Both Ta-Nehisi Coates and former President Barack Obama are brilliant African American intellectuals whose words have tremendously influenced the American population’s discussion on race. Yet despite this inherent similarity between the two, Coates and Obama interpret the state of our “post-race” nation quite differently. Perhaps this difference is rooted in their target audience. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is written as a letter addressed to Coates’ son Somori. In this respect, Between the World and Me is an extremely positional and private piece of writing made public. Although Coates’ published the book, well aware that it would enter into the public sphere, he did not intend for the book to be a bestseller across a diverse group of readers. This is what initially separates Coates from Obama because whereas Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was written specifically for people of color, Obama speaks on behalf of the United States with the intent to resonate across all white, black, and brown audience members.
According to George Blaustein, author of The Obama Speeches, Obama’s speeches typically “give voice to all perspectives”, which is evidently expected of a national leader (10). Obama is the poster child of racial progress in America and he repeatedly “offer[s] himself as evidence of American progress” because having an African American in the White House reassures Americans (as well as foreign nations) that the United States is truly a great country founded on equal opportunity and freedom (12). Coates, on the other hand, doesn’t share this sense of optimism. In fact, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me will have you choking on the word hope because the lack of religious undertones (due to Coates’ atheist background) communicates an honest sense of urgency. Obama, like most presidents, publicly voices religious sentiments, but this is distinctly absent from Coates’ writing; there is no salvation in the afterlife to appease the oppression suffered by black bodies in this current life.
Faith, in addition to Obama’s claim that having “someone like me” in the White House, may shed light on slow but steady progress, but these ideas alone do not eliminate inequality from our current society. Coates does extremely well to exhibit this through the condition he faces as a black body subject to systematic racism within our country. Early on, Coates writes, “But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial injustice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (10). We do not get this vivid and hard-to-stomach reality when dealing with Obama, but can we blame him? I cannot discredit Obama’s sense of optimism as a way to reach a larger variety of audience members because what kind of president would he be if he honed in on one demographic more so than another or if he promoted the United States as a country in turmoil? He would be criticized indefinitely as an unequipped and un-American president. Obama’s leadership position came with immense responsibility, not only because he was the president, but because he was the first black president.
Consider the following quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ interview with Trevor Noah on the Daily Show.
Coates’ touches on this notion in Between the World and Me when he writes, “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say “accept half as much’” (90-91). Obama’s presidency changed history, and in order for Obama to be accepted, he had to set a remarkable example. There was no room for scandals, for ignorant slip-ups, not even the slightest hiccup would slide because that much more is at stake simply because Obama is not white. Ta-Nehisi Coates is not nearly as obligated to uphold this prominent image nor is he responsible for a nation made up of diverse individuals–individuals who differ in heritage, race, political and religious orientation, economic standing, etc. In this respect, Coates is more or less “free” to voice his story and not threaten the integrity of his country in a way that could be used against him. The distinction between Coates and Obama is evident, yet nevertheless, their impact on this volatile moment in history is still crucial and carrying the conversation on race ever more forward.