: “Once you do what you can do, you rest easy. It was in the hands of the American people. Anything I felt about the election, I said, and I stand by.” See her leave the White House more toned, more glamourous, and utterly, utterly self-assured.

See Barack smile as he serenades a child dressed like Prince for Halloween. See him stand side-by-side with Angela Merkel, world leaders on the world stage. See him politely welcome the man who unrelentingly and unceasingly promoted lies about his birth.

See the Obamas’ easy self-assurance despite eight years not only of Republican political obstruction, but personal vilification. See their glowing contentment despite a relentless questioning of their legitimacy as citizens, as leaders—and most pointedly as representatives of the United States. See their Gibraltar-like centeredness despite threats and public rantings, US congressmen screaming out “you lie” during a joint address, bumper stickers praying for their deaths, public officials comparing them to monkeys and apes, people working themselves into a frenzy because Michelle Obama pushed for healthier school lunches and reduced childhood obesity (Ted Cruz promised that his wife would bring French fries back to school lunches if he was elected).

The Clintons left the White House embattled and defensive, grimly plotting their return. George H. W. Bush evacuated to Texas to lick his one-term wounds while his son, done but dampened, ambled home to paint, leaving behind a nation on the verge of economic collapse. Jimmy Carter retreated south of the Mason-Dixie line utterly defeated, though later he resurrected himself. Even mild-mannered Gerald Ford left Washington vanquished, too hoarse to give his concession speech, bowing his head to the anger at pardoning his crooked former boss. Only Ronald Reagan departed the furnace as sunny and raven-haired and Teflon-coated as he entered (despite the assassination attempt), but Teflon eventually deteriorates.

The Obamas are not Teflon. The Obamas are Lonsdaleite. Even as our nation convulses and writhes, a king snake biting itself, the Obamas stand calm. America may well be broken. The Obamas are not.

 

Every black American knows it: how many times have we ourselves stood accused. All it takes is a perceived “unfriendliness,” a declined lunch invitation, a disinterest in being the Best Black Friend.

Of course it is this very unassailable, meteorite-hard sense of self that so infuriates Obama’s enemies. That sends the Joe Wilsons into paroxysms of anger. That rankles the Ted Nugents and makes the small-town, public official racists in Indiana and Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Kentucky smack the send button on their ranting Facebook posts. Obama’s sense of self rankles and frightens not because his enemies really believe he “has a deep-seated hatred of white people,” (to quote a pre-enlightened Glenn Beck) but because they fear, deep in their little hearts, that Obama doesn’t much care about white people either way. Which is to say: Michelle and Barack Obama clearly love and respect many human beings, including close friends and family members, who happen to be white (which sets them apart from the 75 percent of white Americans who report that their core social network includes no people of a race different from their own). But with whiteness itself they are unimpressed.

This is their real crime.

This is their real crime, and every black American knows it: How many times have we ourselves stood accused. All it takes is a perceived “unfriendliness,” a declined lunch invitation, a disinterest in being the Best Black Friend. I’ve been labeled angry, aloof, and even uppity at institutions from Phillips Exeter Academy to the New York Times, and not once could the people who really knew me understand the origins of such projections. Once a friend (who happens to be white) pulled me aside at her dinner party to ask why the absent husband of one of the other guests had reacted with snarky anger to the mention of my name. I did not know this man, had never spoken to him, had seen him only in passing on the local school playgrounds and soccer fields. But he told my friend, “She walks around this town like she owns it!”

My friend was bewildered; she didn’t know what he meant. But I knew. He meant I engaged that town and those people as though I belonged there, as though, in my confidence of my right to be, I could focus my attention where I liked. Which was not on him.

