The Longest War
One of things that always amazed me about the reaction to the Poundcake Speech was the assumption among pundits that Cosby was somehow bravely stating truths which the black community didn’t want to address. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a pundit-class more interested in abstract thought experiments, than actually going into black neighborhoods, or really, any neighborhood that might be unfamiliar.In point of fact, every black parent I know is at war with their children in a way that white parents are not. I grew up in house where the history of race and racism was the air. But concurrent to that history was the deeply-held belief that American racism was never an excuse for cynicism, anti-intellectualism, thuggism or nihilism. My parents were conscious. But when I was failing my way through school, I don’t recall them ever raising their clenched fists and exclaiming “Damn the white man.”
To the contrary, there was a deep-seated belief that educating yourself was essential, and that hard work ultimately prevails. Whatever their broader critiques, it was that essential faith that united them with the rest of the country. Preaching that faith is a lot easier when you have actual examples to point to. In terms of external examples (outside of the family) there are no better models, right now, than Barack and Michelle Obama.
What many white people fail to realize is that though Barack Obama and his family are unique to them, they are deeply familiar to black people. Put differently, they are from our particular neighborhood. I think back to Michelle Obama’s own words:
“People have never met a Michelle Obama,” the soon-to-be first lady said toward the end of our interview. “But what they’ll come to learn is that there are thousands and thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas across America. You just don’t live next door to them, or there isn’t a TV show about them.”
But we do live next door to them, and the TV show is our lives. We went to church and played in summer leagues with people like them. I went to college with people like them. This is not to slight Barack Obama’s truly remarkable story, nor the indispensable labor of the people who raised him. But there were biracial black people with wild stories all across my college campus. The first girl I ever really loved was raised by her Jewish mother, in all-white small town in Pennsylvania. She was unique, but not because of her background. The strictures of segregation gifted black people with the particular beauty of being a deeply interwoven diaspora on to ourselves, rendering “Black” into a broad country.
To see that country manifested in the White House is the sort of boon that you can’t really attach to statistics. But for those of us who are waging the fight against a crippling cynicism, who are urging our children on, who visit schools and begin our addresses with, “I remember when I just like you,” the First Family is perhaps the greatest weapon in our arsenal.
From the perspective of race, we don’t object to people trying to defeat Obama. We don’t object to Hillary claiming he’s soft. We don’t object to McCain claiming he’s a celebrity. We don’t object to the GOP calling him a tax and spend liberal. We don’t even object to Mitt Romney aspiring to hang him. (We know what you meant, Mitt.)
But when broad sections of this country foolishly follow a carnival barker in the ugly tradition of attacking black citizenship rights, when pundits shriek that Obama’s successes are simply the result of the misguided largess of white people, they undermine our most intimate war. They undermine the notion that someone familiar to that kid on the corner could legitimately reach the highest levels of the country, that someone like that kid’s Aunt could be the First Lady. They undermine this country’s social contract, and the “hard work pays” message of my parents. And to that we object.
For if they will not take as legitimate a magna cum laude from their highest institutions, if they will not accept a man who tells black kids to cut off the video games and study, who accedes to their absurd requests one week, and slays their demons the next, who will they accept? Who among us would they ever believe? -Ta-Nehisi Coates