In reading the essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, it’s good to begin with awareness of who he is. Coates is often compared to James Baldwin, the writer from the 1960s we studied earlier. Coates is an avid fan of history with a sharp focus on racism in modern American life. For years he has published influential essays and books about his own experience growing up in Baltimore, what it is like to raise an African-American son in an era of police shootings, and how the long history of racism has shaped contemporary life and public policy in ways that people often overlook. Coates recently testified before the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of a measure that would lead to the payment of reparations to African Americans (for slavery, but also, as he stresses, for more recent abuses such as Jim Crow, lynching, and redlining (residential and banking discrimination). He has also recently begun publishing fiction.
In this essay, Coates is writing a very personal story of his connection to President Obama, but he frames it in a larger history. He discusses the anti-Obama rhetoric that was such a distinctive part of the early years of Obama’s presidency, and he suggests that Obama underestimated the extent of the racism in American politics because Obama is an optimist, and a man shaped by a unique and fortunate biography. When you read the essay, look especially for Coates’s description of the anti-Obama sentiment, Obama’s response to it, and what factors seem to have motivated people in 2016 to support a Republican candidate who had once questioned Obama’s legal status as an American.
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