In “My President Was Black,” The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates examined Barack Obama’s tenure in office, and his legacy. The story was built, in part, around a series of conversations he had with the president. This is a transcript of the third of those four encounters, which took place on October 28, 2016, aboard Air Force One. You can find the other interviews, as well as responses to the story and to these conversations, here.
Ta-Nehisi 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.
Barack Obama: Right.
Coates: I wonder how you came to think of yourself as black and why.
Obama: 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.