Ta-Nehisi Coates - Reflecting on the Obama Years in "My President Was Black"

December 13, 2016 - Ta-Nehisi Coates 12/13/2016 Views: 4,255

Ta-Nehisi Coates compares how President Obama addresses black versus white audiences and looks back on his historic leadership in the Atlantic story "My President Was Black." (8:09)

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Please welcome Ta-Nehisi Coates.

-♪ -(cheering, applause)

-Welcome. -See, I gave youthe black handshake.

The black... Dude.

You know what's so funny isyou wrote about that in the...

I was reading the piece lastnight and I was like, "Oh, man,

I didn't even..." It's justa moment in time where you go,

-"Barack Obama straddlestwo lines." -Yeah, yeah.

You know, where he is,yes, president,

but you cannot denythat your president was black.

-Right, right, right.-And it's that small moment

where you go, like, "Do I...do I make it, do I not?"

-Right, right, right.-So, yeah. But, uh,

-welcome to the show.-Thanks, man.

This article is really powerful.

-"My President Was Black."-Mm-hmm.

What does that title mean?

Well, there was a moment,uh, during the inauguration

that, you know, uh,a lot of folks watching...

And I watched with, you know,Young Jeezy

and, uh, Jay Z on stage, andthey do "My President Is Black,"

and it was such a joyous,beautiful moment.

And I wanted to conjure that,but at the same time, uh,

make it a little bit elegiac.

-Like, this thinghad actually ended. -Yeah.

And so it-it kind of, you know,just all sort of fit together.

And this is a piece whereyou spent... it seems like

you spent a lot of time with thepresident, writing this piece.

We did, we actually did spendquite... I was sort of surprised

that he spent that much timewith me, actually.

Because, you know,the fact that, um,

I had been, you know,critical of him.

You've always been criticalof the president,

uh, with regards to howhe addresses black audiences

versus how he addressesa white audience

-about African Americans.-Right.

Like, what was your biggestcriticism of that?

Well, I... There were twothings. I mean, I-I felt like

the president, in one respect,

you know, wanted to be,as he said,

the president of all people,but in other respects,

wanted to, you know, get, youknow, the sort of black pass.

So when it came to policy, whenit came to talking about policy,

it was always "I'm the presidentof all people,

I can't do anything specificor special for black people."

But then, when it came to, youknow, talking about, you know,

what we, you know, nowunderstand or what we call,

-you know, respectabilitypolitics, -Yeah.

he was saying thingsto black folks that, probably,

I would have less of a problemwith if he were... if he were

not the president of the UnitedStates and thus the bearer

of the heritageand the, you know, legacy

of why black folks arein a lot of these conditions

in the first place.

You were...you were in a unique situation,

-where you could talk tothe president about that. -Yeah.

I don't know how effectiveI was. But, yeah, yeah,

no, I was. I-I was, and, um...

It's the weirdest thing,you know what I mean?

Because it's, like, you'renot gonna beat the president.

-You're just... you're just not.You're not. -Yeah. I know.

But you still got to fight,right? So you still have

to go in there and you got to,you know... They...

'Cause what he would do ishe would summon you,

-you know what I mean? He wouldsummon these reporters. -Yes.

And, like, he's very tricky,right? Because what he would do

is... The first time I did it,he sat me right next to him,

'cause there's these assignedplaces where you have to sit,

right? So everybody has to sitdown, and then he comes in.

-So it's like, you know,"Say it to my face." -Yes.

You know what I mean? "You wasall bold when you was writin'.

"You can touch my face as well."You're right next to him. Yeah.

Right, right, right, right.And then the second time, I was,

like, right across from him,right? So it's like, you know,

"What you got to say now?"You gonna say... You know,

you're-you're all bravewhen you got your, you know...

your little laptop over there.But, you know...

-but, you know, here it is, youknow. -You know, what's funny,

-I picture him saying thisto you, where he's like, -Right.

-"Uh, where's your laptop now?Uh, yeah. -Yeah, yeah, yeah.

"Uh, you're all brave when yougot your laptop. -Right, right.

Say it to my face. Say it to myface." That's funny. That's...

Right, right, right. But you-yougot to say it. And, you know,

the story I always tell is, thefirst time, I felt like I went

really, really soft. And I camehome, I told my wife, I said,

"Man, I-I went...I went so soft."

And when I was going downthe second time,

she said,"Listen, you go down there

"and you don't take no stuff.You don't play.

You tell himexactly how you feel, son."

Like, she was like...You know what I mean?

And I went,and I-I kind of overdid it.

I was a little too...Like, it was like,

"Wait, he's stillthe president."

-"I don't want your water! Aah!"-Right, right, right.

Yeah, it was like that.

So I could never quite get itcalibrated,

-you know what I mean?-Let's-let's talk about that.

