This guy is everything to everybody,” says a black man darting through crowds outside the campaign event in Pontiac, peddling a stack of Obama T-shirts for $10 each. “Love, my favorite color’s blue, and you’d look fine in it,” he hollers into a Cadillac, driven by a white woman with a ton of kids in the back. He keeps up a monologue, about his younger days with Stokely Carmichael, and the way that Obama has inspired him to get back in touch with a kid he fathered years ago. He talks into the window of the car: “See, Barack is the son of an African immigrant, which I like since I adopted me a country years back, but he’s a Harvard grad, with a white mom and white grandma.” The lady reaches onto the dash for her purse, and forks over the cash. “Black as this guy is,” he tells her, “he’s whiter than you!’ ”
One of Obama’s central arguments, and one he embodies, is that racial categories are obsolete. The inherent promise is that he’ll transcend identity politics, moving us into a post-p.c. era where one’s origins and orientations do not stand in for your beliefs—a time when even decolonized, self-actualized, bisexual Latinas won’t feel the need to constantly define themselves. But it’s not hard to discern race in the patterns of the Obama campaign. In July, about a third of Obama’s public events were speeches given in front of primarily minority or black audiences, with the exception of his overseas extravaganza. Yet nearly every night is taken up with fund-raisers, which primarily draw white donors. It’s a journey through class and race segregation in America, every day.
It’s much remarked upon that the rhetoric Obama has chosen for primarily black audiences—of discipline and personal responsibility—is edifying to different ears as well; his Father’s Day speech at a black church was a soft-sell Sister Souljah moment, announcing that the brothers are not going to get a pass just because he looks like them. But in person, at a primarily African-American town hall in Powder Springs, Georgia, he’s playful in these discussions, engaging in a kind of call-and-response between leader and flock. He lengthens his vowels, loses a bit of the midwestern accent, and if he doesn’t exactly break out into laughter, he grins easily. Obama is particularly comfortable in front of black audiences, who inspire him to be passionate and energetic. Watching him, I wondered if in this context he would use the N-word, if only to make a point. (Although Michelle would give him hell for it: “I don’t tolerate the use of that or any other disrespectful or denigrating term,” she tells me.)
Obama paces the stage. “Parents—you gotta turn off the television set and put away the video games,” he says, lifting an arm. “You gotta have a curfew!”
“That’s right,” bellows the crowd.
“And go to your parent-teacher meetings, and help your kids with their homework!”
“And if your kid gets in trouble at school, don’t blame it on the teacher. But at the same time, teachers got to behave!”
Afterward, the crowds mob him. One woman comes dashing out, holding her hand up. “I’m never going to wash my hand,” she yells. “I gotta get a plaster-of-Paris mold!”
Obama is almost a singularity in America, in that he understood his blackness—and its costs—intellectually before he felt it.
Here in Powder Springs, they know that Obama is one of them. But the unsettling part, the one that Jesse Jackson was trying to get to, is that Obama is also very much not like them. Up close, he has a lot of Harvard in him, too. He has a princely air, with a habit of keeping his chin positioned a little too high and sniffing the air repeatedly. He’s a waif, much thinner than one would expect, except for a pair of broad shoulders that pull at the ends of his gray suit jacket. On a rope line, Michelle is boisterous and playful—“You a real sister!” one woman tells her, holding her hand for too long—whereas Obama tends to zip through crowds, with no hand held for more than a couple seconds at a time (to be fair, his Secret Service detail is said to be large and twitchy, owing to concerns that harm may come to him because of the color of his skin). He’s got a great friend in his smile, but there’s nothing special about his eyes, and they are not looking for yours.
But black people realize that Obama is doing what every successful black man in America has to do: flip the script. “There’s a lot of people out there who want Obama to be all pro-black,” says Eric Dickerson, the former NFL running back, at Tao one evening for Michael Strahan’s golf charity event. “But we’re living in the United States, and this country is mainly white. You have to conform, you really do. I think he’s fine the way he is. He got both sides of the culture, like Tiger Woods. None of us can denounce one or the other—we have to have both. That’s just the society we live in.”