How Obama owned his blackness in white America

In this extract from We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on how Obama rewrote the narrative around blackness and success, and set the stage for black writers to rise to prominence

I had never seen a black man like Barack Obama. He talked to white people in a new language — as though he actually trusted them and believed in them. It was not my language. It was not even a language I was much interested in, save to understand how he had come to speak it and its effect on those who heard it. More interest­ing to me was that he had somehow balanced that language with the language of the South Side. He referred to himself, unambigu­ously, as a black man. He had married a black woman. It is easy to forget how shocking this was, given the common belief at the time that there was a direct relationship between success and assimila­tion. The narrative held that successful black men took white wives and crossed over into that arid no-man’s-land that was not black, though it could never be white. Blackness for such men was not a thing to root yourself in but something to evade and escape. Barack Obama found a third way — a means of communicating his affec­tion for white America without fawning over it. White people were enchanted by him — and those who worked in newsrooms seemed most enchanted of all. This fact changed my life. It was the wind shifting, without which my curiosity would’ve stayed my own.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama

Obama found a means of communicating his affec­tion for white America without fawning over it

My contention is that Barack Obama is directly responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms. These writers were talented —  but talent is nothing without a field on which to display its gifts. Obama’s presence opened a new field for writers, and what began as curiosity about the man himself eventually expanded into curiosity about the community he had so consciously made his home and all the old, fitfully slumbering questions he’d awakened about Ameri­can identity. I was one of those writers. And though I could not see it then, making that doleful trek home from the unemployment office, back from the classroom, back across 125th Street, the wind was waking all around me.

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