Obama is awarded an honorary doctor of science degree, before speaking at Howard University in Washington. Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP
Be confident in your blackness … theres no one way to be black. Take it from somebody whos seen both sides of debate about whether Im black enough … Theres no straitjacket, theres no constraints, theres no litmus test for authenticity … You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality … And because youre a black person doing whatever it is that youre doing, that makes it a black thing President Barack Obama, Howard University, 7 May 2016
If Obama was speaking beneath the white gaze at the nerd prom, and stunting for a broader, whiter audience beyond Flint, he did not have to do any of this when he spoke at Howard. There, on hand to receive an honorary doctorate of science, Dr Obama spoke in a black space.
And there, throughout much of his speech, he was as genuine and thrilling on race as hes ever been at moments as poetically beautiful as when he broke into Amazing Grace when giving Clementa Pinckneys eulogy in Charleston. He spoke to the Buffalo with references only those blackademics would get. He preached about the black genius of Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry and Prince. He didnt skirt around racism or sexism, either. (Tubman may be going on the 20, but a black woman working full-time still earns just 66% of what a white man gets paid.)
He countered Hillary Clintons super-predator ideology by saying: We cant just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options. He even said aloud that the overall unemployment rate is 5%, but the black unemployment rate is almost 9%. (I wish hed acknowledged that if you factor in all the people in prison, the African American male unemployment is actually closer to 19%.)
Still, this is it, I thought. Hes complicated, but this is as great as American politics will ever get. There will never be anyone in the Oval Office to meditate upon nuanced notions of blackness and beauty and truth and Americanness of his likes ever again.
But then the respectability politics started creep in, and Obama brought the white gaze right into the Black Mecca. He started to tell the grads:
We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.
He started to lose me there. Why did the nations first black president feel the need to equate the transgender person who cant use the bathroom in North Carolina, and the unfairly maligned immigrant with that middle-aged white guy?
Who feels so threatened by the cultural change of living under a black president and living under conditions a little more like those black Americans have endured for hundreds of years that hes likely voting for Donald Trump?
Who isnt losing all of his white privilege, because he still has a black president telling black grads to get in his head?
Obama also said when it comes to protesting, dont try to shut folks out no matter how much you might disagree with them and to just let them talk.
And how much should we let them talk, Mr President? Should we wait until someone is killed at a Trump rally?
Or should we wait until his emboldened voters start killing people they think are Muslim or Mexican in the street?
That doesnt mean you shouldnt challenge them, Obama added, paradoxically. He praised activist Brittany Packnett because she came to the White House and rolled up her sleeves and sat at the same table with big city police chiefs and prosecutors, but he chastised the activists who are still shouting and putting their bodies on the line in the streets to protest the unabated killing of black life by police. It was a strange move to make the day after news leaked that his administration is preparing to designate the Stonewall Inn a national landmark in commemoration of a riot against police violence.
He also threw serious shade at the gathered young people by saying his failures with Congress were their fault because of low youth turnout. You dont have excuses not to vote, he exhorted. But the first black president erased a whole lot of franchise politics when he said voters dont have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote. True, but those suppressive tactics have been replaced by birth certificate rules and incarceration records. While you might not have to risk your life to cast a ballot, if voters have to stand on a line for five hours they may just risk their financial life or if their babysitter has to leave before they get home their childs life. And, despite these challenges, the president sounded like the Black Lives Matter movement hasnt still had really amazing local electoral successes. (It has in his hometown, actually).
By the end of his speech, Obama had evoked both Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin for bootstrap narratives you, too, could write Black Panther and Between the World and Me! and I was annoyed. He was telling the young people to suck it up, pull themselves up, and compromise.
How could I be so inspired by Obama one minute, and so angry the next?
Had I been a fool to think that the having a black face as the face of American empire would make things different over the past seven years as deportations, drone strikes and police killings mounted?
Was I projecting my own ambivalence about my career being built on writing about black death, and my anxieties about if I was doing enough to counter racism, on to the president?
Obama said Howard was a centerpiece of African American intellectual life and a central part of our larger American story. The same can be said of him. In his presidency, the capaciousness of blackness has expanded so much that the meanings of what blackness and Americanness are have shifted enormously. The change is so tectonic that we simply will not understand its true magnitude until future historians consider it. But in the present, it should be no surprise to me that Obamas Howard speech like his past week left me annoyed, angry, bemused, excited, inspired, in awe, and utterly fascinated. After all, I usually have this mix of feelings about the United States of America.
When Obama said to be confident in your blackness, I thought that to me, blackness means love the love of others who live in blackness, the love of those who rebel in black queerness, the love of my father, of Toni Morrisons Beloved, of Coltranes A Love Supreme. Seven years on, its hard to reconcile Obama with love; and yet hes still the first president I have known to say: I love you back.
Perhaps, then, the love is in the wrestling he makes me do. For the next few months, I will continue to appreciate each week Obama forces me to wrestle intellectually and emotionally with unanswerable questions of American power and black identity.
And when he is gone, I will miss the wrestling terribly.