That celebrity has manifested itself in countless pop art representations of Obama—for instance, giving Obama the prize-fighting physique of Muhammad Ali and the rap lyrics of LL Cool J, as Robt Seda-Schreiber did in an ink drawing circulated online. A guerrilla street artist in Los Angeles who calls himself Mr. Brainwash used a common trope in Obama pop art—Superman—to create a print that features the president with Clark Kent muscularity in front of an American flag.
In a more humorous take, the same artist also rendered Obama as Marilyn Monroe, complete with blond hair and red lipstick. One constant throughout the Obama visual register is the fact of his blackness—a blackness that necessarily points to the fraught and complex history of African-Americans.
In the portrait Seesaw , Washington, D. The public art of Obama is very much within this tradition.
Imagining Obama: The Art of the First Black President - POLITICO Magazine
Since at least the s, African-American achievement has been the subject of murals in urban centers across the country. Often generated by community artists and activists, these works are explicitly political in their agenda, memorializing black heroes and recounting uplifting narratives of black achievement. He depicts Obama in the Oval Office juggling seven basketball-like faces that range in color from white to black. All these works speak to the conundrum, if not the conflict, of race in America, where even the president is subject to shape-shifting to appease those for whom his blackness is incomprehensible.
His biracial ancestry adds to the complexities. He led a rather ascetic life and read works of literature and philosophy by William Shakespeare , Friedrich Nietzsche , Toni Morrison , and others. After serving for a couple of years as a writer and editor for Business International Corp. While a summer associate in at the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin, Obama had met Chicago native Michelle Robinson , a young lawyer at the firm.
Barack Obama gilds his legacy
The two married in After receiving his law degree, Obama moved to Chicago and became active in the Democratic Party. He organized Project Vote, a drive that registered tens of thousands of African Americans on voting rolls and that is credited with helping Democrat Bill Clinton win Illinois and capture the presidency in During this period, Obama wrote his first book and saw it published. Obama lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago and worked as an attorney on civil rights issues.
You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience and security. Barack Obama. Info Print Print. Table Of Contents. Submit Feedback. This effort was unsuccessful. The trolley dropped the guests on the South Lawn, in front of a giant tent.
The White House proper loomed like a ghost in the distance. At least not by me. The Obamas are fervent and eclectic music fans. After the rapper Common was invited to perform in , a small fracas ensued in the right-wing media. He performed anyway—and was invited back again this glorious fall evening and almost stole the show.
De La Soul was there. The hip-hop trio had come of age as boyish B-boys with Gumby-style high-top fades. Now they moved across the stage with a lovely mix of lethargy and grace, like your favorite uncle making his way down the Soul Train line, wary of throwing out a hip. I felt a sense of victory watching them rock the crowd, all while keeping it in the pocket. The victory belonged to hip-hop—an art form birthed in the burning Bronx and now standing full grown, at the White House, unbroken and unedited.
The ties between the Obama White House and the hip-hop community are genuine. They hosted Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean at a state dinner, and last year invited Swizz Beatz, Busta Rhymes, and Ludacris, among others, to discuss criminal-justice reform and other initiatives. Obama once stood in the Rose Garden passing large flash cards to the Hamilton creator and rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda, who then freestyled using each word on the cards.
That night, the men were sharp in their gray or black suits and optional ties. Those who were not in suits had chosen to make a statement, like the dark-skinned young man who strolled in, sockless, with blue jeans cuffed so as to accentuate his gorgeous black-suede loafers.
Look where we are right now. This would not happen again, and everyone knew it. It was not just that there might never be another African American president of the United States. It was the feeling that this particular black family, the Obamas, represented the best of black people, the ultimate credit to the race, incomparable in elegance and bearing. The next one gonna be from Cleveland.
He gonna wear a perm. The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the black poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap. Much as the unbroken ranks of 43 white male presidents communicated that the highest office of government in the country—indeed, the most powerful political offices in the world—was off-limits to black individuals, the election of Barack Obama communicated that the prohibition had been lifted.
