I have my own bones to pick with many of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blogs, but his most recent piece, Fear of a Black President, is, or at least it should be, required reading. Coates brilliantly expresses the paradoxes and contradictions of being black in America, and how those contradictions have boxed in our black president. There’s a lot of meat to chew on in that piece, but what most strikes me, what hovers in my mind days after reading it, is Coates’ account of Shirley Sherrod’s conversation with President Obama.
Although I focus on Obama’s policies, my reproach of him has never been as simple as that. It is, most often, paired with a seething suspicion that Obama is not rooted in the African-American tradition, in that Obama mimics us [African-Americans] more than he intuitively understands us. In this sense, watching Obama play basketball with his shirt tucked in is akin to watching Romney condescend to Tea Partiers, pretending, with a cool 250 mil in the bank, that he feels their pain. So this part of the Coates piece was particularly telling, at least for me:
I asked Sherrod if she thought the president had a grasp of the specific history of the region and of the fights waged and the sacrifices made in order to make his political journey possible. “I don’t think he does,” Sherrod said. “When he called me [shortly after the incident], he kept saying he understood our struggle and all we’d fought for. He said, ‘Read my book and you’ll see.’ But I hadread his book.”
When having a “I feel your pain” conversation about racism, which, coincidentally, occurs far too often among blacks in America, I’ve never heard anyone say, “I understand really, just read my book” or blog, or whatever. You swap war stories. You bond by sharing what you’ve experienced, as well as those stories passed down to you by your parents and grandparents.
It just doesn’t seem that Obama is a part of that narrative. He doesn’t have roots from which to pull. He views racism, mostly, as an intellectual abstraction. Being unable to catch a cab is, for him, as far as it goes, and those roots are not deep enough to allow for an earnest expression of all that it means to be African American.