Pictures at a Restoration
On Pete Souza’s Obama
Dawn Porter (director). The Way I See It. 2020.
Pete Souza. Obama: An Intimate Portrait. Little, Brown. 2017.
Pete Souza. Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. Little, Brown. 2018.
The film is scratched and spotted, and the audio hisses and pops. Four men in suits are squished together on a couch pantomiming small talk. Behind them, three more men gesture at a piece of paper. Over their shoulders George Washington gazes out from one of the Gilbert Stuart portraits. Everyone looks ill at ease, unused to performing for a camera.
The narrator intones that these local business leaders have created the following documentary in order to send Orangeburg, South Carolina, “into the world of tomorrow.” To do so they must show that their “town is a happy place in which to live and work.” The 1946 film, titled My Home Town, boasts of the nation’s technological and economic prowess along with the stable family life it supports, basking in the postwar afterglow. It does not have much in the way of narrative structure, offering instead a series of portraits of smiling children, high school football games, busy factories, and dozens of parishioners filing out of church in their Sunday best.
I watched the movie while reviewing archival footage for a documentary I had been hired to edit. Archival footage — which really just means preexisting footage — is found in libraries, attics, basements, and old hard drives. In this instance, the material arrived from a local university’s large collection of newsreels filmed in the state. This kind of material is a godsend for documentarians. The scenes of daily life, stilted as they are, could paper over a cut or build out a new scene if the filmmakers catch some new meaning lurking in these images. In one B-roll-heavy section of My Home Town, the camera pans across bustling sidewalks. Although Orangeburg had a sizable black population, the cameraman was invariably picking out a white person to track with or readjusting the frame to find one. In a documentary that claims to explain the town, there is no mention of Jim Crow. Black people appear, working in mills and grocery stores, but the substance of their lives is not shown. Like the white businessmen, the black workers seem uncomfortable being filmed. Being recorded in public was not as common an occurrence as it is now, but it is difficult not to read something else into their glances, not to search these blithe depictions for an indication of what was to come. Just over twenty years after My Home Town was filmed, the police carried out the Orangeburg Massacre in defense of segregation. None of the people they killed would have been born yet when the narrator said, “We are the folks other folks around the world want to be.”
This vision that the Chamber of Commerce concocted is now recognizable as a kind of source image for the nostalgia of the American right. In that image, you can see the world they’re trying to build, the one Jim Crow was supposed to secure. There appears to be a broad, peaceable acceptance of the racial order, unless you know where to look — then the tranquility disquiets. The black people make the picture fray. So many nervous eyes and closed faces betray budding agitation. What could keep such a peace?
A few years ago, the Yale Law professor James Q. Whitman set out to determine whether Jim Crow laws played any role in inspiring the Third Reich’s legal regime. The short answer was yes, they did. The Germans did not plagiarize the Black Codes, he writes in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, but the influence is clear all the same. In one internal meeting, Nazi legal scholars explicitly discussed American race law and its applicability in Germany. Of greatest concern to those at the conference was defining race and, consequently, policing marriage — a practice the US had advanced through anti-miscegenation doctrine. While custom prohibited forms of intermarriage in many societies, Americans made it a point to criminalize it. Examining a list of states with explicit race-based legislation on their books, one Nazi lawyer argued that it was clear the laws were “crafted from the point of view of race protection.” In spite of their nominal claims to equality and the lack of a biological definition of race, the Americans were still able to produce a racist social order, the lawyer wrote, “because they were targeting a kind of race image.”
“The bottom line,” he concluded, “is that Americans in reality have first and foremost desired race legislation even if today they would perhaps like to pretend it is not so.” It was this notion of “the race image,” the Nazi lawyers agreed, that made the priorities of the American legal system comprehensible despite its internal inconsistencies. What drove Americans wasn’t what they said or what they wrote down, but the way they actually imagined their country.
