Prolific writer Ta-Nehisi Coates published a riveting cover story in The Atlantic on Tuesday that explores his relationship with President Barack Obama and the significance of a black commander-in-chief.
Coates’ powerful piece, which is aptly titled “My President Was Black,” reflects on interactions, discussions and moments he has shared with Obama over the years. The essay is accompanied by a powerful animated video featuring audio of Obama evaluating the role race has played in his life, on his road to and during the presidency.
As heard in the video (above) Obama reflected on his early thoughts about the chances of winning in 2008. He told Coates that he initially believed he only had a 20-25 percent chance of winning but said he never became skeptical or worried about not gaining support among white voters. This was, he argued, partly because he is biracial and was raised mostly by white family members, which he said gave him a unique view on race.
“What I never doubted was my ability to get white support,” he said. “There is no doubt that as a mixed child, a child of an African and a white woman, who was very close to white grandparents who came from Kansas, that the working assumption that white people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity or judge me on the basis of merit is less embedded in my psyche than it is with say Michelle.”
“Even as an adult, if I walked into a room and it’s a bunch of white farmers, trade unionists, I’m not walking in thinking man I gotta show them that I’m normal,” he added. “I walk in there with a set of assumptions like these folks look just like my grandparents… and so I may be disarming them by just assuming that we’re OK. And if anything, my concern had more to do with… I’m really young.”
Obama, who was 47 when he assumed office, also talked about his experiences living and spending time abroad, which, he said, played a part in his assessment of race in America as “one example of a broader human problem, rather than something that was unique and I was trapped in.”
Yet Obama admitted that his relationship with race has been influenced by legendary black leaders who have provided valuable lessons that have helped him determine how to govern a country ripe with racial issues.
“I’m coming of age at a time where you’ve have the strength and defiance of a Malcolm [X] or a [Muhammad] Ali, and you’ve also got the soulfulness and the moral strength of a [Dr. Martin Luther] King... you’re saying to yourself I can draw from those traditions,” he said. “There may be times to be angry and defiant and there may be times when you got to give the country and to give white people the benefit of the doubt.”