Just-just generally. 'Cause thisis the gist of this article.

-Yeah. -It's you talkingabout Barack Obama trying

-to calibrate. It's you,as Ta-Nehisi Coates, -Mm-hmm.

trying to ca-calibrate. Thatseems to be the recurring theme

that you hearbeing talked about,

especially when it comesto black discourse in America.

-Right. -In South Africa,it's the same. I know.

-It's-it's a different historybut a shared history, -Right.

at the same time. And it isalways the conversation,

-"How do you calibrate? Howextreme should you be? -Yeah.

How much conversationshould you have? What..."

What was the one thingyou noticed,

being with the presidentfor so long,

in terms of his calibration?

The first thing I, you know,immediately, you know,

felt that I understood wasthat he...

was able to addresswhite Americans in a way

that I-I just think very fewAfrican-Americans could.

-And why-why is that? -(sighs)Because I think Barack Obama

was born into a home, um,

not just to a white womanand white grandparents,

but a white woman and whitegrandparents who, shockingly,

told him it was okaythat he was black

and that he should not beashamed of it

and that he should,in fact, be proud of it.

Um, he... And I think, also...I think, in addition to that,

you know-- and he says this--part of the reason

why that was possibleis the sheer physical distance

of being in Hawaiiand not growing up against some

of the grinding pressuresof, you know, Jim Crow.

And so I think he just...

That-That's a very,very unique circumstance.

There's one linewhere you wrote, where you...

I mean, I'll paraphrase,but it was basically you saying,

"We watched the president..."

-And you were talkingabout the BET party, -Mm-hmm.

the last partythat the president threw,

and it was a black audience

that had come togetherto celebrate.

And, you know,the feeling was one of loss,

-but almost a future lossgoing... -Yeah.

-"We will never see this again."-Yeah, yeah, yeah.

You genuinely believe that?

I don't know. Like, I-I...

It's harder to predict, 'causemaybe there's another path

-that I'm not seeing.I didn't see this. -Yes.

It's not like I could havewritten this in advance, right?

This is only my assessmentof how he did it.

-Yes. -You understand? Like,maybe there's some other path

that I'm completely missing,

'cause I certainly didn't seethis path at all.

Um, that's how he did it,and I don't think

many African Americanscould have done it the same way.

-You know?-It's strange. It's...

What I picked up in the article,it's almost like you're saying,

strangely enough,white people can see the anger,

and then they fear that anger,and so they respond differently

to the personwho's in front of them.

It might not even be the anger.

It's just, like,the fact of the matter.

I mean, like, if I have to gointo downstate Illinois,

-I don't know these people.-Yeah.

He literally relatesto these people.

Do you understand? Like, it'smy grandparents right here.

-I hear what you're saying.-And it's very, like, I...

You know, the chances of meactually, you know,

walking into, you know,the kind of places

-that he walked into, you know,having... -Well,

I'm not gonna lie.I know I have a similar thing.

Like, sometimes people sayto me, they go,

"Why aren't you angrierat white people?"

Or "Why aren't you angrierabout everything?"

And then I go, "I cannotcondemn all of them,

'cause I know lovefrom some white people."

We don't want you to condemnall of them.

-No. But, I mean,some people do, though. -Right.

-Some people want you to labelit across the board. -Yeah.

-Uh-huh. -But I go,"But when I see a white man,

-I see my father."-Mm-hmm.

I go, "There's a personwho I know who loved me

-"and a black womanand black people -Right, right.

-and my family." Do you getwhat I'm saying? -Right.

-So sometimesit is that relatability. -Right.

Um... when you're going throughthe story of Barack Obama,

one thing I found interestingwas how

it sort of related to whatyou talk about in your book.

Many people of colorcan relate to it.

But it's, like,even as a president,

it feels like Barack Obama hadto be twice as good.

Oh, he definitely did. I mean,there's just no question.

I mean, it wasall of this sort of reporting

after, you know, the electionthat said,

"Well, Barack Obamawon these voters,

"and Donald Trump won these...

That provesthat there's no racism."

No, no, no, no, no, no.

If I have to, you know,jump six feet

to get the same thing thatyou have to jump two feet for,

that's how racism works.

It's not global and complete,you can't do it.

It's really about raising...

In a sense,it just means that you got

to clear a higher standard.

I love your writing,

-I love what you talk about.-Thanks, man.

Uh, you know, it's... it'sinteresting and strange to me

how much pressureis bestowed on you by people.

They go like: Oh, the Baldwinof this generation, the this...

And I go, no, you'rethe Ta-Nehisi Coates.

-And we appreciate you.-That's all I want.

-Thank you.-Oh, no problem. Thank you.

(cheering, applause)

"My President Was Black"

is in the January/February issueof The Atlantic,

as well as onlineat theatlantic.com.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, everybody.