The Nazi scholars were ahead of their time in grasping that much of American jurisprudence rested on a judge knowing it when he saw it. It is a shrewd method, relying on certain already existing representations to construct an ideal one. It is not so much a process of deducing the nature of an object from its dancing shadow as trying to make them co-constitutive, moving the light here and there until the silhouette and the thing itself can both be framed in a pleasing manner and one cannot be thought of without the other. The Lost Cause needed Gone With the Wind even as it provided the imaginative space in which such a production could be conceived. When Clark Gable says they’re watching the Old South disappear, the lie is more brutal and more seductive for being put in a charming man’s mouth in a frame run riot with all the red that Technicolor could muster. It is difficult to consider the Lost Cause now and not think in that movie’s palette. Therein lies the power of the race image. It is more than a stereotype. It is what makes words like heartland carry any meaning at all. Kept in the mind’s eye, it can govern our interpretative and productive faculties, which is especially helpful in a nation that derives its sense of the politically correct course of action through a hermeneutics of the texts of 18th-century landowners.
Barack Obama’s entrance onto the national stage augured a potential rupture in the race image. Only a few short years after Dave Chappelle had joked bitterly about the impossibility of a black President, there was one. History was moving too quickly. What ensued was a frenzied struggle for control over the race image across media. It seemed Obama offered a way to secure a position for black people at the heart of the American project without forcing too much critical examination as to whether such a thing was possible, or even desirable.
From the beginning, Obama’s outfit was invested in constructing the boundaries for representation of what would be deemed a “historic” presidency. During Obama’s campaign, the artist Shepard Fairey was widely acknowledged as his key iconographer. But — especially in retrospect — who Obama was and what he represented endures in the public imaginary thanks to the work of the White House photographer Pete Souza, a longtime photojournalist who first had the assignment under Ronald Reagan. Over time Souza helped create the liberal counter to the race image. Postracial didn’t mean liberation — it meant an America where race was solely affect and gesture, rather than the old brew of capital, land, and premature death. Progress would deposit us in a place where black would be pure style — a style that the ruling class could finally wear out.
In the thick of the 2008 primary, in an essay titled “Native Son,” George Packer argued that after a half century when “right-wing populism has been the most successful political force in America” there was finally hope for an alternative. “Obama is a black candidate,” he wrote, “who can tell Americans of all races to move beyond race.” The ensuing years bore out the impossibility of that widely held belief, but it was already evident in the language. How could a single person be both black and capable of moving everybody beyond race?
It wasn’t just, as Obama admitted, that some people were spooked by the image of a black President. What was unnerving was how good the images looked.Tweet
The figure Packer describes, and the mystique Obama cultivated, is messianic. Throughout his presidency Obama strained to make clear that he was not a radical, but when it suited him politically, he was content to place himself in that tradition. In one of Souza’s most famous photos, taken at night, Obama is silhouetted by the light bouncing off the monument to Martin Luther King Jr. and looking off in the same direction as King. The image is well exposed but not particularly noteworthy in its own right, except in its implication. The man was a testament to both the success and failure of the struggle that preceded him.
Anybody with Souza’s job has two imperatives: don’t miss the moment, and don’t make the President look bad. To accomplish the first, you shoot a lot. To accomplish the second, you edit well. The Martin Luther King Jr. photo, which was reprinted in Souza’s 2017 book Obama: An Intimate Portrait, fits easily within the photographer’s body of work. Taken as a whole we saw a man who was young and handsome, dressed sharply, and had a beautiful family. His coterie included some of the best-credentialed black figures in government and entertainment. In 2016, Jonathan Jones, an art critic for the Guardian, wrote that Souza’s photos were important works because they confirmed that Obama had “made the White House an African American home for eight years.” Though he stretched the vogue for using a racial category as a generic modifier to its comical conclusion, Jones got at these images’ essence when he described them as “the soft power of the Obama age.” Scanning through An Intimate Portrait — published almost exactly a year after the election that rejected Obama’s legacy — it is now clear what we were sold: someone finally made good on restoring JFK’s Camelot.
This image will probably hang over us for some time. Obama is too charismatic for it to be otherwise, and the shortcut he offers between here and some peaceful, prosperous future is simply too attractive. I first thought he would win when he responded to Hillary Clinton’s attacks in the primary by brushing dirt off his shoulder, the way Jay-Z had done years earlier. Here was the talented tenth, only somehow transfigured so that he was of the national ruling class and not just the “black community.” There was much he wasn’t willing to do materially and just as much he was willing to do emotionally. He always had a nod or dap that indicated a common feeling even where there weren’t common politics. When Obama brushed his shoulders, the crowd roared. A journalist from the Washington Post later asked the campaign if he meant to reference the rapper, and his adviser Tommy Vietor responded that the candidate “has some Jay-Z on his iPod.” A nod, but no more.