White America yearns to remain at the center of black consciousness. What else was the post-Reconstruction creation of the Mammy archetype—sexless, soothing, utterly devoted to her enslavers—but a longing for the good old days when (it was believed) whiteness was the sun around which Blackness obediently revolved? What else are black-white buddy films, the Best Black Friend in sitcoms, most of Morgan Freeman’s career? What else are movies like the 2016 bomb Mr. Church and the 2011 hit (and 2009 bestseller) The Help? The Help is particularly instructive, the gift that gives again and again and again. In that movie Viola Davis’s character, conveniently childless and manless, devotes her time and love (and some of the worst, most idiotic mimicry of black vernacular English to rise on film) to the white daughter of her employer. The character played by Octavia Spencer is supposed to be a radical who tells her employers what she thinks of them, but in the end she not only compromises but actually debases her art—her cooking—to get back at one white employer. And the Cicely Tyson character dies of a broken heart because her white employer kicks her out.

Think about that for a moment. Here is a woman who lived her life under the boot of legalized white supremacy, enduring and surviving things far worse than not being able to piss where the white folks pissed. Here is a woman who managed to raise her daughter amidst this violence, educate her to know herself, send her north to a life of relative freedom in Chicago. Here is a woman who did all of that and she dies of a broken heart because the white woman she works for don’t love her no more? What that says is that in this novel by a white woman, this white female character stood at the center of this black woman’s emotional and psychological life. Which is precisely where white America longs to be, one way or the other. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. Indifference is what really stings.

In his great essay “Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation,” James Baldwin wrote: “In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity… Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

The Obamas leave Washington intact because they internalized none of the hatred which swirled around them. They were never victims, even when being viciously victimized. This may be their greatest legacy to us, if we allow it. We can all learn something from them. If it’s not already too late.

 

To hold oneself as the Obamas do is to show up not only flawless but fireproof.

For the past few years I’ve been trying to figure out how to react to the wave of protests by black and brown students that have swept campuses across the United States, including my own, Emerson College. In 2015, when a group of about two hundred students of color and their allies marched out of class and into our faculty assembly to protest the campus racial climate my immediate reaction was weariness. For two hours they detailed the slights, diminishments, and moments of cultural and racial aggression they had experienced. For two hours they told of white students using “nigger” in the dining hall and swastikas scrawled on dorm room doors, of whitewashed syllabi and curriculum, of professors who ignored them or singled them out for “the Black Perspective” or made casually racist statements like, “The reason there’s not more diversity in publishing is because black people don’t read.”

Listening to the students I felt exhausted. None of what they said surprised me and none did I doubt: I knew they spoke the truth. The weariness came from knowing how much of what they recounted could have (and did) take place nearly verbatim during my own undergraduate days, decades and decades past.

But what felt new, or at least different, was their reaction. Beneath the anger and frustration lay something else: a palpable woundedness. These students weren’t just effected by the very real racial aggressions they listed, they were existentially threatened—and very vulnerable to that threat. “I’m broken,” said one student. “Y’all broke me.” Which hurt my heart but also made me wonder: Why is that? Why are these young people broken in a way my grandmother, who grew up in the teeth of Jim Crow Mississippi, was not?

Then another student said, in so many words, “I came to Emerson expecting to be accepted and nurtured and welcomed. I came here expecting to be loved.” And the answer to my wondering was clear.

I wish to be careful here. It’s easy for age to misremember the passions of youth, to muffle the grief of the past. It’s even easier for age to stand atop the soap box and proffer wise and useless advice.

I wish to be careful because I don’t want to give aid to the enemy, to hand a bullet to apologists who would rather shoot the crying children than stop the bullies causing them to cry.

I wish to be careful, but I am trying to remember if I ever went anywhere in educational or professional life, to boarding school or college, to one newsroom after another, to summer jobs and academia, expecting even to be welcomed, let alone loved. America of the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s was different than contemporary America—or at least that was what the children have been taught—but I’m trying to remember if I ever invested emotionally in any (corporate, white, American) institution the way these students apparently have.

It is the job of youth to be both hopeful and impatient, to expect better and be disappointed when better does not come. I want to tell these students to keep doing their job, but to keep work at work and not at home. I want to tell them not to stop fighting—they must fight, for us and for themselves—but to not be victimized.

President Obama took office during the worst financial and economic crisis since World War II and leaves office having at least righted the ship. The economy has added more than nine million jobs and the jobless rate has dropped below the historical median. More than 90 percent of Americans now have health insurance, and the number would be higher had more states expanded Medicare, as the Obama administration expected. Unemployment is down. Cuba is open. A larger percentage of the world feels better about us than eight years ago.

