In Zimbabwe, when the TV turned on at 6pm and the newscaster read the news, they spoke of President Robert Mugabe. Blackness in the highest echelons of political office only became a myth when I returned to Britain. Since childhood, I have understood that seeing a black person as the leader of a country in the western world could only be realised in America. Wanna know even as a child I knew? The movies. Yes. Don’t laugh. Movies have long prophesied the coming of what would be. There have obviously been British Prime Ministers in film but they weren’t the films I was watching as a child and they definitely weren’t black.
The Fifth Element is one of the most important films I have seen. Looking back I can now see how it helped instil feminist values in me from a young age. Written and directed by Luc Besson, The Fifth Element in my opinion was a prequel to Mad Max : Fury Road, in that people thought they were going to see a film about Bruce Willis saving the world but it was the powerful, strong, womanly Mia Jovovich who was in fact the protagonist, in the same vein Mad Max is not about Tom Hardy at all, but about Charlize Theron. I digress. In The Fifth Element Tom Lister Jr plays President Lindberg commander in chief of the federated territories of planet earth. I liked this image at time but it wasn’t on my radar, I was too busy focusing all my energy on understanding Jovovich’s character. I wanted to be like her.
A year later came Deep Impact directed by Mimi Leder and starring a young Frodo Baggins and Morgan Freeman. The film was unfortunately overshadowed by Armageddon, the Michael Bay directed film about the exact same subject; meteor on its way to destroy earth, astronauts go to destroy meteor but Bay’s film starred Michael Clark Duncan, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler and had a theme tune sung by Aerosmith. The glitz and glam of Armageddon did little to win me over because Deep Impact had a black president. Keep your Jerry Bruckheimer production, your Steve Buschemi performances, Deep Impact had an authoritative, powerful, awe-inspiring black president. Without meaning to, Deep Impact told me to hold on, that soon and very soon there would be a capable black man in the White House.
Black comedians often entertained the idea of a black president in the white house. My earliest memories of the notion was Chris Tucker on Def Jam Comedy. Cedric The Entertainer tackled it in Original Kings of Comedy but it was in Richard Pryor’s The Richard Pryor Show in 1977, Chris Rock’s 2003 Head of State and Dave Chappelle’s Black Bush in a 2004 episode of The Chapelle Show we moved away from a myopic understanding of what a black president would be. Pryor, Rock and Chapelle’s imaginings of blackness in the White House were nuanced and while still rooted and relatable to African Americans and Africans spread across the diaspora they were smart, political and funny.
In 2008, Barack Obama won against Mitt Romney to become the President Elect of the United States. I followed the race intensely, I read his books, I had my t-shirt and while I couldn’t vote, I wanted everyone to know that I had a new president. Both here in Britain and there in the US, the people had become disenfranchised with politics. Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush had been embroiled in a scandal that revealed the initial reason we went to war; weapons of mass destruction, was in fact a falsehood. Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 compounded their nation’s battle fatigue and distrust in politicians. But then there was a sound, it started as a whisper and became the battle cry of the democrats and liberals across the globe, three simple words; Yes We Can! It was powerful, it was succinct, sharp and uniting. The Obama campaign did what few had a chance to do before him; utilise the internet as a campaign tool. And it worked. On January 20th 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America bringing to life what Mimi Leder’s film had only 10 years previous had prophesied. A capable, authoritative, powerful, awe-inspiring black man was POTUS, the Commander-In-Chief and was living in the White House with his black family.
Visually, the Obama Presidency was more beautiful than anyone could have imagined because Barack Obama was married to Michelle Obama, a beautiful black woman, with whom he had two beautiful black daughters Sasha and Malia. In Pryor’s Black President bit in 1977 when asked if he’d stop courting white women now that he was in office, he proclaimed that he would continue dating white women as often as he could “keep it up. Why you think they call it the White House?” Here in 2009 we see President Obama going against the Kanye West adage “when he get on, he leave your ass for a white girl.” His wife of 23 years is a black woman. And not only is she a black woman, she’s a dark skinned black woman. Dark skinned black women have long been seen as the most undesirable women in society. I have receipts. In 2011 Dr Kanazawa Satoshi published an academic paper entitled "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?”
But here the most powerful man in the world is married Michelle Obama, Princeton and Harvard Law Graduate. And she is stunning, she is intelligent, she dresses better than Olivia Pope and Jacqui O combined. Everything that Obama does and will do forevermore will be analysed as a political statement, but for me the biggest political statement he made was the love between he and FLOTUS. Michelle Obama is the living embodiment of the key element that all the examples I have given of blackness in the White House was missing. Black womanhood.
Michelle Obama has had her blackness used as a tool to insight fear in white Americans by both right and left leaning media outlets. On the 21st of July 2008, nearly a month after Barack Obama had secured the Democratic nomination for the presidency, The New Yorker ran a front cover portraying him as a Muslim and Michelle Obama as a terrorist with an American flag burning in the fire. The New Yorker said that the cover was “a response to scare tactics about Mr Obama’s faith: however that was not the only thing that the article highlighted. It also pin-pointed mainstream America’s feelings towards Mrs Obama, according to The New Yorker’s satirist Barry Blitt. She is portrayed on the cover, not only as a terrorist, but dressed to resemble a member of the Black Panther Party wearing an afro and in the possession of an AK 47 Assault Rifle. In the cartoon, it is the afro which is most troublesome with regards to the discourse of Michelle Obama’s body and the black woman on a whole.
The Obama Administration like all administrations is not perfect, is fallible and has made misteps along the way. Throughout his presidency, I have seen Republicans and Democrats alike treat him unlike any president before him, from Senator Jan Brewer wagging her finger in his Obama’s face as if he is not the Leader of the Free World and the Democrat’s distancing themselves from Obama in 2014 and losing the bi-election . There is a certain level of deference shown to presidents, whether you agree with their policies or not. As ill-equipped as George Bush was, I never saw anyone treat him with such blatant disrespect as they have Obama. In the case of Jan Brewer, can you imagine her pointing her finger in Former President Bush or even Former President Clinton’s face that way? Nope, neither can I.
I will miss the Obamas and the image of them in the White House. While their roles as FLOTUS and POTUS did not equal the end of racism but heralded the coming of a new season in race relations, both in the US and here in Britain. We had to talk about race, we couldn’t ignore it. The President and First Lady of the United States of America are both highly educated black people and they meant that black people and non black people of colour could truly see themselves anywhere, doing anything. We had the real life thing, not some incomplete rendering, but a reality more visually glorious than even the greatest film could capture on celluloid. The feeling that Virginia McLaurin has when she first sees Michelle and Barack for the first time in the video above is the feeling that I get every time I see them. Overwhelming joy and happiness. I lament both the idea of a Hillary Clinton Presidency and a Donald Trump Presidency. I will wait in earnest for the day Deray takes office POTUS, that will be the next time blackness in the White House will reduce me to tears and inspire me in equal measure.