The “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” moment came a month after the then senator delivered his “A More Perfect Union” speech in response to the controversy swirling around his former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. The damnation of America is well remembered, but Wright’s reasons were less frequently commented on. The churchman shouted, “We took this country by terror. We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease.” He continued with a list of invasions and bombings. “Violence,” he warned, “begets violence.” Obama’s response, now considered a benchmark in race-based oratory, was an eloquent betrayal. With one hand he pointed to America’s outrages against his people and with the other he closed the door on those who were outraged. The anger and bitterness, he said, were counterproductive, and it was better to stand above it. This plan did not work out, though it may have saved his campaign.
Over time, proliferating images of black people under attack and rising up in response — the decimation of black household wealth in the recession’s waves of devaluations and defaults; the protests and riots in Oakland, Brooklyn, and Ferguson — undermined the smooth compromise Obama and his outfit had tried to signal. But the Obama era’s true collapse was defined by spasmodic shows of white nationalist force. Once safely out of office, he acknowledged that “millions of Americans” had been “spooked by a black man in the White House.” An undeniable truth, but one that was miles away from the embrocations he had offered the country when he launched his national career by declaring that “there is not a black America and a white America.” That kind of thing sounds like denialism to some, a postracial utopia to others, and then, in certain places, like a threat.
Souza took two remarkable inauguration photos in 2009. In the first, Barack and Michelle Obama both smile as their foreheads nearly touch. The scene is a little comical: inside a freight elevator five men in tuxedos do their best not to stare at the new President, who looks like a high school senior with his jacket draped around his wife’s shoulders. It’s the kind of ostensibly off-the-cuff moment that lets people feel like they understand something of the intimacy of this marriage — never mind that an image like this, bearing the status of an “Official White House Photo,” requires numerous rounds of bureaucratic approval. The second photo is from the following evening. An incandescent overhead light in the elevator to the White House’s Private Residence catches the President in its glow. Obama grins. His hands are up near his neck undoing his bow tie, or maybe loosening his collar. Here is the triumphal, affable arrogance that his fans found so endearing. Although the photos are composed differently, the way the light caresses Obama’s visage reminds me of Paul Schutzer’s photograph of John F. Kennedy and Jackie at his inauguration ball. In a balcony above a crowd, Kennedy stands and points off to the left. His wife, seated, looks up at him with admiration, and a soft glow frames his hair and glints off his forehead. It is hard to look at these images and not think that these men were destined for something. The light falls on everybody, but it doesn’t always look like that when it does.
In another famous photo from the first year of his presidency, Obama is shown fist-bumping a custodian as he leaves the Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth. The point of the image was not that the President was a tribune of the working class. It was affecting precisely because it worked against the expectation that the most powerful man in the world would not greet the janitorial staff. Presidents are rarely pictured with them at all. But the implication surpassed the barest sense of noblesse oblige. Over a decade before handshakes were suspended from common usage, it was still possible to read a fist bump as a particularly not-white greeting. The most arresting and highly disseminated images from Obama’s presidency succeeded because they operated with a critical understanding not only of how Presidents had been depicted, but how black people had been depicted. It might be a pound, a bump, a betrayal of sympathies for al Qaeda, or the appearance of a latent class consciousness. In all likelihood, it was just “Hello,” but a photograph is never the thing it depicts.
The backlash to Obama’s eight years in power would lead you to believe that the President’s greatest sin was his determination to elevate the living standards of black Americans, but even the vaguest memory of those years belies that. Still, the sanctified image of Obama survived his record and looks only more burnished compared with that of his successor. The politics of the present moment attest to this. Obama’s policy choices during the 2008 recession are frequently derided by members of his own party, even as they are careful not to impugn the man who made those decisions. Much of Joe Biden’s primary campaign hinged on his association with the former President, down to his campaign’s isolating the e in Biden to evoke the o in Obama’s logo. When Dwight Garner wrote in the Times that Amanda Gorman’s performance at Biden’s inauguration had reestablished a “connection in America between cultural and political life,” he hinted at something Trump was never able to accomplish, despite his years in television; he was omnipresent, skilled in commanding and contaminating attention, but he couldn’t steer culture. Obama made himself the image of a popular President in the way Reagan and, even more successfully, Kennedy once did. The word iconic has been watered down in common parlance, but his team understood its religious connotation. It wasn’t just, as Obama admitted, that some people were spooked by the image of a black President. What was unnerving was how good the images looked.
