Dear First Lady and President,

I respect you. I wanted to be a rapper. I wanted to be a ball-player. Today, like most black men under 40, I am neither. Please complicate your analysis. You do the Dougie when convenient. You brush your shoulder off when convenient. You admonish black folks for not being you when convenient. You often talk to us like they’re watching. Because they are. In addition to all that “real talk” tough love stuff, black folks talk to black folks about white supremacy. Both of you y’all know this is true. We worry about your safety in spite of twisted real talk. We wish you would “real talk” to them about race and responsibility like we’re watching sometimes. Please complicate your analysis.

Today, I teach, write, and rap to myself. I am an above average writer and teacher. But when I’m on, I’m a problem, chile! I am working on being better at being human. I am not a father. Nor am I a husband. I am an American witness, an American writer. The most mediocre white man at my bougie job has 16x the wealth I have. You already know this. Please complicate your analysis. My grandmother has the beginnings of dementia, and she is still way smarter than me or you. She was only allowed to work the line at a chicken plant, work as a domestic and sell pound cake on the weekend. She has no wealth, but lots of love for both of you. She prays for your safety. She says that white folks have both of you niggas scared to tell the truth. She has witnessed a lot. She is not a liar. Please complicate your analysis.

Working class white security guards have entered my office 3x times asking to see my ID. Every time, I robotically tell them, “Fuck you. Show me yours.” I desperately cling to intellectual superiority over them; they desperately claim whiteness and relative wealth over me. This has nothing, and everything, to do with my wanting to be a rapper and baller. For better and worse, most rappers rhyme to us. Most ballers perform for us. You already know this. Why would you ever tell a throng of black men and black women to work twice as hard as white folks when there are so many examples of black brilliance and genius? Centering white mediocrity leads to black folks being just a little bit better than mediocre. I want to be better than my grandmother, the greatest American I know. She wants you to tell the truth. I respect you. We respect you. Please complicate your analysis.

Imani Perry writes books you should read. Please tell the truth.

About Kiese

Kiese Laymon is a fiction writer and essayist who writes frequently on pop culture, hip hop and politics. He is currently teaches English, Africana Studies and Creative Writing at Vassar College.
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25 Responses to Dear First Lady and President,

  1. Godzilla Jr. says:

    salute!

  2. Tarana Burke says:

    Thank you for this. (That last line is my favorite!)

  3. The Obama need some new speechwriters who understand access, opportunity and nuance in black America. Why either of them thought a college GRADUATION was time to wag their fingers at new college grads is beyond me. Wrong tone, wrong time, and disrespectful to the students and their families who ARE doing the right thing for their communities.

  4. Jworks says:

    As a Black man with a BA and MA, a kid who skipped 4th grade, and can learn most complex things like web coding fairly fast…This is some ol bullshit.
    I’m tired of “intellectual” black people trying to feel validated by more complex arguments of race, racism, or representations. They’ll quote bell hooks at every turn, as if string-theory type analysis and arguments actually solve something. It’s no different than the Black folks that the intellects look down upon that go to church every Sunday to hear the sermon, but not live the life. They’ll repeat words by Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, and feel like they did something. They’ll ask you contextualize and complicate an argument, as if that is actual work.
    I just listened to Obama’s Morehouse speech to see what the hoopla was about. Here’s something complex for you: He talked about not making excuses, being a role model, being a leader, and having to deal with the realities of racism, and work against people in other countries that have LESS than us, all at the same time. Being Black is complex enough.

  5. Kiese says:

    Jworks, you’re a funny dude. I get the “not making excuses” argument. I’m going to assume that you are doing work in your community to help us in some form or fashion. Obama has a job a million times harder than mine or yours AND he has the responsibility to tell the fucking truth. Why not talk to white audiences about “not making excuses, being a role model, being a leader, and having to deal with the realities of racism …” Real question, why does Obama not do that? And I agree that being black is complex enough. It’s so complex, it shouldn’t be reduced to “everything will be okay if you stop making excuses.” We don’t have no fucking money, cuz. Some of that has to do with all that shit you’re talking about. Most of it has to do with public policy rooted in white supremacy. What are all of us doing to make sure we have dignity and access to healthy choices. Obama is trying to do more than most American Presidents, but I really wish he would stop spitting that bullshit when he talks to us. I got no clue what you’re saying about bell hooks, Dyson, West. We need the nation to be honest, then we’ve got to perpetually affirmatively reckon with that honest assessment. That’s all I’m saying.

  6. Jworks says:

    “Why not talk to white audiences…”

    Stop right there.

    “How come they don’t have to do it?”
    We’re killing each other, leaving each other, destroying each other. White people have all the more excuse to be racist when they see us doing it to ourselves. Their first thought is “Well they must be like that.” as we keep perpetuating our own stereotype. How you gonna tell a white person to not treat blacks as lesser when we do it to ourselves?!

