For Lorenzo: Image in the Age of Obama
In November 2008, I stood in Grant Park with thousands of my closest friends, waiting for the next President of the United States to take the stage. I was restless and tired and my mind was, I confess, on other things. My phone vibrated and I looked at a message from my then-18 year old nephew, Lorenzo. It said: “Auntie Leah, this is so great! Now I believe I can do anything.” That caught my attention and stopped me in my tracks.
Ours is a family of community activists and faith leaders. In fact, my sister, Dawnique, and I are the fifth consecutive generation of pastors in the Daughtry family. My dad, Herbert Daughtry, counts founding Chairman of the National Black United Front among his many community endeavors. Though our family isn’t wealthy — we’ve had our fair share of struggles – we are rich in faith, family, and community. And when Lorenzo came along, we made all kinds of sacrifices to ensure that he would have every advantage that we could manage to give him. So we exposed him to other cultures through overseas travel, we took him to fancy restaurants so he would know how to order from a menu and use the right fork, we took him to all types of cultural and artistic events, and made sure he met all kinds of people, big names and little names — all so that he would feel empowered and confident of his place in the world.
But as good a job as we thought we’d done, it wasn’t until the election of Barack Obama that my brilliant, talented, wonderfully capable nephew FELT and KNEW for himself that he could do and be anything.
We can (and probably will) debate Obama’s policies and politics from now until the next Black president. And that’s a worthy debate – there are no perfect presidents with perfect politics or perfect policies. Just as in life, good comes with bad and bad comes with good. But really, the most important thing about Barack Obama and his presidency isn’t the policies – as much as I love Obamacare – or the politics. Rather, his enduring and most important legacy is simply his presence –that he was there in that House in that Office holding that title, President of the United States. Commander in Chief. Leader of the Free World. Barack Obama. A black man. He was there and he was that and we all witnessed it.
Image is a powerful thing. So is symbolism. Especially in a country where people of African ancestry are daily dismissed, demeaned, and diminished in ways large and small, overt and covert. For the world – and especially our children — to see the military snap to attention and salute when Obama walked past them, or to hear the band strike up “Hail to the Chief” when he entered a room, or to see everyone automatically rise from their seats upon his arrival, or to see him get off Air Force One with wife and daughters in tow, gave us some powerful lessons:
Lesson 1: We belong. As a matter of place. As in: we belong everywhere. We. Belong. Everywhere. There is no place that is not our place. And that includes our culture, our food, our music, our artists, our artistry, our way … all the ways and all the shades of being Black belong in this place, right where we are, wherever we are.
We belong. As a matter of membership. As in: this country is as much mine as it is yours. As in, there is no aspect or privilege of citizenry that is closed to us. Barack Obama behind the Oval Office desk was a reminder that all doors are open and all ceilings can be cracked – not easily, and not with full acceptance from every corner – but still possible, and now visible, nonetheless.
Lesson 2: We lead. Organizations, corporations, and nations. Leading is part of our statement of capabilities. Whether through tough economic crises like the auto crisis or through tense military missions like the capture of Bin Laden, whether through joyful moments like greeting returning troops or sorrowful sojourns like the Charleston massacre, and even when dealing with enemy combatants like the U.S. Congress, Obama gave us – and especially our children – an example of leadership.
Lesson 3: We love. Was there ever a better, more fulfilling picture of Black love and Black family than that of the Obamas in the White House. One picture of them walking hand-in- across the White House lawn was life and love affirming. And the way Michelle and Barack looked each other in both formal and unguarded moments had us all tweeting about #relationshipgoals. There was no better antidote to the trope of the missing black father, the black welfare mother, and the black teen parent than Barack, Michelle, Sasha, and Malia. And let’s not forget Grandma, Mrs. Robinson – always Mrs. Robinson, not to be known or called by any other name — who gave up her life and moved to Washington to protect, support, and “see about” her family.
