Thus, in hard jest, the paradoxes and problems of a theoretical black presidency were given voice. Racism would not allow a black president. Nor would a blackness, forged by America’s democratic double-talk, that was too ghetto and raw for the refinement of the Oval Office. Just beneath the humor lurked a resonant pain, the scars of history, an aching doubt rooted in the belief that “they” would never accept us. And so in our Harlems and Paradise Valleys, we invoked a black presidency the way a legion of 5-foot point guards might invoke the dunk—as evidence of some great cosmic injustice, weighty in its import, out of reach.
And yet Spud Webb lives.
When presidential candidate Barack Obama presented himself to the black community, he was not to be believed. It strained credulity to think that a man sporting the same rigorously managed haircut as Jay-Z, a man who was a hard-core pickup basketball player, and who was married to a dark-skinned black woman from the South Side, could coax large numbers of white voters into the booth. Obama’s blackness quotient is often a subject of debate. (He himself once joked, while speaking to the National Association of Black Journalists in 2007, “I want to apologize for being a little bit late, but you guys keep on asking whether I’m black enough.”) But despite Obama’s post-election reluctance to talk about race, he has always displayed both an obvious affinity for black culture and a distinct ability to defy black America’s worst self-conceptions.
The crude communal myth about black men is that we are in some manner unavailable to black women—either jailed, dead, gay, or married to white women. A corollary myth posits a direct and negative relationship between success and black culture. Before we actually had one, we could not imagine a black president who loved being black. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama describes his first kiss with the woman who would become his wife as tasting “of chocolate.” The line sounds ripped from Essence magazine. That’s the point.
These cultural cues became important during Obama’s presidential run and beyond. Obama doesn’t merely evince blackness; he uses his blackness to signal and court African Americans, semaphoring in a cultural dialect of our creation—crooning Al Green at the Apollo, name-checking Young Jeezy, regularly appearing on the cover of black magazines, weighing the merits of Jay-Z versus Kanye West, being photographed in the White House with a little black boy touching his hair. There is often something mawkish about this signaling—like a Virginia politico thickening his southern accent when talking to certain audiences. If you’ve often been the butt of political signaling (Sister Souljah, Willie Horton), and rarely the recipient, these displays of cultural affinity are powerful. And they are all the more powerful because Obama has been successful. Whole sections of America that we had assumed to be negrophobic turned out in support of him in 2008. Whatever Obama’s other triumphs, arguably his greatest has been an expansion of the black imagination to encompass this: the idea that a man can be culturally black and many other things also—biracial, Ivy League, intellectual, cosmopolitan, temperamentally conservative, presidential.
It is often said that Obama’s presidency has given black parents the right to tell their kids with a straight face that they can do anything. This is a function not only of Obama’s election to the White House but of the way his presidency broadcasts an easy, almost mystic, blackness to the world. The Obama family represents our ideal imagining of ourselves—an ideal we so rarely see on any kind of national stage.
What black people are experiencing right now is a kind of privilege previously withheld—seeing our most sacred cultural practices and tropes validated in the world’s highest office. Throughout the whole of American history, this kind of cultural power was wielded solely by whites, and with such ubiquity that it was not even commented upon. The expansion of this cultural power beyond the private province of whites has been a tremendous advance for black America. Conversely, for those who’ve long treasured white exclusivity, the existence of a President Barack Obama is discombobulating, even terrifying. For as surely as the iconic picture of the young black boy reaching out to touch the president’s curly hair sends one message to black America, it sends another to those who have enjoyed the power of whiteness.