The day after Barack Hussein Obama’s historic 2008 election as The First black president of the United States, I bought a plane ticket to Philadelphia and a Northeast corridor Amtrak ticket to D.C. Two months later, I stood among 1.8 million people in the bitter cold who came to bear witness. My cousin and I were so far back on the Mall we were near the Washington Monument, but it didn’t matter. We could hear Obama over the speakers taking the oath. The rest was such a blur I could be forgiven for having thought it was it all just a dream. I went to a party that night in Georgetown and Afrika Bambaataa was the DJ. Bringing in the future of a black president with the original hip-hop afrofuturist.
The next morning, while waiting for the train back to Philadelphia and still feeling tremendous warmth in my chest like I’d taken a shot of bourbon, I saw a large throng of white people edging toward the front of the line by the gates. Of course I brought my journal with me and wrote what I observed:
This morning, waiting at Union Station in D.C. to board my train, I saw a group of white people, many of whom I could tell had been at the inauguration, rudely push and meander their way to the front of the line as though their tickets and plans were more important than everyone else who bought the same tickets. I even saw a woman skip a bunch of other people, her baggage shoving everyone else out of the way and then encourage her husband to do the same. He declined. Their blind entitlement made me wonder what will really change in America? White people are congratulating themselves on a job well done, and to be sure, Obama couldn’t’ve done it without them, but if they don’t or can’t really believe in the spirit of the change they voted for, then what’s the point? Many of America’s harmful foreign policies have been based on that same narrow idea of white privilege and entitlement. How can those things change when things are so one-sided on every other level?
The country and I got our answers in the days, weeks, and months after. Despite cable news commentators’ vociferous proclamations of a post-racial dream come true where the nation would finally move past the trauma of its original sin, reality was depressingly regressive. Not only did post-racialism not happen, but racism decided to stop being polite and return to being real.
The following is an annotated bibliography of culture reflecting the Obama years through the lens of my lived experiences as a cis black woman. I still grapple with what has changed, what hasn’t, and whether it indicates anything about the future with another potential First in the White House.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth was released. I tried to go to her book reading at the library and I wasn’t as annoyed about the overflow room as I was a small group of people who were patting themselves on the back for being there and supporting her as the face of diversity in the publishing industry. Music gave me multitudes on the black experience. Santogold’s (now Santigold) first album was for brown girls who have considered indie rock when bad R&B was enuf. Kanye made an entire album as a cyborg (808s and Heartbreak), which really was perfect when you consider the way we steel ourselves after heartbreak in the hopes of becoming invincible against pain. Point for afrofuturism. I was cautiously optimistic about Obama’s ability to win during the entire campaign. I held my breath during key hurdles: primaries, debates, preachers, and finally, election night. I was with friends in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood and we were all eating wings, listening to Kanye’s Graduation and holding our collective breath until the results from Pennsylvania came in.
A congressman loudly accused Obama of lying about an immigration bill on national television. Birthers kept telling him to go back to Africa. And The Help came out, which I refused to read but couldn’t seem to escape. The country seemed to be having a hard time accepting a black man in this office. So much so that a book that put a warm nostalgic glow on the pre-Civil Rights Movement became a best seller. Jay-Z’s luxury rap (The Blueprint 3) hit a new dimension because he had contributed so much to Obama’s campaign he had the inauguration seats Cornel West thought he was getting. We made it … I think. Does we include me? More of us are sharing our stories. Shattering the myth of “exceptional Negroes” were Colson Whitehead’s middle-class strivers (Sag Harbor), Malcolm Gladwell’s philosophy on hard work (Outliers) and I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett, the comedy whose title speaks for itself.
When I leave for library school in Boston, I only take 10 books with me. One of them is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. There is no post-racial paradigm, there is only rememory. There will be no fresh start. Guantanamo Bay is still open and no bankers have gone to jail for causing the Second Great Depression recession. I read the Hunger Games trilogy and Gary Shytengart’s Super Sad True Love Story because society started to feel vaguely dystopian. Because I missed my family, I also read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and pestered my grandmother about our family’s personal Great Migration story. Chicago brings me back to Obama, always. How many black people am I connected to because our parents’ grandparents left the southern fields and headed north to the City of Big Shoulders and segregated neighborhoods? There are probably only two or three degrees of separation between me and Michelle’s family because there’s only two or three degrees of separation between most black people in Chicago. Chicago brings me back to Kanye, always, who outdid himself with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Lost in the World” sustains me as I try to find my place in Boston.
Obama releases his long-form birth certificate. Birthers are not appeased. They want blood. A couple of months later, he says he we, we as in America, have killed Osama bin Laden. This shuts up the birthers for a couple of weeks. The only two books that matter to me this year are Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, in which a black guy survives a zombie apocalypse by being invisible and is, on the lower frequencies, a shout out to Ralph Ellison; and Manning Marable’s biography on Malcolm X, which attempted to alter aspects of the latter’s legacy (Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention). Both books touch on the compromises you make to survive, and your rebirth as someone stronger. I read about things Obama does with an odd sense of detachment. I do not have the capacity to understand how difficult the job is. But I see him like Whitehead’s Mark Spitz, swimming, trying to keep his head above water and not be devoured by hordes of flesh eaters. Sometimes it’s the best you can do. Separately, I don’t want to live in a world where Adele (21) is more famous than Jazmine Sullivan. It’s a story as old as Elvis, but I’m tired of reading it.
