In the pilot episode of ABC’s Black-ish, the main character’s son Jack deadpans that a black president is “the only president I’ve ever known.” The line embedded hard for its zing and its #facts. A moment that seemed unimaginable to so many generations has birthed a new generation for whom a black president is a very real norm; it’s the standard, and what comes next will be the deviation. The younger generations have already accepted this norm, though they are constantly asked to dwell on the enormity of it by those of us who had long thought it impossible. But what comes next? Where do we progress from these two perspectives?
The release of the president’s annual summer playlist was no big thing, especially coming not long after his announcement that June would be “African-American Music Appreciation Month.” For a man who has definitely won favor for his taste in music (though people generally assume black people have good taste in music), the latest summer playlist contains mostly radio jams, songs that your dad likes as opposed to cutting-edge selections. It’s to be expected—the man is 55—but there’s no denying that the guy who casually invites rappers and ball players to hang in the House Built By Slaves has a connection to the most influential genre of music in this country today, and his playlist spoke to that. He may be an old black man but he’s the only president ever who could be an extended uncle to Blue Ivy Carter. He is a black man and hip-hop is the story of black American experience; Barack Obama is living the most impossible black American experience. It is hip-hop that he exists.
Despite how we feel about him as president and/or how he represented us in our many times of need, we’ve all born witness to his history-making tenure—but we, black people, share an even deeper context. From this shared context, this special history and knowledge, came the dominant political movements of our time. We saw something we’d been led to believe would require an actual miracle and rather than remain in awe, we jumped to action. Damn the devil and call him by his true name, the Obama era brought a new day where the tongue is hardly ever bitten. Those who were quick to label this period in American history “post-racial” found themselves swallowing the term, as the world is as cognizant of race as ever. We were not satisfied by America’s little miracle—we are now demanding what is deserved.
Still, too many young kids, that someone can be black and be president feels less than monumental because they don’t remember when it wasn’t true. We, however, are the millennial generation, and we remember house phones and Nexus (not the Android program, bro!). We remember a time before we could read hundreds of people’s thoughts per day, when the juiciest tea came in the form of notes passed in class and saved AOL chats. We have the charmed, pre-Internet nostalgia of our parents’ (and Michelle and Barack Obama’s) complacent and integrated generation, but we float on the wave with these new kids.We don’t get to define their context, and they don’t get to dismiss ours. We can’t align with our parents’ either. It’s the nature of these things—of time and change and progress. Our politics reject much of what our elders prescribe, i.e. respectability, but we still have space to understand why they believe what they do.
When President Obama came into office, we did not fall at his feet as we had joked we would, nor did he smoke blunts on camera or flood our pockets with reparations. He floundered and fell short many times when we needed him to speak to and for us directly. He repeated the same stale shit old people repeat—reminding that we are our brother’s keeper and equivocating the fear those who kill us experience with the fear we experience at being hunted. However, he is still one of us, and we could not dismiss his comments as ignorance. To us, Obama’s greatest legacy will be representation. He was an image and a voice that reminded us we are not doing this to win one victory, we are doing this to be liberated, for the freedom of self. We were forced to face ourselves and to decide who we wanted to be, what truths were going to be held real for us. This is truly the most invaluable part of this presidency: the ability to have a portion of the narrative to ourselves. We tweeted about that benign playlist all day because it reminded us that our president has a little soul.
In both the Daytime and Nighttime sections of the playlist there are songs that feel like the head nod in the hallway, but none more so than Jay Z’s “So Ambitious.” The first black president of the United States listening to a song where Pharrell croons, “The motivation for me is them tellin’ me what I could not be…oh well!” A song where the world’s most successful rapper to date outlines those who did not believe in him in petty formation. It’s enough to bring you to tears, no matter your political stance; however, it serves even better as a reminder of our collective power. Obama’s biggest gift to us is not just being black and being president of a country that continually rejects, suppresses, and murders us. He is the reminder that the black experience is exactly that: our experience in all its possibility—it’s not the stereotypes, interpretations, or appropriations thereof. We don’t have to be placated by one achievement just because we’ve always been told it could never happen.
For eight years, someone in that shitpile spoke our language. Someone with an edge up, who wore a durag, with a black wife with two Ivy league degrees who rolls her eyes and dunks on LeBron. Who listens to D’Angelo’s “Lady” with her and does that little two-step that reminds you of other cool older black couples you’ve seen do it. Someone who knows that “So Ambitious” plays very well out of open car windows in summer.
Whoever comes next won’t come close and those who do the work know this. But we should not gloss over the fact that, despite what changed between when we cried at his election night and when we grunt at the polls this November, we saw it. It happened. What happens next is anybody’s guess, but we’re not going back.