Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece on Obama was interesting, in that it recognizes the central features of Obama's appeal--the desire to be 'twice as good,' the fact that being biracial gives him an 'acceptable' kind of blackness--but I do wish it had come down more decisively on one side or the other. On the one hand, yes, the picture of Obama with the little boy who wants to touch his hair is touching and powerful and affecting for all the reasons the interaction of children with adults they admire always are, and it contains a powerful message about that hair which has itself been the source of much anguish (one might add: as a symbol of racism writ small. But if cursory familiarity with the literature of race, as well as the literature of feminism, might indicate, the fact that hair style or appearance comes across as a trivial concern to a white male such as myself does not mean it does not exert a powerful influence on others, as a disqualification against which someone else has to struggle constantly before we even notice their larger concerns). On the other hand, Obama succeeds as a black man precisely because he is exceptional and therefore not stereotypically 'black.' Coates is a writer with much insight on these topics (his memoir is excellent), and it's a shame that he doesn't push farther: is the symbolism worth the compromise?
This puts me in mind of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, discussing the (not inaccurate) 60s prediction that a slow-and-steady course of rising consciousness meant a black man might be president in 40 years. Baldwin seems to have little interest in that kind of lack of imagination, in part because he sees the crucial question involved as this: would the hypothetical election of a black president mean that black people have finally achieved parity with whites? Or would it mean that white Americans had finally accepted and understood that they had been the ones imposing restrictions on black men in the first place? I.e. is the black man raised up, or are the white people? If it's the former, then it implicitly embraces the idea that, for whatever reason, the black man was inferior to begin with, and that the sign of his having 'made it' is being embraced by white America--once again, the people who caused the problem hold all the cards. It seems like this is the central question on which Coates' analysis rests and, to be honest, in thinking back to the rhetoric of 2008, I'm not sure which one is the better explanation. But the fact that the question must even be asked is troubling enough.