Pete Souza has only become more prominent since he left the White House, as he transformed himself from a government employee into a popular combatant for the resistance. A year after Obama: An Intimate Portrait, halfway into Trump’s presidency, he published Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, a glossy book filled with a few hundred pages of cheap shots comparing Trump’s administration to Obama’s. In the book, Trump is typically represented by his tweets or headline clippings attesting to his incompetence. On the opposite page is a selection of Souza’s photos of his boss: Obama greeting a trick-or-treater on Halloween, jogging, talking to Jay-Z, hugging Michelle, speaking to Vladimir Putin. You get the gist pretty quickly. Trump is a buffoon and Obama was “presidential.”
This comparative project grew out of Souza’s Instagram account and doesn’t survive the translation to print. His account is incredibly popular, having amassed nearly three million followers. Throughout the Trump presidency Souza churned out frequent posts that were topical and dismissive, hallmarks of the era’s liberal style. In October 2020, beneath a picture of a child using a stethoscope on Obama, he wrote “back when we trusted the medical information emanating from the White House.” This is sandwiched between a series of photos of Ronald Reagan recovering from surgery in a hospital. Smug, knowing captions work well online because they’re one thing among many in your feed. In a book they feel displaced and gimmicky, undermining the visual impact of both nostalgia and critique.
If Shade is half-hearted, an internet art project misguidedly ennobled by a large trim size and hardcover binding, Obama: An Intimate Portrait was a paradigmatic coffee-table book — a guaranteed Christmas bestseller for the post-Time/Life era. As the years pass, Shade will be most useful as a primary source, a document of the shock and consternation that Obama’s inner circle felt at the onset of Trump’s presidency. Intimate Portrait, by contrast, feels more definitive. In 352 pages Souza lays out nothing less than a visual history of Barack Obama, endorsed by the man himself. Souza’s captions are explanatory, only giving you the essential information. The book trusts the power of its images: the President in the East Room dancing with Michelle, his mouth open wide to sing along with Earth, Wind & Fire, her neck draped in pearls; the President floating midair on a basketball court; the President standing at a lectern in Accra, his hand outstretched, silhouetted by a bright light shining through the Ghanaian and American flags set side by side.
For all the ostensible intimacy on display, the book reveals more through its absences. There are only two pictorial representations of Black Lives Matter. The first is an unremarkable image of the President preparing a statement on Ferguson with Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and Attorney General Eric Holder at a vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard. The second, a few pages later, shows Obama in the Oval Office meeting with organizers from Ferguson. Souza is not at his subtlest here: the foreground is dominated by a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. and the middle ground by a portrait of Abraham Lincoln; the walls of the room curve back to Obama and the protesters. The image gets a little carried away with an attempt to corral traditions, and the sequencing of the book indicates a desire to bury exactly this unsettling eruption of black politics. The Martha’s Vineyard photo is on the introductory page of the book’s eleventh chapter. According to the text, the highlights of that section are Ebola, the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and a performance by Prince. The words “Black Lives Matter” never appear in the book, and the President’s response never figures in again. Considering the movement’s impact on domestic politics, the omission feels like more than an oversight.
In a 2020 interview with Vox, Souza claimed, as many artists do, that he never considered context or interpretation while he was making a photograph. In spite of what camera phones have led us to believe, photography is a slow process, and most of the work is reflection. Artistic influence and taste ensure that the “eye” sees both what is there and what might be there soon. Photographers look at the world and see photographs: textures, the blocking of bodies in a certain space, the quality and shape of light. One has to go on their word, but the traditions of street photography and photojournalism both tend to shy away from direction. Only in this sense is it useful to talk about taking a photograph, if what is meant by taking is seizing something from the world. Even in a digital workflow, photography is what happens after all that. It is discrimination, reduction, the adjustment of tone and color. It is flitting through contact sheets or folders and trying to find what is both new and already recognizable. The artist may not know or care why they are making the choices they are making, or they may be inarticulate, but there are reasons.
