President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk the inaugural parade route in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

On Monday, “CBS This Morning” will air a longer interview between Gayle King and former first lady Michelle Obama. In a portion already released, Obama discussed the statement that she and former President Barack Obama issued after Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd.

As Michelle Obama put it, “We can’t sort of say, ‘Great, that happened. Let’s move on.’ ” She continued:

I know that people in the Black community don’t feel that way because many of us still live in fear, as we go to the grocery store or worry about walking our dogs or allowing our children to get a license.

As I often say, this is a constant fear of Black people and Black parents — that assumptions are made in seconds, that when they pull a gun, you can’t pull a resume. In the moment of fear and violence, your individuality is meaningless. When you’re at the wrong end of a gun barrel, you can’t achieve your way out of that moment.

But there is something more important and natural happening in the lives of the Obamas out of office, beyond Donald Trump and in an era in which racial justice is a pressing part of the national conversation: They have been liberated in their Blackness. They’re now able to discuss racism with a candour and frankness that their time in the White House in many ways prohibited.

In The Hill, Niall Stanage wrote an article published Saturday with the headline “The Memo: The Obamas Unbound, on Race.” They were at one time bound because they were Black, but also because they were first.

We celebrate firsts, as we should, I suppose. They reassure us of the notion of relentless American progress, to which we have become accustomed. Although they are often also a reminder of how long people have been prohibited or denied.

Those firsts carry with their honour a burden: the weight of representing the race. They are not free to simply rise or fall on their own merit, and they bear the weight of the whole race.

Everything projected onto Black people is projected onto them — every bias and every stereotype, every assumption and every hatred.

They are simultaneously blazing a trail and entering the crucible.

The Obamas were chastened often on the subject of race, from the time Obama began his run for the presidency. This resulted in a skittishness on the subject.

When the Obamas shared an innocent fist bump during the 2008 campaign, E.D. Hill, the host of Fox News’ “America’s Pulse,” teased a segment about the gesture this way:

A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab? The gesture everyone seems to interpret differently. We’ll show you some interesting body communication and find out what it really says.

In 2011, as a regular citizen, Trump suggested that Obama, a Black man, couldn’t have written his first book, “Dreams From My Father,” because of its quality. He believed it must have been written by Bill Ayers, a white man. As Trump put it:

Bill Ayers was a supergenius. And a lot of people have said he wrote the book. Well, recently, as you know, last week Bill Ayers came out and said he did write the book. Barack Obama wouldn’t be president — and, you know, I wrote many bestsellers and also No. 1 bestsellers, including “The Art of the Deal.” I know something about writing. And I want to tell you, the guy that wrote the first book didn’t write the second book.

In 2013, after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Obama said:

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.

But in the political sense, he was Martin: under suspicion from first glance, suspected of nefarious intent, stalked and descended upon by the self-appointed guardians of the space.

Later that year, Obama was pictured with his feet on the desk in the Oval Office, which sent his critics into convulsions.

This, for me, recalled an iconic scene from “Birth of a Nation,” the racist film that sparked the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, in which newly elected Black state legislators are caricatured as uncivilised by, among other things, putting their feet on desks.

All of this, I believe, had a chilling effect on the Obamas’ expressed positions on race. Now that that period has passed, they are eager to be heard on the issue of racial justice.

But as timing would have it, the Biden administration, including its Department of Justice, is now being lauded, rightfully, for forthrightly and explicitly confronting and condemning racism. It has been a whiplash-inducing reversal from four years of a white nationalist presidency.

However, any comparison between Biden and the Obamas on race is fraught: America would still rather applaud the white saviour of the Black and pitied than applaud the Black and powerful seen as interested in their own liberation.

The Obamas are now freer to just be Black people, Black parents and Black citizens, and as such, they are just as upset, angry and unsettled as the rest of us.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

 

Charles M Blowis a New York Times Op-Ed columnist. He writes about politics, public opinion and social justice.

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