    Things aren’t equal. It’s harder for us. Welcome to life.

  7. Bajankiss says:

    about an hour ago · Like · 1..

    There can only be so many Rappers, Ball players, senators, Congressmen and yes Presidents and First Ladies. Fathers, husbands, wives and mothers outnumber the other professions. Let us teach our young men and women to be the best of the above, standing alongside each other making us strong from within. There is a unique difference between wanting, dreaming, doing, excelling, giving it our all and finally succeeding. What ever the message our Black generation they need to find their passion and make it happen and put the drugs and the guns down. Continue to admonish, uplift, encourage, teach, show by example, lead, remind, provide the tools and the list go on. Our Black women need strong, educated, loving, drug free, record free, anger free Fathers, Husbands, lovers, friends to hold up the family even if they are rappers and ball players. This Black First Family will always be wrong no matter what they say or do until they are out. 3 more years then we will have the real oppressors back. Guess what? We will love them and they will say the right things we want to hear because that is what we were taught. History has been made. Can we just move forward or must we always sit in the back even when we are not told to do so?

  8. Rosa Clemente says:

    Thank you, gracias, salute, from one of the people that voted for Cynthia McKinney in 2008 and Jill Stein 2012, the two best votes I ever submitted. And Jesse Jackson was right, as well they have no problem taking donations from ballers and rappers and have them come to the White House to perform for them right?

  9. Quinn says:

    Jworks: I agree with you 110%. Me: black male BA working on MSA

  10. Quinn says:

    People should stop focusing on others holding the black community down ad focus on how we are going to lift up

  11. Evelyn says:

    gotta love it :)

  12. Kiese says:

    Quinn, it’s not a binary. Lots of us can see that Obama has one of the hardest jobs in the world. We can see him wanting to do for our people. We can also see him pointing the finger at our people with a vigilance he would never use to address white folks. I was “lifted up” partially from elders honestly talking about the weight of white supremacy AND communal uplift. Most importantly, I was uplifted by watching elders confront white supremacy and the most destructive tendencies in our communities. Why use this tough love shit with the folks whom the nation has shown the least amount of love?

  13. Marlon says:

    Ahh, yes.
    Jworks, I’m assuming you think that black folks killing each other has everything to do with black folk being stupid and ignorant, with psychological imbalances that motivate them to kill each? I am also assuming you think that black folks killing each other has nothing to do with white supremacist ideals that perpetuate itself in everyday life? I think your complicated analysis does more to “kill other black folks” than any young person in Ghetto, USA. Do you not think that just working hard is not enough to overcome generational poverty, generational discrimination, generational 2nd and 3rd class citizenship, generational, red-lining, generational, intimidation, and generational trauma that has never been addressed in a substantive way by the dominant culture? I mean, yes, I admire Obama. I watched his Morehouse speech with pride and admiration. But I also know that most young men in Ghetto, USA have no clue that a college like that is accessible to them. But I guess if they just worked hard enough, and that’s all, then they could be president some day too.

  14. Kiese says:

    Marlon, this is why I’m lucky to call you my brother.

  15. Po says:

    I agree with Marlon, his take on the issue does what one ought to do when addressing any situation: see what the proximate causes are, but also what the other circumstances (political, social, economic…) are that, not only enable those proximate causes, but insure that there is not one single means to combat/ solve them.
    Anytime we address the issue of black social ills (poverty/crime/family unit breakdown), we must address the history of black people in this country (what was done to them, which also includes what they do to themselves for the latter follows the former), their accomplishments (what they did for themselves), and their current opportunities (mainly what the general entity, government or society does for them .) Whenever we address either aspect separately from the others, we are looking at an incomplete picture, which becomes even cloudier when we start assigning responsibility and blame.
    Obama is guilty of this same fallacy, when he lectures the black community on its ills and offers responsible behavior as the cure for those ills. In that, he is like Bill Cosby, or even the token blacks on the right, including Clarence Thomas, who simply echo white America’s message that it is simply and wholly about “responsibility”. What they mean by responsibility hinges on the assumption that everyone receives the same benefits from society, and therefore, has the same duties towards society, and the same responsibilities to it through proper personal choices. Yet we all know that choice is a luxury. What do money, birth and affiliations offer in practicality? A higher and better range of choices. A deeper pool of options to pick from. Where to live, what school to attend, what job to aspire to. How many children to plan for, how to school them, what to feed them, what ideals to put into them…
    While any one of us on this forum knows to aspire to more and to reach for it, what does the child in the ghetto knows, when he goes to school hungry, is educated poorly, and parented absentedly? When his environment is bleak, his life is not worth much, to him, his neighbors and to society at large?
    Obama’s beautiful sentiments are just that. He is only echoeing outloud what America says under its breath, and frankly, we have no use for that. The single surest way to help a person, a group, a people, is through economic development coupled with education. Provide good economic opportunities for people and they will value work, provide them with educational opportunities and they will value education, provide them with safe and healthy environments and they will value peace and well being. Deeds are rock solid, words are ethereal. One is foundational, the other just “lofty”.