In the introduction to An Intimate Portrait, Souza wrote that he took nearly two million photographs over eight years. If he had no sense of context or intention, why not release them all? One of Souza’s favorite photographs shows a 3-year-old boy looking up at the President. Obama’s arm and hand are in the frame, just barely touching his cheek. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones wrote of this image, “Unlike the ones in all paintings and photographs of all previous presidents, it is not a white hand. How can anyone say that means nothing?” Surely, Souza knew the pictorial tradition of a hand offered in blessing, running from the saints through kings to emperors. A black child, head back, eyes wide, his face reflecting a light from above, and, from beyond the edges of our vision, a touch that appears so tender it can only have been offered in benediction.
In The Way I See It, a 2020 MSNBC documentary based on An Intimate Portrait and Shade, Souza recounts his work in the Obama White House and his years with Reagan. (In 2004, the year Obama gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Souza published a hardcover monograph of his work with Reagan titled Images of Greatness.) He lauds the fortieth President for his empathy and compassion shortly before acknowledging that he took too long to “come to grips with AIDS,” which “in retrospect, is more than disappointing.” Retrospect does not seem like the right word considering that, in the documentary, this moment is illustrated with a contemporaneous photo of protesters in Silence=Death T-shirts, holding AIDSGATE posters aloft. Souza struggles in this section, calling himself politically naive but refusing to let go of the “decent” man he says he knew. Shade and this documentary do not reveal that Obama was better suited to the presidency than Trump, except in the position’s social requirements. To decide who makes a better President, one would have to define the presidency, and much of that work is nasty business. Obama floated above it all, making it feel like wars, deportations, and unrest were beyond him. Trump, gleefully and fatefully, was stuck in the muck of American violence. To sidestep the continuities, the projects insist upon the importance of decency, which they illustrate as a question of demeanor. The Way I See It ends on a baffling note, with photographs of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. The images give way to Trump tweeting out “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd and I won’t let that happen.” It highlights that line for a moment.
The film assumes that its viewers now know the way thug is coded, what it means when a President responds to the rage of black protesters by calling them that. Moments later, Ben Rhodes describes America as a land of competing narratives. One is progressive and inclusive and the other power-hungry and exclusionary. “If you just stacked up the images of the Obama presidency and the Trump presidency,” he says, “you would see the two stories of America.” There are many ways to make this point, but the film cuts to a photograph of Donald Trump surrounded by white fans, and then to a Souza photograph of Obama walking hand in hand with John Lewis and Ameila Boynton Robinson across Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. If the black liberation movement is the denouement for this progressive story, for the way Souza sees things, one wonders why it is excluded from his book. Obama’s legacy has always demanded this silence. It needs that sweeping line tying Lincoln, King, and today’s activists to him. Rasheen Aldridge Jr., one of the organizers from Ferguson who met with Obama in 2014, when he was only 20 years old, told USA Today that the President had inspired him to become an activist, that he was his “idol” and a “person [he] thought about every single day.” But after inviting them in, Obama only promised new standards for the transfer of military gear to local police departments. “Those same feelings from 2008 was not there when I met him yesterday,” Aldridge said. Ashley Yates, also pictured in that Oval Office photograph, has since written that the meeting served to demonstrate “the failure of representational politics.” It failed black people generally, but it did not fail in producing an image of good feeling. A black President walked where black people were beaten for doing the same fifty years earlier. Fifty-two days after that photograph was taken, Obama would refer to rioters responding to the murder of Freddie Gray as “criminals and thugs who tore up the place.” How can anyone say that means nothing?
In May 2009, a young black boy asked Obama if he could touch his head. “I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” he said. Souza caught the moment as the President bent over. The resulting photo became one of his team’s favorites. It hung in the West Wing and the senior adviser David Axelrod had a framed copy in his office. “This can be such a cynical business,” Axelrod said, “and then there are moments like that that just remind you it’s worth it.” Whenever I see the picture I skip by it quickly, embarrassed by its plainness and made melancholy by all that had to transpire to make a child patting a man’s head take on national importance. It matters whether or not black children can see themselves rising to positions of respect, but we might also ask for a world where it is not the position that makes respect due.