It communicated much more. Before Obama triumphed in , the most-famous depictions of black success tended to be entertainers or athletes. Moreover, he had not embarrassed his people with a string of scandals. Against the specter of black pathology, against the narrow images of welfare moms and deadbeat dads, his time in the White House had been an eight-year showcase of a healthy and successful black family spanning three generations, with two dogs to boot.
Whiteness in America is a different symbol—a badge of advantage. In a country of professed meritocratic competition, this badge has long ensured an unerring privilege, represented in a year monopoly on the highest office in the land. For some not-insubstantial sector of the country, the elevation of Barack Obama communicated that the power of the badge had diminished.
For eight long years, the badge-holders watched him. They saw footage of the president throwing bounce passes and shooting jumpers. They saw him enter a locker room, give a businesslike handshake to a white staffer, and then greet Kevin Durant with something more soulful. They saw his wife dancing with Jimmy Fallon and posing, resplendent, on the covers of magazines that had, only a decade earlier, been almost exclusively, if unofficially, reserved for ladies imbued with the great power of the badge.
For the preservation of the badge, insidious rumors were concocted to denigrate the first black White House. Obama gave free cellphones to disheveled welfare recipients. He canceled the National Day of Prayer; refused to sign certificates for Eagle Scouts; faked his attendance at Columbia University; and used a teleprompter to address a group of elementary-school students.
The badge-holders fumed.
They wanted their country back. And, though no one at the farewell party knew it, in a couple of weeks they would have it. On this October night, though, the stage belonged to another America. At the end of the party, Obama looked out into the crowd, searching for Dave Chappelle. I got my block party. The president danced in a line next to Ronnie DeVoe.
Love will make you do wrong. Last spring , I went to the White House to meet the president for lunch. I arrived slightly early and sat in the waiting area. This receiving party represented a healthy cross section of the people Donald Trump had been mocking, and would continue to spend his campaign mocking. At the time, the president seemed untroubled by Trump.
The speech that launched his rise, the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, emerged right from this logic. This speech ran counter to the history of the people it sought to address. Some of those same immigrants had firebombed the homes of the children of those same slaves. That young naval lieutenant was an imperial agent for a failed, immoral war. American division was real. In , John Kerry did not win a single southern state. America was good. America was great. Over the next 12 years, I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history.
He was phenomenal—the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people. For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell. Nothing in that time suggested that straight talk on the facts of racism in American life would have given him surer footing.
I had met the president a few times before. I saw him as playing both sides. I attempted to press my points in these sessions. My efforts were laughable and ineffective. I was always inappropriately dressed, and inappropriately calibrated in tone: In one instance, I was too deferential; in another, too bellicose. I was discombobulated by fear—not by fear of the power of his office though that is a fearsome and impressive thing but by fear of his obvious brilliance. These were not like press conferences—the president would speak in depth and with great familiarity about a range of subjects.
Once, I watched him effortlessly reply to queries covering everything from electoral politics to the American economy to environmental policy. And then he turned to me. I thought of George Foreman, who once booked an exhibition with multiple opponents in which he pounded five straight journeymen—and I suddenly had some idea of how it felt to be the last of them. Last spring, we had a light lunch.
We talked casually and candidly.
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He talked about the brilliance of LeBron James and Stephen Curry—not as basketball talents but as grounded individuals. I asked him whether he was angry at his father, who had abandoned him at a young age to move back to Kenya, and whether that motivated any of his rhetoric.
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He said it did not, and he credited the attitude of his mother and grandparents for this. Then it was my turn to be autobiographical. I told him that I thought it was not sensitive to the inner turmoil that can be obscured by the hardness kids often evince. I told him I thought this because I had once been one of those kids. Nonetheless, he agreed to a series of more formal conversations on this and other topics.
The improbability of a black president had once been so strong that its most vivid representations were comedic. In this model, so potent is the force of blackness that the presidency is forced to conform to it. But once the notion advanced out of comedy and into reality, the opposite proved to be true. But black people, then living under a campaign of terror for more than half a century, had quite a bit to fear, and Roosevelt could not save them. To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased.
It is also the only tradition in existence that could have possibly put a black person in the White House. Whenever he attempted to buck this directive, he was disciplined.
