Putting together a list of the “blackest” things our (sadly) outgoing President Barack Obama has done throughout his eight years in office is relatively easy if the focus remains on black culture only—things like brushing his shoulders off or playing basketball. It’s not that these things are unremarkable, especially since neither George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton even came close to matching them. They are, however, distracting.
In some ways, the items that consistently pop up on these lists are things white America has, in recent decades, conceded to us. You know, we’re funny, play sports well, are great dancers and are just seen as hipper and cooler. And while Barack Obama has indeed been all those things, this “blackest” list is about the things he’s done that that are so black that it will be impossible for even Donald Trump or Mike Pence to erase.
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1) Stood Up for Trayvon Martin
In a March 2012 where President Obama was to announce his nominee for president of the World Bank, a reporter asked the president about the death of 16-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman a few weeks earlier. Instead of deflecting the question, Obama, who was in a re-election year, gave a strong response: “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” A year later, after Zimmerman’s acquittal, President Obama spoke of being racially profiled as well as having (white) women grab their purses in fear of being next to him in an elevator.
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2) Appointed Two Black Attorney Generals
Fresh into his historic presidency, POTUS was already making other notable moves. One of his biggest came on February 2, 2009, roughly two weeks after his own inauguration as the nation’s first Black president. On that day, he got Eric Holder confirmed as the first Black Attorney General of the United States. When Holder decided to step down from his position as head of the U.S. Department of Justice in the fall of 2014, Obama followed up with Loretta Lynch, who was, after some stalling in the Senate, confirmed as the nation’s first Black female Attorney General on April 23, 2015.
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3) Became the First Sitting President to Visit a Federal Prison
As demonstrated by the cult popularity of Michelle Alexander’s bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the detrimental impact of mass incarceration on Black America cannot be overstated. So it was no small feat that in his call for criminal justice reform, President Obama met with some inmates at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City on July 16, 2015. It was the first such visit by any sitting president and a strong statement against a system that keeps more than two million Americans, disproportionately Black and Latino and in the prime of their lives, behind bars to the tune of $80 billion annually.
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4) Brought 106-Year-Old Virginia McLaurin to the White House
Virginia McLaurin was born in South Carolina in 1909, when Black men were effectively barred from voting and women of no race could vote anywhere in the nation. It is no stretch to say that McLaurin probably never believed she would live to see a Black man serve as POTUS. When efforts were made to get her an invitation to the White House for Black History Month on February 18, 2016, she got the surprise of lifetime: a private meeting with President Obama himself and a dance with him just weeks before she turned 107 on March 12.
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5) Didn’t Publicly Chastise Larry Wilmore for the N-Word
The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner became an even more high-profile event during Obama’s presidency and so it was a big deal that the last one on April 30, 2016 featured Larry Wilmore, a Black comedian, as host. Prior to the actual event, many saw it as a match made in heaven. Unfortunately Wilmore, who had to follow a hilarious Obama, missed a lot and then landed in hot water with his ending remark “Yo, Barry, you did it, my N—a. You did it.” While Al Sharpton and some others chimed in on the inappropriateness of the remark, especially in that venue, Obama made no negative remarks about the comment nor Wilmore.
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6) Publicly Affirmed His Black Wife’s Beauty
It’s hardly a secret that Michelle Obama doesn’t fit mainstream white America’s beauty standards. Consistent comparisons the first lady to an ape or gorilla confirms this. President Obama has, however, set the record straight by regularly letting it be known that his wife is the sweetest thing he’s ever known. During a February 29, 2016, conversation with Time, alongside ballerina Misty Copeland, he discussed the negative effect mainstream beauty and body image standards has on his daughters Malia and Sasha. In sharing how he and Michelle combatted it, he added, “And the fact that they’ve got a tall gorgeous mom who has some curves, and that their father appreciates, I think is helpful.”
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7) Presented the Diversity and Positivity of Hip-Hop Culture
President Obama has gone beyond brushing his shoulders off when it comes to hip-hop. By granting so many rappers entry into the White House, POTUS has shown how vastly diverse and positively impactful the culture can be. Rappers and DJs who have visited the “Black House” include Common, Queen Latifah, Big Sean, Killer Mike, Wale, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T, Will Smith, Nicki Minaj, Ludacris, Rick Ross, Busta Rhymes, Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, Doug E. Fresh, Jay Z, De La Soul, The Roots, D-Nice and DJ Khaled. So whether old school, gangsta, West Coast, East Coast, Dirty South, or rappers who’ve become actors, Obama has welcomed them all.
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8) Dedicated Both the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture
One could argue that any president could have dedicated the MLK Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) but none would have the power of the first Black president doing so. During his first term, Obama honored Dr. King’s legacy with powerful words that included “As tough as times may be, I know we will overcome. I know there are better days ahead. I know this because of the man towering over us. I know this because all he and his generation endured—we are here today in a country that dedicated a monument to that legacy.” And in his second term, on September 24, 2016, the president was called upon to dedicate a museum a century in the making committed to documenting and honoring the African American journey and contribution to this nation. Visibly moved, Obama used the words of Langston Hughes to proclaim “I, too, am America” and spoke about what this museum means to Black people and the nation as a whole before ringing the bell of a Black church founded in 1776 with the Bonner family spanning four generations from Ruth, age 99, whose father was born enslaved in Mississippi, to its youngest progeny, David Jabari, age 7.
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9) Watched Black Films and TV Shows in the White House
When one is reminded that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was the very first film to screen in the White House in 1915, President Obama’s welcoming of such Black films as 42, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Hidden Figures, as well as TV shows like Underground, takes on even deeper significance. That the films and television shows that have found a White House slot debunk most of what D.W. Griffith advanced in his KKK-adoring Birth is a powerful comeuppance especially in a White House built by enslaved people whose descendants now call it home.
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10) Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom To Over 20 Black Trailblazers
In his last year, President Obama hit a grand slam by presenting Cicely Tyson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Diana Ross and Michael Jordan the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the same damn time, to borrow from Future. Over the course of his two terms, these four were far from his only significant selections. Others include Katherine G. Johnson (one of the main subjects of Hidden Figures), Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Stevie Wonder, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, Sidney Poitier, as well as well as posthumous awardees such as Shirley Chisholm, Bayard Rustin and pioneering golfer Charlie Sifford.
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