For all the ways Obama appeared to undo the strictures on black Americans’ relationship with America, what he really did was excel within them. In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote bitterly of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which led a failed assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863. “How extraordinary,” he wrote, “and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men.” The 54th’s exploits retained their fame well into the next century, and in 1989 were turned into the movie Glory, starring Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick. At the conclusion of the film, the 54th mounts the ramparts and is blown away by a row of cannons. The screen goes white with fire and smoke, which fades to clouds. The camera roves across a shoreline filled with the black dead. The Harlem Boys Choir sings, a Confederate flag flaps in the wind, and Denzel Washington tumbles into a mass grave in slow motion. He won his first Oscar for the role. Throughout the wars on the Great Plains and into the global conflicts of the 20th century, the black soldier was offered as proof of black Americanness. The willingness to kill and die for the country never quite seemed enough to secure their status, but along the way the soldier fighting the Confederacy became the soldier fighting to remove Indigenous people from their land. What seemed at first a form of liberation curdles into a blacker nationalism.
Obama was an elaboration on this theme. In 2008 he ran as an antiwar candidate, but by 2011, reflecting on the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the drone strike that killed Anwar-al-Awlaki, he told his advisers, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.” For that role, too, there is a Souza photo. In the aptly titled “The Situation Room,” Obama and the leaders of the national security apparatus look beyond the frame at a live feed of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. A sheet of paper sitting in front of Hillary Clinton is blurred out. She holds her hand over her mouth. The fixity of the President’s stare makes it look like he has not blinked in some time. Aside from Kathryn Bigelow’s re-of the events in Zero Dark Thirty, this is the only publicly available picture representing the attack. The New York Times editorial board praised Obama for succeeding and complimented him for “showing guts.” It was his signature achievement. During the Civil War, a white officer surveyed a battlefield outside Nashville and in the corpses saw proof that black men would fight. He stated, “The problem is solved. The Negro is a man, a soldier, a hero.”
This is the story many black Americans like to tell. We are, by virtue of our struggles and martyrs, the country’s conscience. It makes sense that such a deeply Christian country would believe that redemption can only be purchased with blood. Strange that it must keep flowing. Stranger that its sense of sacrifice is transitive, often taking the not-quite-American as its object. My grandfather once told me a story. I don’t know if it’s true, but it goes like this: At Pearl Harbor on the evening of December 6, 1941, a friend of his was furious about the military’s racism. A commanding officer overheard him and told him they were in a “white man’s navy.” The night became day and as the bombs fell the same officer rushed madly about trying to rally the troops. My grandfather’s friend reminded him whose navy it was and walked away.
My grandfather stayed and cooked on a ship throughout the war. He never saw his friend again. Every so often I would look up key phrases from the story, suspecting that he must have picked up a tale with such a neat reversal from somewhere else. I decided after some time that its truth was less important than the fact that after serving for twenty-two years, he told this story without a hint of malice. I never had enough access to his interiority to be certain as to why, but I have some guesses. His friend had betrayed his country, but that same country never believed it was his, or my grandfather’s, to begin with. These are not the stories Americans tell. No one is redeemed and nothing is written down in the ledger that black patriots never tire of displaying. There they have a running tally of the blood and lives a people have given in defense of a nation that rebukes them. With each generation the ledger grows longer, but the debt is never paid. Between the revolutionaries, whose memories can be co-opted, and the reformists, there are also those who just find ways to save their own skin. They are not thanked, they are not honored, they are not even insulted. They are forgotten.
Obama was always best at engineering a swelling sense of pride and possibility, the feeling that the clouds would soon pass. This is what he promised during a 2008 campaign speech in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In a video of the speech, which the campaign wisely turned into an ad, the light falls off across his face as he looks into the distance through sheets of rain. “Sometimes the skies look cloudy and it’s dark,” he begins. People are already screaming, though all he has done is describe the weather. He winds his way through the metaphor and the music — provided by the then little-known Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer — swells as he testifies to the power of perseverance. Even if you never saw the ad, you can probably hear it anyway, because you know his cadence, and the music sounds like the most hopeful moments in Zeitlin’s movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, which Romer scored. He finishes with, “If you’re willing to lock arms and march, and talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors, make a phone call, do some organizing . . . then I promise you, Fredericksburg, we will win Virginia. We will win this general election. We will change the country and we will change the world.”
Time has passed, and now we have done these things to feed our neighbors; we have done these things so that strangers will know which apartments, which houses, which theaters they can run into when the police chase them down. Time has passed and now he admonishes us for saying “defund the police” because it will prevent us from getting what we really want, as though the slogan somehow fails to express our desire. Here again is the limit of the purported alternative. Everything can get better so long as nothing changes. I think he was more right twelve years ago. If we’re willing to lock arms, to organize, to fight, then we can win, but much more than the state of Virginia.
