Over the next weeks and months we will see hundreds—indeed thousands—of post-mortems, analyses, and critiques of the presidency of Barak Hussein Obama. We will hear of his perceived successes and failures. Some will tell us what went wrong and others will tell us what went right. Many will lament the transition from the 44th President to the 45th. We will hold our breath to hear what happens with health care, the environment, education, trade, immigration, treaties, and many other national and international policies. But I want to focus this blog on one aspect of President Obama I believe set him apart from all of his predecessors…and no it is not his race. It is his cool!
No matter what you thought of President Obama’s policies and legislative agenda you cannot deny he was cool. And why does “being cool” matter? In mainstream culture, “being cool” is associated with, at best a kind of hipness and urbane affect and at worst, with aloofness and coldness. But “cool” throughout Africa and the Diaspora is more than that. In Yoruba the word is “itutu” and refers to gentleness of character, generosity and grace as well as the ability to defuse fights and disputes. Among the Gola of Liberia, cool is the ability to be mentally calm or detached and to be nonchalant in situations where emotionalism or eagerness would be natural and expected. One of the qualities that Black folks most admire in people is coolness. When all hell is breaking loose, we love to be able to say, “But I was cool!” “Losing your cool” is one of the worse things folks can say about you.
All cultures have those values that they prize above all else. As I have traveled internationally I have seen the concept of “saving face” throughout Asia or the depths of “mi familia” throughout Latin America. Cool is not just a sense of style or aesthetics. It signals an important inner strength in the face of incredibly difficult situations and circumstances. When President Obama gave his first State of the Union address and that gutless Congressman yelled out, “You lie,” we saw his coolness on full display.
As President Obama’s administration progressed we regularly saw his coolness. His response at his last State of the Union address when the Republicans applauded because he said he had run his last campaign was brilliant—“I know because I won both of them!” He didn’t lose his temper. He didn’t shout. He was cool. Sociolinguists H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman in their excellent volume, “Articulate while Black” point to President Obama’s facility in moving back and forth across linguistic and stylistic codes.
However, without uttering a word we witnessed the President’s cool. He would fist bump the brothers, do a mic drop at the Washington Correspondents’ dinner, and sit in quiet deference to the “church mothers” (Do you remember the woman who shouted, “Fired up…and Ready to Go?”). His preferred leisure activity was a game of basketball not golf and he found a way to make it to Ben’s Chili Bowl to get a half smoke. And, can we talk about that walk? President Obama had a walk that embodied cool. He descended the stairs of Air Force One like a boss. But my favorite image is of him walking is him coming to the presidential podium to tell the nation that Navy Seals had captured and killed Osama Bin Laden. When he turned to leave and walked down that hallway, I could just imagine him saying to himself, “I DID that!”
The power of Barak Obama’s cool is that it was contagious. President Obama made other people cool just by hanging with him. His Vice-President Joe Biden has been in public life for decades. We have seen him run for president. But once he joined the Obama team we got to see just how cool he could be. Eric Holder was probably everyone’s favorite law geek, but on the Obama team he became the Attorney General with swagger. Initially the media and opposition tried to paint Michelle Obama as an angry Black woman but her smartness and savvy made her the coolest First Lady ever. They were a cool couple!
President Obama reunited Black and smart to show our children that they could maintain their cool while moving to the head of the class. He was as at home with Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma as he was with Kendrick LaMar and Jay-Z. He was cool with a White House where Black folks could party like it was 1999! He did not apologize for failing to schmooze and glad-hand with stuffy old White Congressmen in favor of going home at night to have dinner with his Bae and his babies! He was not bothered by stereotypes about Black men and basketball. He loved the game and he loved it enough to install a court at the White House. Although the stress of the job probably sped up the progression of his gray hair, he still showed up at his farewell address with a “tight fade” and he shed a tear when he told the world how the love of his life had handled her business as First Lady. I bet Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” was swirling through his head when he wrote those words to salute her…”There’s something ‘bout your love…that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet!” And when he dabbed the tear from his eye, we all said, collectively…”That brother is just so cool!”
Yes, we’re going to miss the Obama’s style, grace, and elegance. We will miss his erudite discourse. We will miss a family that spent 8 years under the closest scrutiny and came away without a single scandal (unless you call Malia and Sasha’s rolling their eyes at a turkey pardoning scandalous). We will miss the killer dresses that Michelle Obama rocked at state dinners and other public events along with her cute casualness while she gardened or exercised. But most of all, I will miss Barak Hussein Obama’s cool. He was cool like that!
Stay Black and Smart!