Michelle Obama reinvigorated the office of First Lady, salvaging it both from the lovely irrelevancy of both Mrs. Bushes and the hackle-raising “co-presidency” of First Lady Hillary. Her campaign against childhood obesity and in favor of healthier eating has transformed the American food landscape in ways not always visible. Her campaign for girls’ education took her around the world. And her savvy use of celebrity to promote her initiatives has set the standard for First Ladies to come.

For these accomplishments, and for the corresponding failures which all presidencies have, Obama and his wife have received unprecedented heckling, abuse, obstruction, and vitriol, not only from random citizens but from elected officials and the Republican leadership.

Some argue the president should have been more direct in condemning the racism which rained down upon his head. Perhaps, though it is difficult to believe it would have done much good. Racism is as American as apple pie. It is the Obamas’ reaction to that sweet poison I find most instructive, their calm, centered, not-taking-it-personally response from which I want my students, and myself, to learn.

Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high,” but it’s more like: “When they go low, we first attempt to explain, calmly and with plenty of evidence, why going high is the better route. If that doesn’t work, we give them a sympathetic pat on the back and go around.”

I want to remind my students about the power of language, the power not only to dismantle systems of oppression but also to strengthen from within. To hold oneself as marginalized, as a victim of institutional racism and oppression, as a receiver of micro-aggressions, is to show up for the fight dressed in flammable clothes. To hold oneself as the Obamas do is to show up not only flawless but fireproof. As James Baldwin said, “It is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience.”

To be clear, this is not the same advice against “being offended” so disingenuously and hypocritically dished out by traditional conservatives and the blatant racists of the so-called “Alt Right.” Disingenuous because it is ahistorical, feigning innocence of deeply-embedded power imbalances, pretending the objections of black and brown students grow solely out of what someone said to them in class, not the very real threat those words (and the structures which underlie them) present. Hypocritical because no one in America cries wounded more loudly than the white folks—working class and college-educated—who lifted Trump to victory. No one stands more magically removed from lectures about personal responsibility in the face of unemployment or foreclosed homes, no one gets told less to “stop whining” and get another job. No one gets more top-level support in the nursing of resentments; even Obama bent over backwards to pat the trembling shoulder. One white man I know mansplained to me, in the days immediately after the election, why Clinton had lost: because of Obama’s “clinging to their guns and their religion” comment in 2008.

“People don’t get over that kind of thing,” he told me. But when I pointed out that black people are constantly told to get over 250 years of slavery, 100 years of legalized oppression and violence and second-class citizenship, and 50 more years of viscous blowback to every meager gain in human rights, he shut up.

White men calling black students spoiled is like the specialist of all special snowflakes calling the pebble delicate.

Toni Morrison once told a story to the Guardian. She was 14 or 15, working as a domestic in the home of a white woman in her hometown of Lorraine, Ohio. The woman yelled at Morrison for being useless. Morrison took it personally and ran home in distress. Her father gave her a stern lecture, one she never forgot, one which made her all-but impenetrable to racist bullying, in school and beyond.

“He said, ‘Go to work, get your money and come home. You don’t live there.’”

In other words, said Morrison: You are not obliged to live in someone else’s imagination of you. You’re not even obliged to acknowledge it.

Where is home? Where do we live? Most Americans have no idea. A nation, a region, a state of blue or red. A race or a religion, a gender or an ethnic group. An identity. Here’s how we do things in Texas. This is the real America. Welcome to Red Sox Nation. California, land of dreams. Most Americans stomp around in one or two small and bolted rooms believing they are home. Believing they know where they live when they’ve never left the doorway. Never examined the foundation. Never been upstairs, or to the kitchen, or to the den… But why belabor the metaphor?

All these places, all these rooms, are important. All these places, all these rooms are utterly irrelevant. Real home is the knowledge of these truths. Toni Morrison said she never took drugs because she wanted to feel what she felt. “Even if it’s not happiness, whatever that means. Because you’re all you’ve got.”

The Obamas know.