We’re very disappointed in you, they said. We put you here and you owe us. You haven’t done anything we thought you would do, they said. They mean, “You were supposed to be magic. We clapped our hands and believed and you did not sprinkle everything with special dust and fly us to the land where we have surpassed racism and slavery.” But this did not happen. Re-election happened anyway. And Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for a book about nerd love (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). Zadie Smith returned with NW and in one weekend I devoured the story of dreams deferred in a multicultural housing project in London. What I want is an entirely separate book about Keisha/Natalie. Someone did come along and sprinkle fairy dust on her life and it wasn’t enough. And more on race and class and sexuality, please. I need to be validated more than I thought.
Obama said we have recovered from the recession. When my wallet gets the news we will have a Juneteenth celebration. Most of the media outlets are saying his presidency is a complete failure. I still keep an eye on the future through Janelle Monae’s latest adventures of Cindi Mayweather (The Electric Lady), but wait, is that Jay-Z rapping in an art gallery? Kanye’s Yeezus has genuine anger that is quickly re-appropriated to sell headphones or something. What happens to the rich when they have all of the things? The “Bound 2” video, your half-naked wife jiggling on a motorcycle in front of a green screen. I want to feel like Lean In is for me, but it’s clearly written for women with more social privilege. So I read Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and revisit Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. Striver flow while I search for full-time library jobs.
The thing about Beyonce’s eponymous album, which was technically released at the end of 2013, is the way it reflects how the Carter-Knowles and the Obamas are publicly holding it down for the black family. Both couples performed the bougie black cis script: They dated for a long time, then got married, then had kids. Then presumably had drunken sex on the kitchen floor. While this is not my personal script, I understand why some people cling to it and recite it like arithmetic. Meanwhile, Roxane Gay and both of her books owned 2014. There was space for women who look like me in Bad Feminist—we who snap our fingers to misogynistic songs but also read Audre Lorde—while my milk-filled breasts ached for the character she created in her fairytale nightmare An Untamed State. At the end of the year, there is only D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, his first album after a 14-year absence. It is a fully realized masterpiece. Every moan or scat meaningful, every snare hits perfectly on the one. I am drawn to “The Charade.” In the year of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Renisha Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, and Dontre Hamilton, the iconography of Selma, Ala., and the Edmund Pettis Bridge lingers in the lyrics. “All the dreamers sit down to the side of the road/which we will lay on,” and the melancholy bass line strums at my chest, plucking ache from the realization of false promises. We have been asking for some things for a very, very long time.
The year is half over, but there are two things that I think will be the ambient soundtrack in the waning days of Obama’s presidency: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which was released at the end of 2014 but won the National Book Critics’ Award for poetry this March. They both address this country’s legacy of racism from two different extremes. Rankine’s poetry details microaggressions from a spuriously safe academic perch while Kendrick gives the view from Compton for brothers on the other side of a cop’s or gang member’s gun. Racism gaslights us all. Rankine describes watching Serena Williams play tennis and how hypocritically she is judged for her reactions to racism in the sport. On Kendrick’s track “u” he cry raps in a mirror that loving u/him “is complicated.” I don’t know what’s going on in Obama’s head, but he looks 20 years older than he did eight years ago. People say he should get angry. Anger would have never gotten him into office. Last week, he finally got a Twitter account and a random user’s first words to him were “Welcome to Twitter nigger.” What can we do? What would everyone have us do? Survive? We been doing that.
We are weary. We are angry. We curl inward to find the single solitary things that give us peace. Lamar raps in one of my favorite songs on TPAB: “I’m fucked up/homie you fucked up/but if God’s got us/then we gon be alright.”
On Election Night, Obama gives a speech early in the evening, his last from the Oval Office. He is wearing a polo shirt, unbuttoned at the top and khakis. “My fellow Americans,” he starts, then pauses. He starts coughing, an extremely long fit, that the viewer realizes after a few minutes is laughter. He is laughing, heartily, occasionally punctuated by a real cough from the cigarettes he tried so hard to stop smoking. “My fellow Americans,” he tries again, and this time starts laughing so hard in the middle of it, he has to grip the podium. Twitter’s server is down, as no doubt millions of people just tried to log in at the same time to see what is happening. I can only gather from my phone that the hashtag is #ObamaWTF. At this point, Obama has fallen on the floor, tears streaming down his face. There is no move to cut to commercial. A hand cuts in from the left side of the frame. It’s Michelle. She is also laughing and holding her stomach. She helps him up and they are both trying to stifle giggles. Obama wipes tears from eyes and tries for a third time. “My fellow Americans,” he says, before bursting out with one more explosion of laughter, “BYE!” At this Michelle starts laughing again and clutching her stomach. They take each other’s hands and walk out of the frame, the camera following them out of the office. It’s the laughter, not of people who are not in their right mind, but the laughter of people who are free. The world’s best joke has just been told and the viewers are the only ones who don’t know. It is unloosed, unpoliced, unbothered. He is finally free.
Stacie Williams is a writer and archivist living in Lexington, KY.