Last night at the New York Public Library, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, interviewed David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, regarding Remnick’s new book, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. The discussion was, of course, brilliant, but also surprisingly broad in the scope of its relevance, given the singularity of the man in question.
The amount of media attention recently paid President Obama’s selection of “black” on his US Census form corroborates Remnick’s (not exactly novel) suggestion that race is not only inherited but chosen and, in the case of our President, actively cultivated—calloused beneath constant accusations of inauthenticity.
This is as true now as it was back in 2000, when Obama had “his ass handed to him” (to borrow Remnick’s phrase) in his congressional bid against incumbent (and former Black Panther leader) Bobby Rush. Remnick says of his interview with Rush for The Bridge, “Rush slowly ambled out of his chair and kind of did a very sinuous walk across his office and said, ‘you know, Barack Obama, you see him now walk like this. He didn’t walk like that back then’…which I thought was a pretty suspect way to challenge, yet again, years later, Barack Obama’s racial bonafides.”
What Remnick argues is so remarkable about Obama, at least in one sense, is the speed at which he learned to walk the walk of a certain kind of blackness—the kind that he did not inherit in Kansas, or Hawaii, or Cambridge. In a way, it reminded me of hearing an utterly brilliant and eloquent editor at Knopf (incidentally, the publisher of The Bridge) confess that there are times when even she suffers from the imposter complex—that fear of being “found out” as an “other” when one so clearly is not. And on that note, Remnick issued a certain imperative to all in the fraught industry of publishing, stating that the only way to thrive is to do what we already do, but more so.
And strangely, this is exactly what Obama has done, and it is one of the many qualities that make him an exceptional politician: he understands his currency and has found a way to make it “more so.” This is not only in terms of identifying and claiming his roots (indeed, Remnick and Coates both noted the self-conscious insertion of Dreams from My Father into the African American canon), but also in speaking the “language of the possible,” rather than that of the prophet. The latter more appropriately belongs to “the giants” upon whose shoulders Obama claimed to stand on the occasion of his election. Read Remnick’s 2008 New Yorker article on the subject here.
So, in this industry where our currency is the privilege to entertain, inform, and (if we’re lucky) astonish, it is our responsibility to use the technology at hand in the pursuit of doing it better. It is pertinent here to give a shout-out to Josh Koppel, co-founder of ScrollMotion, whose breathtaking presentation at Random House in February demonstrated exactly the exhilarating potential of “more so.”