If you look at President Obama through the golden 90s TV lens, Barack is basically the “Uncle Phil” to Michelle’s “Aunt Viv” (the first one). He’s the black man who came from nothing that we can all be really proud of. But every once in awhile he makes you wonder if he really gets it.
The black community has supported Obama at a higher rate than any other group, yet the president has always subtly stiff armed them. Respectability politics litter his speeches to black churches. He chastised Morehouse grads for being stymied by racial discrimination. Even when he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”, he followed it with a slew of gotta-hear-both-sides rhetoric in subsequent shootings of unarmed black folks.
Obama delivered the message of his life, and his presidency, in his eulogy at Mother Emmanuel. He became the black president that African Americans have been wanting him to be, and all it took was the tragic deaths of African Americans that were finally a lot more like him.
For the majority of his presidency Obama allowed Eric Holder to play his “Luther” role while he gave speeches to the nation with a kumbaya spin. It’s not that President Obama doesn’t care about black people, but he has a cultural and experiential affinity for a certain part of the black community often overlooked by the press. Obama is an ‘Our Kind of People’ black guy.
Yes, the president went to Trinity United Church in Chicago, which like most big black churches was very socioeconomically diverse, but at his core, Obama spent his social and professional time with other elite black folks and their kin.
Obama has won his political fortunes on the efforts of all African Americans, but he draws his cultural sustenance and identity from the upper and middle class political elites. Not the NAACPers but the 100 Black Men. Not the parishioners but the clergy. Not the Eric Garners but the Clementa Pinckneys.
The reason Obama spoke so lovingly and so humanly at the eulogy of Clementa Pinckney is because the president saw it not only as a moral, and political tragedy, but an attack on who he was. An assault on his kind of black folk. And for the first time since Skip Gates, Obama’s mask cracked and the black man came out to play.
I was at the eulogy of Senator Clementa Pinckney, for personal reasons. I knew Clem, I cared about him and I drew a lot of life lessons from my time as his campaign manager. So my expectations for President Obama’s speech were probably different from the pundits. Many analysts, especially in the black community were gripping for a loud rousing speech that would vent our anger—both intellectual and personal—at the white supremacy, institutional racism and unmitigated cowardice of our political leaders when it came to racial issues.
I didn’t want that. For me, this needed to be about putting Clem Pinckney to rest, discussing his legacy as a man of God, and keeping the focus on his family. Obama, in a way I never anticipated, didn’t disappoint.
I stood on a riser in the upper right hand corner of the arena to see the president, I couldn’t sit down, I was too emotional and antsy after almost 7 hours of waiting in line and jostling for a seat in the packed gym.
I have seen Obama speak live probably a dozen times, but from the moment he entered the room, and the crowd became more excited and affected I knew something different was coming.
First, Obama came into the room clapping his hands to the beat of the hymn being played, in complete synch with the audience, it was the most organic thing I’ve seen him do in years.
And as he walked in, he wasn’t focused on the audience, or even the first lady. He didn’t take a seat. He just looked at the pastors on stage, primed and grounded—almost as if he were about to yell ‘amen’ and get up on stage to do a praise dance.
And really, dancing is the best way to describe Obama’s movements in the 15 or so minutes between when he arrived and when he actually took the stage. President Obama was literally rocking back and forth on his heels, bobbing back in forth in his seat.
And when Obama finally laid out the legacy of Clem, the beauty of his life and his accomplishments, his love and inspiration to others, and his impact on the South Carolina House of Representatives, the entire room could collectively cry and mourn at the same time.
For once Obama didn’t come to the black community to lecture or scold, he didn’t slip in the trials and tribulations of the LGBT community or illegal immigrants. He centered the entire Nation, the entire symbolic and personal power of his presidency on the pain, frustrations, strength and spiritual resilience of the African American community.
So often black pain is ignored, or marginalized, or only viewed in the context of how it makes white Americans feel. But not that afternoon. Obama said, ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘our’ more times than I’ve ever heard him in his presidency.
He did not equivocate or play a balancing act. He did not attach these murders to a short term political narrative. He validated black pain, he validated black mourning and he made African Americans the moral, cultural and political focus of the entire United States of America, for one precious hour in a packed out college arena in downtown Charleston.
In the 48 hours after Obama’s speech, pundits were dropping #HotTakes faster than you can say “newscycle” to contextualized the last two weeks. TPP, Obamacare, Gay Marriage, Charleston, all were rolled into one big Obama sandwich which supposedly showed his presidency still had legs with 18 months to go and his legacy was cemented. Some went so far as to say this might be Obama’s best week ever.
These narratives are just sloppy attempts to paper over what really happened that Friday afternoon. It’s not Obama’s “greatest week” when he eulogizes the lives of 9 people assassinated by a white supremacist, nor can he take credit for the Supreme Court validating policies and lifestyle choices that the public had come to accept years earlier.
This speech was historic because President Obama finally acknowledged in public that #BlackLivesMatter, and that African American forgiveness is not an act of cowardice or weakness but an act of defiance against whites who insist on being centralized in all of our lives, even in tragedy.
A presidency can take a long time to grow but can still find it’s roots in the hearts and souls of the marginalized men and women upon whom its success is built. In the end, while it took some caution, pleading and tragedy that Barack Obama is a black man in America and is no longer afraid to share that with the world and especially black people.
That Friday is the only time an Obama speech made me cry, and if it took the lives of 9, beautiful, God fearing black folks studying the word of God in a Wednesday night bible study to bring out the Black Man in Obama – that is still too high a price.
But if that tragedy can lead to a man and a presidency that can center itself and American conversation on black lives for the next two years. Some—not all—but just some of the debt created by the loss of these lives, will have been repaid by president Obama, the first real Black president of the United States.
This article originally appeared online at NBC BLK.