As the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama has had to speak in different voices at different times; to lead multiple Americas, without ever speaking directly to this delicate balancing act. Zadie Smith addressed these pressures on Obama’s oratory in a lecture she delivered at the New York Public Library in December 2008. In “Speaking in Tongues,” Smith dissected how the newly anointed president “doesn’t just speak for his people. He can speak them.” At another point, Smith pointed out that “throughout his campaign Obama was careful always to say ‘we.’ He was noticeably wary of ‘I.’ By speaking so, he wasn’t simply avoiding a singularity he didn’t feel, he was also drawing us in with him.”
Yet “we” has taken on a new resonance under Obama. This is because when a black man took up the mantle of leadership of the most powerful nation on the planet, the world bore witness as he made an opening for millions of black Americans to imagine new possibilities and to re-shape our historically fraught sense of country, and of belonging.
At least, that’s how I see it. I was among the cohort of Millennials that came of voting age just in time to claim a sense of ownership in the 2008 election. I’ve also zigzagged between some two dozen countries for much of Obama’s tenure in the White House. I was initially skeptical of what images could do — of the ripple effects that a very public portrayal of a very powerful black family could have for black folks. But years abroad — of being treated first as an American — have made clear to me that images matter. I’m hardly saying that racism doesn’t exist abroad. Rather, my travels have convinced me of something else: One of Obama’s greatest feats has been making the color of American citizenship less white.
The first time I traveled abroad — at 19 years old, in the fall of 2009 — it was to spend a semester in Berlin, a uniquely fascinating city, always re-inventing itself without trying to bury its thorny history. The summer before I landed in the German capital, Obama, with all the swagger of a presidential hopeful, gave a speech to a crowd thousands deep at the symbolic Victory Column, shoring up his reputation as an international superstar.
“I come to Berlin as so many of my countrymen have come before. Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen — a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world,” he said, adding: “I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city. The journey that led me here is improbable.”
This powerful moment also offered an early example of a criticism that’s beleaguered his presidency: how at times he offers himself as proof of the American myth that anyone can be anything, without always acknowledging the inequities that keep this myth a myth.
Still, the world over, there was a rapturous sense of euphoria as Obama rode into office. This was palpable even in the subtlest, seemingly most unremarkable of ways. One of my favorite places in Berlin was a pan-African food joint in Prenzlauer Berg — once upon a time heralded as a gritty, trendy East German neighborhood, though in recent years shaken up by disputes over rapid gentrification. The first time I went to the restaurant and met the chefs from Ethiopia, Madagascar, and South Africa, I was leading a small army of my mostly white classmates on a tour of the area. As soon as we walked in, I was greeted with waves and an unironic cheer of, “Obama!” Did they believe I was Obama? I don’t think so. What struck me was that someone with my skin so quickly conjured up notions of American-ness.
When I went to Germany in 2012 on a Fulbright grant, I again attracted curiosity and something approaching the cachet of celebrity. “Are you the teacher from America?” my students asked me on the first day of school. I barely answered before they formed a line that snaked to the back of the classroom — they wanted my signature. Never before (or since) was my autograph such prized bounty.
Pride in Obama, particularly among black people and black nations, has generally persisted, despite the president’s not-infrequent scolding of the black community. For many black Americans, Obama has meant something more immediately personal: Perhaps we, too, can make moves toward believing in these principles of equality that have for so long been provisional to us not only in the U.S., but also throughout much of the rest of the world.
Jessica Wamala, from New Hampshire, whose work and scholarship have taken her from Britain to Palestine to China, puts it like this: “Whenever I’m abroad, people talk about how they love black skin, love Obama, love his people. I’m like a deity,” she says. “More than that, though, people have had a lot of faith in Obama, even if they don’t like his foreign policy regarding, for instance, drones or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” — actions that have harmed communities of color outside America’s borders.
Wamala admits that, because going abroad hasn’t always been a part of black diasporic history the way it is today, she still sometimes has to convince people of where she’s from.
“But with Obama in a position of power, black Americans are given the benefit of the doubt, given a reason to be noticed and afforded the same respect as Obama,” Wamala says.
Of course, even with a black president, ignorance and prejudice remain conspicuous daily features of black life, regardless of where you live. There was that despicable Chinese detergent advertisement earlier this year featuring the literal erasure of blackness. The question “Where are you from?” (and: “No, where are you really from?”) hasn’t totally gone away. Moreover, to talk about being black in the world is to acknowledge that black Americans enjoy certain privileges often withheld from black people who live in other countries.
Destenie Nock, from Maryland, studied in Northern Ireland, and she says what also matters is how Obama has amplified black Americans’ feelings of “closeness” to the U.S., even when separated by oceans — and especially when black lives seem so probationary.
“There’s a sense of ‘Why am I here and not rallying with my classmates and family back home?’ when you aren’t a part of something like the Black Lives Matter movement,” Nock says. “You’re missing out on something important. It’s like the second civil rights movement is happening and you can only comment on Facebook.”
This is a dilemma I know well. Having grown up in the deep South, it’s impossible for me to ignore America’s color-caste hierarchy — forged through racial slavery, sustained by Jim Crow discrimination, and still visible today in acts of race-based hate, such as the shooting of black churchgoers two hours from my home town in South Carolina. Seven-plus years of Obama haven’t extinguished the reality that to be black (or merely not white) in America is to endure a bruisingly slow national reckoning with a racist history.
Even so, having a black president — one who shares your skin, your hair, even something as deceptively inconsequential as your music — has meant being seen. Since Obama was catapulted to the nation’s highest seat, new generations of black Americans have been able to see themselves reflected in the national narrative. (Obama recently told the graduating class of Howard University, a historically black school, to be confident in their blackness and their heritage.) Whenever I speak with black Americans abroad, I hear that Obama’s presence in office has inspired a stronger sense of identification with our country — which is not to say we don’t recognize how fragile this progress may well be.
When she delivered “Speaking in Tongues,” Smith elaborated on Obama’s historical significance: “Black reality has diversified,” she said. “It’s black people who talk like me, and black people who talk like Lil Wayne. It’s black conservatives and black liberals, black sportsmen and black lawyers, black computer technicians and black ballet dancers and black truck drivers and black presidents.” To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Obama era hasn’t been perfect. But I’m glad my president has at least helped transform what it means to be an American, specifically a black American — if not (yet) inside our borders, then certainly beyond them.