I was meant to fashion myself in Obama’s image. We are lanky black men who attended the same college. Both of us are good at talking our way into and out of what we want and what we do not. We are both possessed of a vanity only barely concealed behind a reserved demeanor and the theatrics of university-formed intellectualism. He is only a few years younger than my father, but it was not the well-known pictures of him and his family that have stuck with me. The one image of his presidency that I have never shaken is not a Souza production at all, but a black-and-white photo of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, his hair a mess of curls, smiling as wide as he can. Al-Awlaki was a 16-year-old from Denver who was looking for his dad in Yemen. He was killed by a missile fired from an American drone. His family claims this was no accident. The administration never officially accepted responsibility but leaked that someone else was the target. Robert Gibbs, then Obama’s campaign adviser, responded to a question about executing an American minor without due process by saying, “He should have [had] a far more responsible father” in reference to Anwar al-Awlaki, who had allegedly “gone operational” with al Qaeda and had been targeted and killed weeks earlier, unbeknownst to his son.
There was much Obama wasn’t willing to do materially and just as much he was willing to do emotionally.Tweet
Abdulrahman was only a few years younger than me, but when he was killed I thought myself an adult and him a kid. This no doubt colored my feeling for him. There were others whose names I never learned because they were not Americans and so didn’t even merit what little American media coverage al-Awlaki’s death did, but the trickle-down effect of these prejudices still led me to his face. I made his picture my profile photo on Facebook, being 20 and thinking that the problem was a general lack of awareness. I put his birthday in my phone. It is the only one that doesn’t belong to someone I know. These were silly, insufficient gestures born of rage, narcissism, and powerlessness. Obama significantly increased funding for fatherhood programs in federal welfare budgets. He long subscribed to a strain of social conservatism around familial relations that largely went unnoticed because political discourse, confusing black skin and black power, is predisposed to receive every black politician as quite liberal until this is strenuously disproven. He constantly positioned himself as a father. I think of Obama bent so low that a child can touch the crown of his head. I think of his morbid humor, telling the Jonas Brothers if they got “any ideas” about Sasha and Malia to remember the words “predator drone.” I think of him in the Rose Garden, his brow furrowed against the light, saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” I think of Gibbs, appearing irritated to even be asked about Abdulrahman. I searched for some repudiation of his remarks for years afterwards, not because an apology was mine to accept, but because I hoped someone would admit what everybody knows: that many of us should have had better fathers but have gone searching for them anyway.
This is the price of being painted into the family portrait, and we — black voters, soldiers, churchgoers, or whichever subset of black people is currently being thanked — should not pay. This image is being bought with our own lives and with lives in the Middle East and South Asia. You start with a freedom dream, something bigger and more precious than a nation, and somewhere along the line, when it is absorbed, it mutates. John Brown’s body hadn’t been moldering long when the abolitionist anthem was turned into the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Obama’s pablum about there being but one America was quickly disproven. At any rate, I prefer the words of his billionaire buddy Jay-Z: We ain’t even supposed to be here. The persistent refusal to allow people who have, in some cases, been here for centuries into the fold should give us room to demand more, not less.
If the best that we can hope to be is the soul and conscience of this country, then its record would condemn us too. How far could we get if we didn’t feel compelled to couch a struggle for liberation in paeans to its impediment? This is a vision where the “hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs” is imbricated not with anticolonial struggles but with “the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta,” as Obama referred to John Kerry during the 2004 DNC. It is a noxious compromise — the promise of black freedom if only we wade through the putrescence of a black American nationalism. Here our dreams are delimited by borders, which is to say we hold out hope that we might become the folks others want to be. But the victories are narrow. Years of a hypervisible black elite did little to stanch waves of dispossession and despair. The psychic balm of singular triumphs is not worth it. It isn’t even a balm. Our minds are yet pushed to the brink. Many of us have found ourselves on street corners screaming out our theories about a white supremacist conspiracy and, because there were enough people around, we were thought merely furious. It can go differently when you don’t have numbers. When power changes the image it projects, but not its function, people tend to go home and shut their doors, denying that the footfalls they hear outside are those running for their lives and those tasked with taking them. It is an isolating practice, trying to read furtive glances and clenched fists, seeking signs of solidarity, of common knowledge of what we have lived through. The past year has already borne more loneliness than a lifetime should. I hope they do not catch us out there by ourselves again.