Families can be mysterious, intense and, more often than not, indecipherable to the outside world. Most families seem to endure similar gyrations and upheavals. There are moments of failure and success. There is admirable endurance. To study any individual family is to crisscross tricky terrain, and to invite an endless and almost timeless inquiry.
As Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama — the first family, along with grandma Marian Robinson — depart the White House, it is worth looking back at their visage. What did it mean to have a black family, for eight years, astride the political and cultural colossus of American society? How much did the “African” in “African American” resonate?
There perhaps is no other family unit in America that has been analyzed, poked and studied as much as the black family. Its habits, customs, rituals and odyssey have been tabulated, collated and stored for generations. The hyper-curiosity is rooted in slavery and the gouging, sweeping damage it wreaked upon a race of people.
After Emancipation, chroniclers with notebooks traveled far and wide to interview former slaves. They also began showing up after Reconstruction, that halcyon period after the Civil War when blacks were given access to the ballot box and saw the election of black politicians.
In 1936, under the aegis of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, a group of unemployed writers from the Federal Writers Project set out to interview former slaves. For two years, roaming mostly around the southern states, the writers collected more than 2,000 first-person narratives of those who had been held in bondage. The writers would often find themselves emotionally spent after the encounters. Conservative politicians railed against the program, eventually dooming it. But the narratives, now housed at the Library of Congress, endure as testament to what befell black families inside the borders of their own country.
Literature and cinema have also weighed in on the complexities of black family life. On college campuses today, the oral histories from the 1960s — when so much thundering above ground took place — remain quite popular.
The black family has always been fascinating and ripe for study.
But what of a black family that seemingly comes out of nowhere and glides into the White House, against all odds, to preside over a nation? Black families used to have to fight to get a seat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Then come Barack and Michelle Obama, president and first lady. What would the presence of this particular family mean to the nation? Given the history of America, what tropes and stereotypes might they upend about the black family?
“The images of this family have been so fortifying for African Americans,” says Emily Bernard, a University of Vermont professor and co-author of “Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs.” “We’ve been battling misrepresentation since our arrival into this country: the jezebels, the buffoon. We’ve been battling all that on a cultural front.” She goes on: “In 1951, W.E.B. Du Bois said we need to see positive images of ourselves, and to make a visual narrative for white America to demonstrate our integrity.”
Bernard believes the Obamas, as a black family, have accomplished something notable in the annals of White House living.
“You can’t fake how much joy they take in each other as a family,” she says. “Malia and Sasha have the burden to represent the race. And they’re exceptional and normal at the same time. The family is not scandalous. Those girls are delightfully ordinary.”
Like many, Bernard has been growing wistful about the Obama family departing the White House. “My grandmother said no way a black man could be president. She couldn’t see the potential,” Bernard recalls. “It’s truly amazing. A lot of people sacrificed so I could teach at the University of Vermont. For us with brown skin, we are descendants from that generation. The Obamas came from a place we all came from.”
Bernard has also noted the cultural flourishes the Obamas have brought to the White House, leaving her feeling that they did not forget their roots. “President Obama has maintained a soulfulness I don’t think we’ve seen in a modern presidency,” she says.
The America that bothered to notice got its first sustained visual glimpse of the black family — sitting together, in calm repose — by looking upon daguerreotypes published after the Civil War. They were photos of reunited black families, brought together before the camera lens to celebrate life and freedom in the era of Jubilee. The figures in the photos couldn’t help but look exhausted in their often ill-fitting clothes.
In the looming years, the struggle remained monumental. Segregation sat the black family on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, from community to community, for decades. Black newspapers, battling to stay alive, often bent their focus toward black dysfunction. Crime sold plenty of copies of the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, the New York Amsterdam News. The black family, beyond its own black-oriented publications — which rarely wound up in white households — seemed almost other-worldly.
It can seem daunting to set the Obama family outside the White House, to envision them being compared to mortals.
“I think the narrative of the Obama family may be,” says Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and director of its Center for Humanities, “that some people will look at them and say, ‘They’re the exception. They’re not the typical black family.’ The response to that by many black people will be, ‘Here is the black family to aspire to. Here is a black father contributing to his loving family.’ And still other blacks will say, ‘We know a lot of other black families like the Obamas. It’s just that people haven’t noticed them because they’ve been focusing on the dysfunctional part of black family life.”
That has been an issue for many decades — and one that black artists have worked to address. One of the more memorable looks at black family life in modern times took place on a Broadway stage in 1959. The play was “A Raisin in the Sun,” written by Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry was born in Chicago, where Michelle Obama was born and where Barack Obama began his political career.
The Hansberry drama was about a poor black Chicago family and how a $10,000 life insurance check would test the moral courage and steadfastness of various family members. Just before the play opened on Broadway in the spring of 1959, Hansberry wrote a letter to her mother. “Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are — and just as mixed up — but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks — people who are the very essence of human dignity.”
The president and first lady had a much-publicized “date night” in 2014, when they ventured to Broadway to see the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which starred, among others, Denzel Washington, Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose.