Translated to the culture, these lessons of belonging, leading, and loving found voice outside of The White House. It seems that the Age of Obama opened mind and heart space for Ava Duvernay, Viola Davis, Lee Daniels, Hidden Figures and Fences (better known as Hidden Fences) AT THE SAME TIME, and not a Tyler Perry movie in sight. Atlanta and Insecure and blackish all airing AT THE SAME TIME and garnering Golden Globe nominations. And now, a Top Chef season devoted to South Carolina culture, and highlighting the hidden-in-plain-sight culinary genius of the Gullah culture, old line BBQ pitmasters, and master chef Edna Lewis – and we’re only four episodes in! Then there are the writers (Charles Blow, Jonathan Capehart, Ta-Nehisi Coates) and bloggers (Awesomely Luvvie, and VSB (Very Smart Brothas)), suddenly popular, after years of striving. Websites For Harriet, Urban Cusp, blackgirlnerds. Activists like Black Lives Matter, Black & Engaged, Kevin Powell, Reverend Michael McBride, Color of Change, Rahiel Tasfermariam, William Barber.
And, of course, Hamilton. Which deserves its own paragraph.
These all existed and were doing the work, many before Obama came on the scene. But his presence on the world stage opened wider the doors of our minds and spirits for their voices – even those voices that disagreed with him – to be acknowledged and heard.
Discussion of the power of Obama as image is incomplete without a word about Michelle. The First Lady. Forever FLOTUS. Michelle of I do NOT wear hosiery. I WILL wear my arms out. I will balance career and family. I will say I need help. I will eat my vegetables and get you to eat yours. I will be serious, effective, well-spoken, and I will get my point across and you will know I say what I mean and I mean what I say, even though I don’t ascribe to your stereotypical stylings of Black women with rolling necks and hands on hips. I will challenge your presumptions and assumptions, and you, and you, and you, you’re gonna love me! And we do. Because she is us and we are her. Because she is what we aspire to be. Because she is who we have been and who we are now.
Because of Barack and Michelle, we see ourselves. We see ourselves in boardrooms and Oval Offices. We see ourselves in charge. We see ourselves as leaders. We see ourselves in successful relationships. We see ourselves as excellent, multi-tasking parents. We see ourselves tough and sweet. We see ourselves loving ourselves and others. We see ourselves as the best. We see ourselves being, doing, saying, speaking, leading everywhere. And not in the “this is the kind of behavior and speech acceptable to white folks” way, but in a “this is the kind of behavior and speech acceptable to MYSELF” way. The way that demands and requires excellence without compartmentalization, because Barack showed us that compartmentalization is no longer required in order to lead. What IS required is being all of who you are, proudly, boldly, and authentically in a way that honors yourself and your people, while recognizing time and place.
Barack exemplified that. The way he walked with that distinctive black-man-swagger, no matter whether it was getting off Marine One, or walking down the White House portico to greet another Head of State. Whether he was delivering a State of the Union Address or a sermon at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Or when he was hosting musical events at the White House – BET at the White House?!?! Absolutely! And why not? I attended one event where the artists included Ariana Grande, Lyle Lovett, and Aretha Franklin – all of whom, Obama stated, were on his personal playlist. It wasn’t an R&B event, or a country event, or a pop event. It was an Obama event, and no other President could have pulled it off with such aplomb and ease that absolutely no one questioned why it happened and absolutely everyone wondered why it hadn’t happened before.
To be clear, this imagery of Barack and Michelle, of the President and the First Lady, was important not just for us in the African American community. No, it was as important, as sorely needed, for those in other communities as well. Whether they knew it or not, THEY needed to see Barack and Michelle as President and First Lady, being strong and beautiful, being leaders and lovers, being “normal” to help themselves disabuse themselves of the idea – conscious and unconscious – that Black people are somehow, some way, the “other.”
A few years ago, I traveled to Africa with President Clinton to take a look at some of the Clinton Foundation’s work there. After a whirlwind few days, we were in our sixth and final country, South Africa. On the field of City Year, I chatted with a young boy named Diego. He said to me: “they say the President is here.” Yes, I said, he’s right there. Diego looked in the direction I was pointing. “Where? I don’t see him.” Right there, I said, the man with the white hair. And Diego eyes got big and he said: “You mean a white man can be president?”
I reflected on that later that day and in the weeks that followed. In his young life, Diego had only ever known Black Presidents – in his country (Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki) and in ours (Barack Obama). In his young mind and in his experience, it was a given, a fact that the presidency was a place for black men. That it could be any other way was a thought he’d never entertained.
I’m grateful that my two youngest nephews, now 9 and 12, grew up in the Age of Obama. Their view of the presidency is marked by the example he set. More importantly, their foundational understanding of what is possible for their lives as Black men has been shaped by their dad and their grandfathers, of course, and also by seeing and hearing, every single day, the images of Barack Hussein Obama, President of The United States.
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