Interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates: I'm going to put out a perception I've always had of you, and if I'm wrong you can riff off it. You being born in Hawaii, and the ancestry that you've had, and beyond that you having a cosmopolitan experience very early on living elsewhere—this is a blunt way to say it, but it occurs to me you had an opportunity to just check out. I never perceived myself as having much choice about being black, and I've always wondered why you've made the choice. And I don't know if you perceived it as a choice—maybe you felt the same way, like you didn't have one. But it seemed like you could have been anybody. You could have been one of these rootless cosmopolitans working on some other issues.
The President. Right.
Coates: I wonder how you came to think of yourself as black and why.
The President. Well, part of my understanding of race is that it's more of a social construct than a biological reality. And in that sense, if you are perceived as African American, then you're African American. Now, you can—that can mean a whole lot of things. And one of the things I cured myself of fairly early on, and I think the African American community has moved away from, is this notion that there's one way to be black. And so you are right that I could have been an African American who worked for an international organization and was not engaged in the day-to-day struggles, politically or culturally, that the African American community faces. There are a lot of African Americans who may make those decisions, and they're still African American, but they're just living their lives in a different way.
I think for me, first and foremost, I always felt as if being black was cool. That it was not something to run away from, but something to embrace. Why that is, I think, is complicated. Part of it is, I think, that my mother thought black folks were cool, and if your mother loves you and is praising you—and says you look good, are smart—as you are, then you don't kind of think in terms of "How can I avoid this?" You feel pretty good about it. By the time I was cognizant of race, American culture had gone through enough changes that as a child, I wasn't just receiving constant negative messages about being black. It is true that I did not have the role models that Malia and Sasha have, but I could look at a Dr. J, or a Marvin Gaye, or a Thurgood Marshall and feel as if the embrace of African American culture was not going to hold me back but rather propel me forward, that it was exciting to be part of a group that had struggles but also had a huge potential.
I think it was not until I was in high school that I started seeing complications around it, and I started to think about it explicitly. I wrote about this in my first book, but even when I started perceiving discrimination, or racism, or just the disadvantages of being a minority, that felt more like a challenge than something to fear. I think probably the final element of this is, when I moved to the mainland, that was the first time where I confronted what at that time, and to some degree to this day, was the segregation of communities. And I did have to make, I think, a conscious choice to root myself physically and professionally in the African American community. And, again, this is something I've written about. I never wanted to be somebody who looked like I was avoiding who I saw in the mirror. I never thought that it would be a healthy thing. And disconnected from race, and more connected to the nature of me growing up, I didn't like the idea of being rootless.
Coates: You didn't like the idea of being rootless.
The President. Michelle and I always joke—but it's not really a joke, I think it's an insight—that, in some ways, we saw in each other elements that we hadn't had growing up. In Michelle I saw roots. I saw a nuclear family, neighborhood, community, continuity. In me she saw adventure, cosmopolitanism. And so the fact that I had not grown up with a stable family, that I hadn't grown up with a father in the house or a community of which I was a part on a continuing basis—I had great friends, I had loving family members, but I didn't have a place—that, I think, warned me off of the kind of life you described of just floating around and enjoying life but never being fully invested in it. That element, I think, is not simply a racial decision. You can imagine me as an Irishman deciding to want to live in a neighborhood with some Irish folks and embracing that side of myself.
Coates: That's interesting. As somebody who began to travel relatively later, I had this moment when I was at this town in Switzerland and had to switch trains to get to a larger town. And I had started my life and thought in that moment I could get on a train and go anywhere. Nobody would know me. I'm free.
The President. It's liberating but it's also—that can get old. In some ways I saw that in my mother, as somebody who had lived an expatriate life. She loved Indonesia—really found meaningful work there, made great friends—but at the end of the day didn't have a place that was solidly hers. And I think there were elements of that I saw as a kid as being lonely or a loss. There are always trade-offs in life.
Coates: Right. You know, certainly not the majority of the African American community, but certainly a privileged few of us are now raising children who are growing up—I'm thinking of my own son—with all these different experiences—
The President. And options.
Coates: And options.
The President. They're unconstrained.
Coates: Unconstrained. Is that need for home still there? Is that still important in the same way?
The President. I think it is. It's interesting watching Malia and Sasha, who have obviously lived in as strange and unreal an environment as any kids do. They feel very strongly about their African American roots. They don't feel that they have to choose. And that, I think, is a great gift to bequeath them, where they know they've got a home, they know they've got a base, they know who they are. But they don't think that in any way constrains them. And certainly they are not burdened by the sorts of doubts that previous generations—and even our generation—might have felt in what it means to be black. They think being black and being free are not contradictory. It's interesting, when we went to visit the museum, Smithsonian [National Museum of African American History and Culture], just watching them soak it in. And they're well-informed young people, so they knew most of the history, and I forget which one of them just said, "I can't wait to bring my friends here." And I think she was not just referring to African American friends but her white friends. She said, "Because face it, our stuff's cool." We've got Michael Jordan, Beyonc?, Dr. King. What you got?
