EXCLUSIVE: Barack Obama Delivers A Message To Black America
Four years and three months ago, Barack Obama served his last day as the 44th President of the United States. Since then, he has taken some well-deserved time off to reconnect to family and friends, traveled the country to endorse Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice president, developed a multi-million deal with Netflix under his Higher Ground Productions company and in between it all, he wrote the first volume of his latest memoir.
In November 2020, Obama released A Promised Land (Crown), a 768-page, nearly 3lbs. book which covers just one half of his tenure in the White House as President starting from Inauguration Day in 2009 to the moment Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011. The book is as detailed as they come, delivering full explanations of how the former President felt in certain situations and how he came to certain important decisions. You’ll feel like a fly on the wall or the voice in his head as he accounts for nearly every significant move made during those vital first four years in office.
When given the opportunity to interview the Obama, the editors at BET.com wanted to know more about the book and a deeper understanding of what it was like for him, not just as president, but as the nation’s first Black president. It’s a distinction that will never get old.
We asked, and he answered. In an exclusive email exchange between BET.com News Director Wendy L. Wilson and President Obama, he explains how, as a young, Black man, he would have responded to the protests last summer, finding a way to maintain a resolve of optimism in the midst of a pandemic that continues to heavily impact Black and Brown communities, and his overall message to Black America in 2021.
BET.com: You talk about discovering the power of social movements as a young man, which ignited a deeper need to join others to bring about change. This was never more present than in 2020 after the video of George Floyd’s killing went viral. That one incident inspired marches and demonstrations across the country, bringing more attention to issues of systemic racism that continue to abound in the U.S.
How would a 22-year-old Barack Obama have responded to seeing that video? How can everyday citizens fight for fair policing and combat systematic racism within our law enforcement systems?
BARACK OBAMA: I think the 22-year-old version of me would have reacted to the video the same way many other young people did: with anger, sadness, and the conviction that America has to be better than this. And like them, I also would have looked for a way to make a difference.
For me, social movements where ordinary people join together to bring about change represent the best of who we are. Democracy is not a gift to be given or a contest to be won, but a form of government that is earned by people working together and lifting each other up.
That’s why my advice to anyone who wants to change the status quo is to keep making your voice heard. Protesting—raising public awareness, putting a spotlight on injustice, making the powers that be uncomfortable—that kind of civil disobedience couldn’t be more important. Throughout our history, it’s often been the only way to get people’s attention.
But eventually, movements have to be translated into laws and policies—and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands. In this case, we need to elect state and local officials who will make fighting systemic racism and guaranteeing equal justice a priority. We need to pass ballot initiatives and other measures that will do the same. And we also need to bring community groups, elected officials, and police departments together to make real change, which is what the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance is doing through our “Reimagining Policing” initiative.
In other words, I think anyone who believes in change should reject the false choice between participating in protests or politics. We need both.
BET.com: In “A Promised Land,” you write, “For all of our differences, we remain bound as one people…together, men and women of goodwill could find a way to a better future.”
Some may believe after what happened at the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 that we are more divided than we have been in some time. How does the individual American, who truly believes in a UNITED States, begin to find a way to that better future?
BARACK OBAMA: Look, there’s no doubt that the country is deeply divided right now—more divided than when I first ran for president in 2008. America has been fractured by a combination of political, cultural, ideological, and geographical divisions that seem to be deeper than just differences in policy.
I think a lot of that has to do with changes in how people get information. I’ve spoken about this before, but if you watch Fox News, you perceive a different reality than if you read The New York Times. And those differences have been amplified by social media, which allows people to live in bubbles with other people who think like them.
Until we can agree on a common set of facts, until we can distinguish between what’s true and what’s false, then the marketplace of ideas won’t work. Our democracy won’t work. So, as citizens, we need to push our institutions in the direction of addressing these challenges.
At the same time, we need to stay engaged—and not just every time a tragic event takes place, or every four years when there’s a presidential election. If you’re not seeing the progress you want, take a close look at who or what is really standing in the way. And then ask what you can do—especially at the local level where arguments are often less heated and everyone who gets involved can make a bigger difference.
I know it can be exhausting. But for this democracy to endure, we need active citizenship and sustained focus on the issues —not just in an election season, but all the days in between.
BET.com: President Biden just signed an executive order to ensure all Americans have the right to vote by increasing access to voter registration services and information.
It is the first step in Congress restoring the Voting Rights Act. Why do you think we continue to have issues making our voting process equitable and accessible?
BARACK OBAMA: Since our country was founded, some folks have fought back against efforts to expand voting rights. And when your ideas aren’t very popular, it makes a warped kind of sense to try to shrink the vote.
But the best tool we have to fight back has always been organizing—taking to the streets and showing up to the polls to demand change. That is what the generation before us did. In the face of billy clubs and lynchings, poll taxes and literacy tests, they were relentless in their pursuit of expanding access to the ballot box. Now it’s on us to do the same, to refuse to grow weary, to rally around legislation like the For The People Act and follow the lead of trailblazers like Stacey Abrams, who have devoted their lives to making our democracy more perfect.
BET.com: First you had the “Audacity of Hope” and now “The Promised Land” both titles are optimistic, but after 2020, Black America is not leaning that way. What would you say to those of us who have experienced the heartache of loss, desperation, and illness over the last year? What is your overall message to Black America?
BARACK OBAMA: This is an incredibly tough time for a lot of folks. You’ve got communities all across the country, many of them Black and Brown, that were struggling long before the pandemic. Then a virus comes along that impacts members of those communities at a higher rate, and all of a sudden, you’re adding grief and fear on top of all the other emotions folks were already feeling.
It’s a lot for anybody, especially with the instances of police violence and other reminders of the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment that we’ve seen over the past year. And it can make you wonder if things will ever get better.
But I also know this: the people who benefit from keeping things the way they are—they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to convince you that your vote, and your voice, doesn’t matter. That’s how they win.
And that’s why we need to keep marching, keep speaking up, keep voting. And if you think it’s too hard to bring about change today, remember that those who came before us had it a whole lot harder. If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans.
They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work.
So many Americans have followed in those footsteps over the last four years, and especially these past few months. And if we are going to usher in the progress we need, we cannot let up during these next four. There’s too much left to do.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama is available in hardcover and paperback where most books are sold. Information about the book is available to consumers at obamabook.com.
(Photo courtesy of Pari Dukovic | Random House)