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July 20, 2013

In passionate speech, Obama bares his black self

Something in President Barack Obama’s voice caught Gregory C. Ellison’s ear. It was fleeting, subtle, and easy to miss — unless you’re a black man, too.

“In between his personal reflections on what it feels like to be an African-American man, and the history of pain and his strategic plan, there was what I call a very pregnant pause,” says Ellison, a theology professor in Atlanta.

“If I ever have an opportunity to talk to President Obama, I would ask him what was he searching in his soul during that pregnant pause?”

Obama was wrapped in presidential authority Friday as he talked to a nation rubbed emotionally raw in the week since the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was acquitted in a Florida courtroom.

Then, in a move hardly anyone saw coming, Obama unwrapped himself, and put his own young, black face on Martin’s dead, young, black body.

This first black president, the guy accused by some of running from his blackness, of trying to address black folks’ needs on the down low, suddenly lifted the veil off his black male identity and showed it to the world. It was something no American president before him could have done.

He had to do it, Obama said, because “Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.”

And also because America needs to understand why so many of her citizens are in pain about Martin’s death, and why black citizens, especially, are having a hard time looking at this as anything other than the latest manifestation of what Obama called “a history that doesn’t go away.”

All over the United States, millions of black men could painfully identify with what Obama said as he spoke about what he called their shared reality. Of being followed in department stores. Of hearing the “click” of car door locks as they walk by. Of women holding their purses close while standing next to them in elevators. Of police — or anybody, really — believing them to be criminals without knowing what’s truly inside their heads or their hearts.

“That includes me,” Obama said.

Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, thanked Obama for identifying with their son in such a personal way, and encouraging them as they work to turn their grief into a public “conduit” for racial healing.

“This is a beautiful tribute to our boy,” they said.

Greg Carr, chairman of the Afro-American Studies department at Howard University in Washington, said the president “has an authenticity, because he does signal to the black community that he too has experienced what we experienced.”

At the same time, Carr said, Obama danced with risk, daring to speculate on whether Martin, too, could have claimed self-defense under Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which was often cited as grounds for George Zimmerman to fire the shot that killed the unarmed teenager in February 2012.

Obama asked the nation to search its soul about this. He invoked his “convening power” as president to bring people together to sort out ways to help young black men “feel that they’re a full part of this society.” He made clear he doesn’t want a national dialogue on race that is steered by politicians because “I haven’t seen that be particularly productive.”

“I thought it was very wise of him,” said Sterling Speirn, president and CEO of the Kellogg Foundation, one of 26 private philanthropies that agreed in April to work together on addressing the needs of young men of color.

“You can’t just come out and pass laws and have a new initiative. ... It’s not an abstract issue anymore, and perhaps this is the best way the president can lead the way,” he said.

Obama’s candor came just before “Justice for Trayvon” vigils and rallies scheduled Saturday in 100 cities. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, organizer of the demonstrations, said the fact that Obama weighed in about stand-your-ground laws, the focus of those demonstrations, will help “set a tone for both direct action, and needed dialogue,” while the Justice Department considers whether to pursue civil rights violations in Martin’s death.

White House aides said the president had quietly digested the public’s reactions, especially those of African-Americans, since a six-member jury acquitted Zimmerman last Saturday. He had conversations with his family and friends, both inside and outside the White House.

He told senior advisers Thursday that he felt it was important for the country to hear from him on the subject in a broad yet much more personal context, beyond the statement he issued shortly after the verdict.

When he appeared in the White House briefing room Friday afternoon, he had no prepared text, no teleprompter. All he seemed to rely upon was his skin and the experiences he’s had inside it.

Ellison, an assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said what Obama laid out was what it feels like to be “cut dead,” a 19th century slang term meaning to be snubbed on purpose, or completely ignored.

This is where Ellison’s head was as he listened to Obama’s speech, and felt that the president appeared to check himself midway through — something black men tend to do, Ellison said, when they find themselves heading into an emotional place on racial matters. In that moment, Ellison sensed, Obama’s black man sensibilities may have led him to think, “I am the president of the free world, I can’t go there.”  

“Something happened in that pause,” Ellison said. “And how many African-American men have to take that pause on a daily basis, you know?”

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