So there's a confidence that they project, which doesn't mean they're not mindful that there're still struggles. You hear them talking about what black women have to go through with hair and they'll go on a long rant—just the inconvenience and expense that they still feel is forced upon them, not just by the white community but the black community. They'll still notice a certain obliviousness of even their best friends on certain issues. But they don't feel trapped by that. They don't feel as if that's determinative of their possibilities. And I think they would say that the upsides really outweigh the downsides. They really like who we are. They like the community.
Coates: Do you recall the first time you were aware of folks saying, "Barack, you're not really black"?
The President. You know, it's interesting. When I look back—and I kept journals during this time, I was really in my own head—but from the age of, say, 18 to 25, when I first moved from Hawaii and I'm living in L.A. and New York and ultimately Chicago, what strikes me is less the lack of acceptance and more just my own self-consciousness. That one of the wonderful things, I believe, about the African American community is the degree to which we embrace whoever it is that we're with. So, socially, I never experienced being rebuffed. The friends I made in my first year in college who were African American, there was never that "You're not black enough. You're from Hawaii. Your mom is white." There just wasn't any of that. There were times where you'd feel it in terms of friendships and groups, right? Because you went to Howard, you're in an all-black environment, that doesn't come up.
I think I felt some tensions around: You've got your white friends, or you've got black friends, and they don't necessarily hang together in the same ways. So you're kind of doing shuttle diplomacy sometimes. Which is why I think some of my closest friends during those early years in college were Pakistani, or French, or people who themselves didn't neatly fit in categories. But by the time I get to Chicago—and I'm still a young man at that point, I'm 25 years old—and I'm in the middle of the South Side of Chicago, there was a degree of familiarity, and love, and comfort that I guess in retrospect you might be puzzled by it. But it just fit.
Now, there were times as an organizer, and certainly when I ran for office, where that stuff got brought in tactically or strategically by folks who I was dealing with. So you got some pastor, some alderman, who didn't like what we were trying to do, who says, "You know what? That guy, he's got Jewish backing," or "He's working with this Catholic church," or "He's from Hawaii." When I ran against Bobby Rush: "He's got that Harvard degree, and he's from Hyde Park." And so those themes would arise. But I always experienced those as just tactics being deployed by somebody who was pushing back on something I was trying to do.
Coates: Were you hurt, though? Personally hurt? Did it bother you on any level?
The President. Again, it didn't. Because of the experiences I had had in the neighborhoods, and communities, and with regular folks. Because that's not how regular black folks think. They're not sort of measuring on a day-to-day basis, "Okay, is what you're doing a white thing, or is it a black thing?" Folks weren't doing stuff like that. And in fact, among working-class black folks, you doing things that weren't typical oftentimes was a source of pride. So I remember my first job out of college was working for this business magazine—subscription magazine—and I was the only African American there who wasn't a delivery man or some tech-support guy. Most of the African Americans in the office were secretaries and, you know, they were proud that I was walking in there and working. So I think that gave me a base and a sense of confidence. So if somebody was playing a game later on, I know that "Well, they're not speaking for, quote-unquote, 'the authentic black experiences,' because I live with folks who are at least as authentic as you". Sometimes it's like these rappers who grew up in the suburbs and suddenly they're all—
The President. Gangsta. It's like, "Come on, man, I know you. I know who you are. Don't pretend."
Coates: I talked to quite a few people who knew you after that Bobby Rush race, and there were people who—Valerie [Jarrett] told me this—did not want you to run for the Senate. How personally—maybe you weren't, I don't know, maybe this doesn't get to you—were you personally injured after that? Was it just like, "Oh my God, I don't know if I can"—
The President. No. I was upset about losing as bad as I did in that congressional race, and there's no doubt it shook my confidence. But it wasn't because of race. I remember campaigning in the congressional race, and it was a shoestring operation. I'd go meet people and I'd knock on doors and stuff, and some of the grandmothers who were the folks I'd been organizing and working with doing community stuff, they weren't parroting back some notion of "You're too Harvard," or "You're too Hyde Park," or what have you. They'd say, "You're a wonderful young man, you're going to do great things. You just have to be patient." So I didn't feel the loss as a rejection by black people. I felt the loss as "politics anywhere is tough." Politics in Chicago is especially tough. And being able to break through in the African American community is difficult because of the enormous loyalty that people feel towards anybody who has been around a while. Look at Marion Barry in D.C.—or you can come up with all kinds of stories. Generally, we are pretty loyal voters.