America is still struggling to embrace the “human dignity” of African Americans reflected in Hansberry’s play. Early says he believes that as the years roll forward, President Obama will be central to that. He believes Obama will assume the mantle — whether he wishes it for himself or not — of the premiere black father figure, replacing the scandal-tarred, fictional father played by Bill Cosby on his long-running TV show. “Obama will have that role even more now,” he says.
President Obama’s post-presidency plans are bountiful. A gifted writer, he will turn attention to his memoirs. There is the presidential library to attend to. But his prayed-for attention to black America will be robust, and a plea he is apt to answer quickly. His unprecedented 2015 visit to a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma struck a chord among black families, all too many of whom have been touched, in some way, by the criminal justice system.
Obama’s effort to explain to white America the heartbreak of black families when Trayvon Martin, black and unarmed, was shot and killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of all charges was palpable and searing. In a nation that has never had a candid conversation about race — unlike South Africa after apartheid, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission — he will find himself expected to play the role of shaman, poet, conciliator and statesman.
Many expect Michelle Obama to also play an active role in the discourse that relates to the nation’s well-being. She has been an advocate for women’s rights, healthy eating and civility.
In 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama rolled into Columbus, Ohio, to gauge his presidential prospects. He met Donna James, a business executive, and her husband, Larry James, a partner at a law firm that bears his name. They hosted a gathering for Obama. “He was just a normal, thoughtful human being,” recalls Donna James, whom Obama would later appoint chairman of the National Women’s Business Council. James watched Obama and his family lay their impress upon the White House. She says she was struck by the couple’s decision to bring Marian Robinson, Michelle’s mother, to the White House with them.
“It was out of this sense of family,” James says. “It’s out of black culture. Latino people do the same thing. It was a loving family thing to do, and also very smart.”
There is little doubt that the Obamas represented a boon to the spread of blackness out into mainstream American society. Some wonder whether this hid a sea of white resentment, giving way to the racially charged campaign and election of Donald Trump.
Hollywood has not been known as an inclusive laboratory for black-oriented films. But with the Obamas in the White House, there was a noticeable uptick in cinematic diversity. Films such as “The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Selma” and, most recently, “Southside With You,” about Barack Obama’s courtship of Michelle Robinson, all elicited a conversational line pointing back to the White House and its occupants.
“One level of the positive reverberations and interest in black history is because of Michelle and her kids,” says Peniel Joseph, a historian and professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “For elites — artists — Obama was the best thing that ever happened. You found a lot more people interested in black life.”
Joseph says the complexity of President Obama’s family background — white American mother, black Kenyan father — was something that was easily digestible to many blacks. “Blacks know people with Africans in their family,” he offers. “And black folks just loved the way Michelle looked. In their mind, someone like Obama [a Harvard Law School grad] often married white women.”
Obama not only married a black woman, but married one proud of her black heritage; Joseph feels that invigorated discussions about black family life. Although the Obamas hosted a variety of musical events at the White House — country, blues, rock — it did not go unnoticed by blacks that the pride seemed to swell with a kind of warm cultural magic when the likes of Al Green, Smokey Robinson and Esperanza Spalding were in the White House. After all, there was a time when black minstrel acts were the only black entertainment seen inside the White House.
“Because of Michelle’s family,” adds Joseph, “you see how family structure is quintessential to understanding the black family: There is slavery, freedom, the Great Migration, and out of all that, you somehow carve a space in America to have kids and are able to make a way for those kids to make it to Princeton.”
Michelle Obama is a Princeton graduate.
Joseph also says the mere presence of the Obama family on the national stage keeps manifesting itself in a nation’s dialogue. “Bill O’Reilly said that slaves were well fed, as if he had dined out with slaves,” says Joseph, referring to the TV commentator. Joseph feels such raw commentary — seen as offensive to many across the racial landscape — was loosed because of the presence of Obama. “Many people made a secret covenant that with Obama elected, institutional racism was over. Instead, by electing the first black president, we all got deeper into the narrative of racism and slavery. In a lot of ways, certain white people feel betrayed by Obama because they felt once he was elected, Obama wouldn’t have to talk about race. But we’re seeing more examples of late, like Georgetown University coming to grips with slavery.”
The university recently announced it would find ways to aid the descendants of the 272 slaves it once sold to keep the school afloat. The school also announced other measures, such as a slavery exhibit and a memorial to those slaves linked to the school.
If, at times, the everyday presence of a black American family in the nation’s mind-set has seemed to unleash forces both good and not so good, there are some things that will resonate and be spoken of for generations to come: A black father as president walked his girls hand-in-hand across the lawn of the most powerful address in the world. A black mother gazed at that tableau and took herself back to the stories of beaten-down slaves who once tilled the White House lawns where her husband and daughters loped — and she then became fearless in letting the world know the gritty dreamlike magic of such a scene. And a black grandmother — Lorraine Hansberry’s “Mama” all through these eight long history- defying years — looked out from her own White House window upon it all. A woman who stayed silent to the world, her presence an echo back over the years of America and the black family.
Haygood is a journalist, professor and author known for his 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” about Eugene Allen. The movie “The Butler” was based on his story.