In “My President Was Black” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Before Obama triumphed in 2008, the most-famous depictions of black success tended to be entertainers or athletes. But Obama had shown that it was ‘possible to be smart and cool at the same damn time’….Against the specter of black pathology, against the narrow images of welfare moms and deadbeat dads, his time in the White House had been an eight-year showcase of a healthy and successful black family….He became a symbol of black people’s everyday, extraordinary Americanness.”
I was fourteen when Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president of the United States. I wasn’t politically engaged enough to follow every step up to Election Day, but I’d been Black in America for long enough to internalize the weight of that moment. He had reached the unreachable — and then he did it again. I knew Obama was Black and I knew he had made history, but I never once thought how much Obama’s accession to the acme of American power could mean to me as an African in America.
I’ve sometimes felt that my Africanness is invisible here. Growing up, I ate fufu made by my mother, who, after 25 years of living in America, has yet to lose her Nigerian accent; at home I would hear her switch tongues seamlessly when speaking with relatives over the phone. I am Nigerian American. My Africanness is a part of the story of my Blackness, just as it is for the former president, who once wrote that his experience “encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of a larger African story,” and who identified as African American throughout his time in the public eye. Obama’s identity — his Africanness, his Americanness, his Blackness, and his whiteness — appeared as fluid to the public as it did to himself.
It is a story apart, however, from that of Michelle Obama, whose roots on Chicago’s South Side, her family’s establishment in the Baptist church there, are markers of Blackness familiar to most Americans.
While it is inarguable that as president Obama stood as a symbol of progress for African Americans, his Kenyan heritage often goes unspoken. Coates’s sentiment leaves that difference out. American society’s tendency is not to distinguish between ethnicity, nationality, and class in the modern Black diaspora. The abandonment of self for the benefit of fully experiencing America’s benefits in Coates’s rendering in fact also applies to non-African-American Blacks navigating Blackness in America. Assimilation and abandonment run a parallel course, for all of us.
All identities are ongoing reactions of history and culture, environment and experience, rather than a finished product, and Obama’s is no different. In Dreams From My Father, Obama writes that not having his Kenyan father as a constant figure in his life forced an interior struggle to pin down an identity in that absence: “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.” Obama’s identity was buoyed by the history and culture of the only Black people around him. His white mother helped him to embrace being Black, but nurtured him with her idea of Blackness — or rather, introduced him to the limits of what the rest of America considered to be Black. She would school her son with recordings of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches (and recordings of Mahalia Jackson): a sole focus on the history and culture of African Americans, not Africans, not Kenyans, not the Luo, his father’s ethnic group.
Ultimately, one could say — as one could for many members of the diaspora — that Obama adopted American Blackness. He switches from English to Ebonics, freely. His affinity for basketball is as organic as his relationship with hip-hop, which he witnessed firsthand as a twentysomething in NYC during the early Eighties, grew old with, and welcomed into the White House with open arms. He’ll croon Al Green at the podium and serenade Michelle — whose dark-skinned visage figures as a direct assault to the light-washed and whitewashed images of women we see who stand beside Black men in power — with reverence and adoration.
He has directly addressed this creation process as a means of drawing himself closer to the country’s Black communities. In Dreams, he wrote, “I can’t even hold up my experience as being somehow representative of the black American experience…indeed, [I’ve had to learn] to accept that particular truth — that I can embrace my black brothers and sisters, whether in this country or in Africa, and affirm a common destiny without pretending to speak to, or for, all our various struggles.”
In fact, Obama’s African identity wouldn’t flourish until later in life, when he visited Kenya for the first time, in 1988, and developed a close relationship with his half-sister, Auma Obama. She was the conduit for the inauguration of the Kenyan part of his identity, teaching him words in their native Dholuo language, guiding him through Kenya, introducing him to his long-lost ancestry. She held up the mirror that reflected his past and helped him define an integral part of himself.
I feel the same comfort, belonging, and “firmness of identity” Obama recalled feeling on that maiden trip to Kenya when I speak to other Nigerians who know how to pronounce my name — who are able to recognize my Esan and Igbo ethnic mix immediately after hearing “Ivie” and “Okechukwu Ani.” Who understand why I refuse to shake hands, accept food, or hold money with my left hand. Who can exchange petty jollof critiques. Who can understand that my Americanness hasn’t erased my Africanness.
To recognize the inadvertent cultural hegemony in the narration of the Black identity in America is not a slight to African Americans — the people who built this country from the ground up but are denied the fruits of their labor, who paved the paths Black immigrants are now able to tread, who give us visibility here by virtue of being the prime image of Blackness — but rather a clarion call for a national acknowledgment of the other Blackness.
Like Obama said, loving America “requires the occasional disruption,” and what’s ringing louder now is another voice in the narrative that speaks for an expansive and expanding Black Diaspora. We exist to acknowledge the differences between African Americans and Africans without the separatism that mutes the dialogue of recognizing, respecting, and sharing our cultural differences — not to further balkanize our peoples, but to bring us to a common ground where we can step outside the white gaze that reduces Blackness to a monolith. Ours is a “hybrid culture,” to use Obama’s words, one that both he and African Americans have to affirm.