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His mild objection to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. Race and Politics in the Obama Era , very little had improved. Yet despite this entrenched racial resentment, and in the face of complete resistance by congressional Republicans, overtly launched from the moment Obama arrived in the White House, the president accomplished major feats.
He revitalized a Justice Department that vigorously investigated police brutality and discrimination, and he began dismantling the private-prison system for federal inmates. Obama nominated the first Latina justice to the Supreme Court, gave presidential support to marriage equality, and ended the U. Millions of young people now know their only president to have been an African American. In , the Obama administration committed itself to reversing the War on Drugs through the power of presidential commutation.
The administration said that it could commute the sentences of as many as 10, prisoners. As of November, the president had commuted only sentences. Obama was born into a country where laws barring his very conception—let alone his ascendancy to the presidency—had long stood in force. A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama—a black man with deep roots in the white world—was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable.
When Barack Obama was 10, his father gave him a basketball, a gift that connected the two directly. Obama was born in in Hawaii and raised by his mother, Ann Dunham, who was white, and her parents, Stanley and Madelyn. They loved him ferociously, supported him emotionally, and encouraged him intellectually. They also told him he was black. Ann gave him books to read about famous black people. This biography makes Obama nearly unique among black people of his era. That passion was directed at something more than just the mastering of the pick-and-roll or the perfecting of his jump shot.
These are lessons, particularly the last one, that for black people apply as much on the street as they do on the court. Basketball was a link for Obama, a medium for downloading black culture from the mainland that birthed the Fabulous Five. Historically, in black autobiography, to be remanded into the black race has meant exposure to a myriad of traumas, often commencing in childhood. Frederick Douglass is separated from his grandmother. The enslaved Harriet Ann Jacobs must constantly cope with the threat of rape before she escapes.
The division is not neat; the two are linked, and it is incredibly hard to be a full participant in the world of cultural identity without experiencing the trauma of racial identity. Obama is somewhat different. But the kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of his generation—beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building—were mostly abstract for him.
Moreover, the kind of spatial restriction that most black people feel at an early age—having rocks thrown at you for being on the wrong side of the tracks, for instance—was largely absent from his life. In its place, Obama was gifted with a well-stamped passport and admittance to elite private schools—all of which spoke of other identities, other lives and other worlds where the color line was neither determinative nor especially relevant.
Obama could have grown into a raceless cosmopolitan. Surely he would have lived in a world of problems, but problems not embodied by him. He was sitting on Air Force One , his tie loosened, his shirtsleeves rolled up. Why that is, I think, is complicated. You feel pretty good about it. Stanley, his grandfather, who came originally from Kansas, took him to basketball games at the University of Hawaii, as well as to black bars.
Stanley introduced him to the black writer Frank Marshall Davis. The facilitation was as much indirect as direct. That suspicion of rootlessness extends throughout Dreams From My Father. But instead of being in awe, Obama realized that he and the woman lived in different worlds. After college, Obama found a home, as well as a sense of himself, working on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer. It was less obvious to me.
How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit? And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community] and specifically the South Side community, the low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal.
And I can fit the African American struggle for freedom and justice in the context of the universal aspiration for freedom and justice. If women, as a gender, must suffer the constant evaluations and denigrations of men, black women must suffer that, plus a broad dismissal from the realm of what American society deems to be beautiful. But Michelle Obama is beautiful in the way that black people know themselves to be. Her prominence as first lady directly attacks a poison that diminishes black girls from the moment they are capable of opening a magazine or turning on a television.
The South Side of Chicago, where Obama began his political career, is home to arguably the most prominent and storied black political establishment in the country. Washington forged the kind of broad coalition that Obama would later assemble nationally. But Washington did this in the mids in segregated Chicago, and he had not had the luxury, as Obama did, of becoming black with minimal trauma. Axelrod recalled sitting around a conference table with Washington after he had won the Democratic primary for his reelection in , just as the mayor was about to hold a press conference.
He felt those things. He had fought in an all-black unit in World War II. He had come up in times—and that and the sort of indignities of what you had to do to come up through the machine really seared him. Like Washington, Obama attempted to forge a coalition between black South Siders and the broader community.
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