And so I think that the loss made me question my career choice not because of racial issues, but rather because it made me question whether, in fact, there was a path for me to be able to break through and have a platform to get the kind of things done that I wanted to get done. Or was I destined to just slog away in the state legislature until I'm 55, and then some congressional race comes up, and now I'm a backbencher in Congress—and is that how I wanted to spend the next 20 years? So those were the kinds of questions that I was asking myself.
Coates: One of the things you've done, that you do very, very successfully—one thing I don't think I've seen anybody really do—is speak about your roots, your ancestry, your family, and speak about your blackness without a sense of rejection of any of it: "I'm an African American and my grandfather was this and my mother was this," and you'd be very clear about it. Is that a story you always told yourself? Did you decide, "I have to figure out something and"—
The President. No. By the time I was running for office, I think, I was sort of formed. That stretch that I described—maybe you want to stretch it out from the age of 18 to 27, when I go to law school—I was wrestling with myself and trying to game this out, and to figure this out, and it wasn't a smooth passage. When I look back at journal entries, when I read biographies of me that talk about that stretch, I'm full of confusion and turmoil and doubts. The degree to which my organizing work in Chicago, I think, solved a puzzle for me, I can't overstate.
And I've said this before: I didn't set the world on fire when I was doing that work. We had some small victories, and a whole lot of failures. The people I worked with and the communities I was serving gave so much more to me than I think I gave to them. It's hard to think how I could repay them. I still think about them in the Oval Office. It was a great gift they gave me, understanding who I was, or at least who I aspired to be. So that by the time I'm off to law school, I'm pretty formed at that point.
Coates: What was it that it gave you? What is the relationship between that and sorting out who you were? What happens there?
The President. For me, and this may be different for other people, part of becoming an adult is linking your personal ambitions and striving to something bigger. And when I started doing that work, my story merges with a larger story. That happens naturally for a John Lewis. That happens more naturally for you. It was less obvious to me. "How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit?" And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community], and specifically the South Side community, and low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal.
So I'm in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community. And I can fit the African American struggle for freedom and justice in the context of the universal aspiration for freedom and justice.
Which is why I've always said, and I continue to believe that, the struggle for racial equality in America has been the essential catalyst for America's growth and development. As painful as it is, as ugly as that history has often been, as hard as it's been on black folks themselves, it's the driver of the expanded moral commitment. And it continues. And because of it, we better understand other struggles. It helps stretch our moral imaginations to embrace the Latino farmworker, or the LGBT kid who is feeling ostracized, or the woman who is hitting the glass ceiling. So the work helped me form an integrated vision of the world and my place in it in a way that would not have happened if I had been a professor reading about it or writing about it, but they would just be intellectual exercises.
Coates: Did your mother ever get to see you working in Chicago?
The President. She never went along with me. She was doing her own thing. When we visited it was typically in Hawaii. That stretch of time when I was organizing was a particularly busy time for her. So she always expressed pride about the work, and interestingly, it wasn't all that different from some of the work she was doing. She was out in poor villages trying to help people leverage microloans into a better life. Probably the moment where things most intersected in a way that she sees it is at our wedding, which is why I end the book at the wedding. Because I've got some South Side folks there, I've got my boys from Hawaii there, I've got Pakistani friends there, I've got my Kenyan family there. And to see my mom talking to my mother-in-law, or my Kenyan sister; to have some folks from Altgeld come up to my mother and say, "You should be so proud of your son"; to see my grandmother, a little old Kansas white lady, interacting with some of Michelle's older relatives, little old black ladies, and they basically had the same tastes and attitudes—it was, I think, a moment where, in a very personal way, everything I talked about was made manifest. We still have the old video from our wedding, and when I watch it, it reminds me of how lucky I've been.
Coates: How difficult was it, thinking about that, when you had to sever your relationship with Reverend Wright during the campaign?
The President. It was hard. Reverend Wright was an embodiment of so many positive trends that I saw in the black Church: strong, somebody who embraced learning, somebody who was socially conscious and taught black folks to respect themselves and the culture. He's somebody who was sophisticated enough to be pro-black without being antiwhite. The church itself was an amazing, and continues to be an amazing, institution. And he was a friend, somebody who I was very fond of. And there was and continues to be a translation problem between somebody like Reverend Wright and the larger society.
In a way that's true, I think, for all subcultures that are not part of the majority culture. There are things that are said in the barber shop, the beauty salon, or folks are just talking stuff, and there's a certain tolerance for exaggerations, for saying things for effect, for smack talking, that are complicated. They're not always meant literally as much as they are expressing emotions or making a point.