  16. Tiffany says:

    @Marlon- Thank You!

    I really am tired of the “good negro, bad negro” dichotomy that Jworks is referring to. Can we talk about how Black people are taught to hate themselves from birth? Can we talk about how Black kids are less likely to see themselves reflected in the media, public education, and business and political leaders in this country? Can we talk about how we are indoctrinated to hold up whiteness as the pinnacle of success, yet taught our history started at slavery, as if Black people haven’t been doing and inventing for thousands of years prior to colonization? Then can we get into how entire self-sustaining Black communities have been destroyed in order to prevent us from building generational wealth, and keeping up the myth of Black inferiority? I mean, I could go on and on, but I wrote a short post on Tumblr last night that explains how I feel: “I am waiting for the day when Black people stop being so damn nice, considerate, and forgiving of everyone, but ourselves.”

    That’s how self-hatred works. We HATE ourselves and blackness (hence the crime in the Black community committed again other Black people) and we will uphold whiteness and praise everyone else. Hence, why so many Black men praise white women (or Latino or Asian women) while calling Black women everything, but a child of God. And I am doubly tired of President Obama and the First Lady making these same excuses for whiteness. Black people are the hardest working people, I know and that bs myth of “just keep your head down and work hard” is just that. A myth.

  17. TJ Jarrett says:

    Jworks:

    “How you gonna tell a white person to not treat blacks as lesser when we do it to ourselves?!”

    Maybe if I quote it back, you can hear the self loathing.

    No one gets the excuse to be racist. Most importantly, never against the self. While listening to the Morehouse speech, I felt like I was listening to a speech not written for the complicated heirs of a complicated history, but a speech written for an audience outside the specific driven black men before him. The responsibility he espoused inevitably becomes a one way responsibility, without specifically addressing the responsibility that society has to reach back to its people. One does not function without the other.

    It was simply tone deaf. And thank you @Marlon for covering all I was going to put into a screed before I saw your more succinct and civil comment.

  18. Simply brilliant open letter. Your writing moves me into my writing and into courageous acts.

  19. Eddie says:

    Hey, stupid question, but did you mean to write thong instead of throng? I’ve noticed a good few quirks like this in the couple of essays of yours I have read.
    Nicely put, yours is a tough lot.

  20. Liza says:

    This is a really interesting discussion.

    I’m late, of course, but there is one thing that I seldom hear mentioned about the Obamas. Despite being the president and a world traveller, President Obama is no different from anyone else in that he is limited by where he came from. Who among us could say that where we grew up and who raised us was not influential throughout our lives? PBO grew up in Hawaii and abroad. He had a white mother and white grandparents who adored him. He learned about life on the mainland as an adult.

    Michelle Obama’s parents were the kind of folks who simply declared that “This land is my land too” and they drove down their stakes, entered the middle class, and raised their children to believe they could do whatever they want to do.

    I get your points about the Obamas, all of you have good points. But factor into that who these people are.

  21. Will. says:

    This article, after a few reads (along with a lofty review of the comments section) is so needed; whether you agree with it nor not. As a Black man with a B.S. and a decent job, it doesn’t end simply with hard work. Mobility is like a video game. For every level you progress; you become more unfamiliar and more of a minority, making it that much for of a challenge to simply exist. You get checked more because there is a stench of ‘how the hell did you get here’ in the air that merit alone does not answer. I respect the platform that the Obamas try to maintain and I understand it, but it is simply not enough.

    Please complicate your analysis.

  22. Damone. says:

    This letter is so necessary. Reading the comments alone is proof positive of that. Thank you for your voice, your honesty, and your unapologetic Blackness Kiese. I stand with you.

    @DamoneWilliams_

  23. Bob says:

    That mediocre white dude is still better than you. Deal with it. Oh and enjoy using the internet and a computer…our gift to you.

  24. Sally Strange says:

    That mediocre white dude is still better than you. Deal with it. Oh and enjoy using the internet and a computer…our gift to you.

    Ahh, the familiar desperation of insecure white men.

  25. Pingback: “The Black Struggle & Having To Do Twice The Work To Get Ahead”- Danger of a Single Story Narrative for Black Americans Sets America Backward Instead of Forward In Change « ★ ★ ★ Global Fusion Productions Inc – MAG

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