There is a longstanding and baleful account of black life in America that Breaking Brown has spent virtually its entire existence trying to counterbalance and undo. One that attributes certain deficiencies in the black community—the blighted neighborhoods, the elevated rates of criminality; the supposed listlessness and miserable poverty of its members—to basic and immutable facts of those individuals’ personal habits and choices. One that maintains if only African-Americans simply made better decisions, they would be able to transcend their situation.
Breaking Brown proceeds from a fully developed critique of this expedient catch-all of black life in America. And like much of the worst prevailing anti-black ideology that the project aims to deracinate from society at large, that crude synopsis has found many of its most ardent supporters within the black community itself. What Breaking Brown is attempting to demonstrate is that in fact these aspects of black life can no more be considered essential to the character of the people than a fever can be regarded as having developed independent of some deeper infection; that this febrile state of the black community is more appropriately viewed as epiphenomenal of a racialized capitalism that—with this latest tax reform—has now fully hit its stride in its ability to heap unmitigated punishment upon its victims. Breaking Brown has, in short, worked very hard to unburden African-American Descendants of Slaves of the lie that they themselves are largely responsible for their condition.
Of this harmful set of ideas, there has been perhaps no more prominent spokesperson and influential messenger than Barack Obama. In so many ways Obama emerges from exactly this primordial brine-sludge of anti-black beliefs, a fact which is nowhere else more apparent than in his delivering of the commencement speech to Morehouse College’s class of 2013, wherein he tells a lawn teeming with rain-soaked, African-American graduates seated on folding chairs that, in effect, it’s tough shit they are black in a country which, from its very inception, has been systematically and by design hostile to their people’s advancement.
Obama’s was a presidency which, from the first, was conceived more as a divine event, similar to the kind of thing that W.E.B. Du Bois—then writing in 1903 and reflecting back on what the promise of emancipation meant to black people—had said about how the enslaved envisioned their eventual freedom as that which would contain “the end of all doubt and disappointment.” And even as the hallowed figure of Obama evinced a patently hollow interest in—and at times cold contempt of—the community with which he claimed affinity, he continued to be regarded as the very fulfillment of salvation and progress which Du Bois had, a century earlier, described a putatively freed black society in desperate search of; and which, then like now, was made to elude them. And so if there’s one area in which Breaking Brown in fact does hold many African-Americans fully accountable for some of their continued disadvantage, it is in exactly this: their unflinching support of Barack Obama. A man who despite all his symbolism of the distance they’d come from the noose, was himself—because it was only ever symbolism to begin with and nothing more—an albatross worn willingly around the necks in the black community.
If there is any indication of the amount of work that Breaking Brown has cut out for itself with respect to elucidating the community on the dangerous longing for the country’s first African-American president, there is no more obvious example than the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates and its consistently earning a slot in the Top-Seller lists. Virtually every article or essay by Coates provides occasion to journey through the writer’s nakedly uncritical recollection of the Obama years, a modus operandi which—in response to the much more primitive and traditional form of white supremacy that’s been embraced by Obama’s successor—has become particularly pitched as of late. And, judging by the title of Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, the writer shows fully zero interest in transitioning from a body of work that is basically an ahistorical lament over one man, to a deeper engagement with certain realities that directly contradict the idea that the Obama presidency in some way constituted a period of social and economic advancement for black people in this country.
Breaking Brown‘s occupancy in this particular critical space is a necessary antidote to how Ta-Nehisi Coates and other members of the black intellectual class all appear singularly incapable of producing any critique of American racial politics that does not ultimately aim to absolve, or at the very least, excuse Barack Obama from his role in contributing to the eroding quality of black life in the United States and the insidious notion that, in order to overcome those circumstances, African-Americans themselves must only tap into the supposed virtue of self-reliance.
One need only consider the extremely mild and qualified and ‘well on the one hand’ censure by Coates of Obama’s Morehouse speech: “I would not suggest that it is in his power to singlehandedly repair history. But I would say that, in his role as American president, it is wrong for him to hand wave at history;” or, “Perhaps [African-Americans] cannot practically receive targeted policy. But surely they have earned something more than targeted scorn,” to the unequivocal and venerating language he uses in the very same article to articulate his personal feelings about the man himself: “I think the stature of the Obama family—the most visible black family in American history—is a great blow in the war against racism. I am filled with pride whenever I see them: There is simply no other way to say that. I think Barack Obama, specifically, is a remarkable human being—wise, self-aware, genuinely curious and patient. It takes a man of particular vision to know, as Obama did, that the country really was ready to send an African American to the White House.”
Of that same speech, Yvette Carnell had this to say, an excoriation which absolutely deserves to be quoted in full:
“I watched this man say something in front of black kids he would never say in front of white kids. He would never go into Stanford—into Harvard—and tell them what they don’t deserve and what they’re not entitled to, especially since what they’re going through is a systemic failure. When we look at all those numbers [of black poverty, incarceration rates, eviction], you don’t get numbers that big with an individual failure. Those numbers get to be that big because of a systemic failure. And Barack Obama wanted to be the black daddy of black men. That’s not your role. That was never his role. His role was political. You are the president of the United States. And what you did when you showed up to Morehouse is tell a lot of black men, who achieved beyond the odds to get a college education, you told them what the government wasn’t gonna do instead of what the government was gonna do to make sure that [they’re] treated fairly. What is the government gonna do to make sure that you can get a job as a Morehouse grad. We see that black people who go to school and get a degree don’t even have the same odds as a white person who didn’t get a degree. Instead of telling me, Mr. Obama, what you not gonna do, how about you tell me what you are gonna do so that we’re treated fairly by employers? Instead of telling me what you not gonna do or not gonna see in terms of excuses, why don’t you commend me for how I got here against the odds to be standing here in the rain at a college. Why don’t you do that? Know why he can’t do that? Because he’s not anchored in our history.”
Breaking Brown exhibits no such fragility or sensitivity to emotion in negotiating the enduring legacy of Barack Obama. Moreover, it heard clear and pure the plaintive echoing of the cry for progress described by Du Bois having rung persistently up to, and throughout, these last eight years. It is the emotional connection to Obama, Breaking Brown argues, that mutes and warps that imperative. And the project understands the severance of that connection is necessary for realistic and purposeful reckoning to occur if the African-American community is ever to move beyond contentment with symbols of progress and attain meaningful, material improvement. For this, Yvette Carnell is often accused of being depressing. But maybe if there’s one thing that all these hot takes of the Obama years penned by writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates need more than anything right away, it’s a wet blanket of truth.