As I said in my speech in Philadelphia, the blind spots that he possessed are the blind spots that that generation of African American men at some moments all have possessed, it would be impossible not to possess. He grew up—he was 15 years older than me—if you're coming of age in the late '40s, early '50s, early '60s, or the '70s in Philadelphia, or Alabama, or Oakland, or Baltimore, it would be superhuman not to have some vestiges of anger, not to have internalized some conspiracy theorizing, to not have blind spots. I may have said this to you in the interview that we had, but I was rewatching Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Did I say that to you?
The President. It just happened to be on a few weeks ago, and I was watching it. It was just a reminder: As crazy as Elijah Muhammad's philosophies were, if you went through what Malcolm Little goes through—
Coates: It all makes sense.
The President. There's a plausibility to those theories as a way of you just explaining what is happening to you. And so Reverend Wright is part of that transition from a black community, in which its men and its women are trapped in a vicious social construction, to an environment that you and I grew up in, in which suddenly there's openings and spaces are cleared, in part because of the work that they did, in part because of the struggles, and fights, and the sharp edges, and the elbows, and mistakes—but ultimately victories and triumphs—of our parents and our grandparents.
To try to explain all that in a sound bite is impossible. To expect the broader American society to absorb that in the course of a political campaign was not possible. I did my best in my speech in Philadelphia. But recall that I'm not severing the relationship until the Press Club interview in which Reverend Wright, I think feeling hurt, feeling misunderstood, showing his age, doubled down in ways that actually I had not seen out of him in church or in my previous interactions.
Coates: From the outside, it looked like you didn't want to sever the relationship.
The President. No. My hope was, after the Philadelphia speech, which wasn't clear to me was going to work and involved some risk, my hope was that that would contextualize what had happened. And look, the fact was that some of the quotes that he had that I hadn't heard—frankly, I wasn't in church every Sunday—were things I would have to reject, they were just wrong. The same way that, even after his trip to Mecca, Malcolm would still be saying some stuff that I said, "Well, that's just not right." So that saddened me. And anybody who has sat in Trinity, as I wrote about—his father is the amazing pastor who actually gave me the idea for the Joshua speech that I made the first time I went to Selma—anybody who has gone to Trinity and sat there would say it's a magnificent community that Reverend Wright built, and it's doing a lot of good.
But this is always one of the challenges of politics: It can never capture all the complexity and contradictions in life. So you end up having to try to be true in a way that can be consumed for a mass audience, but you're always missing some elements of it. You're always leaving some things out.
And that's part of the reason why race is such a difficult thing to deal with in politics, because the evolution of racial identity, racial relationships, institutional racism, is never similar. The trajectory, I believe, has been positive. But anything you say on the topic of race, there's a counterargument, there's an exception, there's a nuance. There's a, "Wait, hold on a minute, how about that?" And that's part of the reason why, I think, it creates frustration. It's also why it's easy to demagogue. It's also why situations that look ambiguous can lead to people dividing into camps very quickly.
We think of the two episodes of me running for president, or being president, that on their face, should not have been as charged as they were. The first is when I say at the end of a long day, towards the end of a long campaign, that part of the reason that you had a lot of working-class whites supporting a Republican agenda that on its face doesn't seem to be serving their interest is because they've given up hope that the system is going to look out for them. They feel it's rigged. So their attitude is that, "If you're not going to help me get a job, if you're not going do anything concrete for me, then at least I'm going to cling onto my religion and my Second Amendment rights".
And I said that not from an unsympathetic perspective. I was saying something that every writer now who's writing about Trump voters is saying: that these communities feel ignored, and so it's much easier for them to think in terms of those constants in their identity. But just by saying, "They cling to their guns and Bibles" made it, as David Axelrod said right after I said it, anthropological, made it sound patronizing, and to this day is the primary proof point that is used to argue that I am not sympathetic towards those communities, that I'm sort of this elitist, coastal liberal, and in part responsible for the backlash to my presidency. And if I had been a white person saying the exact same thing, it wouldn't have played the same way. If I had said it the way I meant it or felt it, it would have been absorbed differently. But because there was a racial component to it, immediately it becomes a permanent talking point.
And then you've got Skip Gates being arrested, which, to me, I was saying something pretty obvious. They ended up handcuffing this middle-aged, elderly man on his own porch. No matter how much he cursed you out, you overreacted, and it probably would not have happened had there not been some assumptions about who he was based on his race. Again, immediately folks ignored the discussion.
So this is part of the reason why when I hear people say we need a dialogue about race, or we need commissions on race, or this or that, I'm always somewhat skeptical, because trying to engineer those kinds of conversations on a national level in a way that could actually capture reality is very hard. What can happen, I think, is for us to act in ways that show mutual regard, propose policies that safeguard against obvious discrimination, extend ourselves in our personal lives and in our political lives in ways that lead us to see the other person as a human worthy of respect. It's what we do more than what we say, I ultimately think, that saves us. All right?
Coates: All right.
The President. You got a lot, man. You should be able to write something.
Barack Obama, Interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/331715