Before I read the first sentence of a new story published by New York Magazine entitled “The Paradox of the First Black President,” I ran a Google search of the author’s name, Jennifer Senior. I’ve seen her byline before, as I am a regular reader of the publication, so I didn’t doubt her credentials, and I wasn’t interested in her resume. No way a piece of this length (it’s over 5,000 words), would be given to some cub reporter. I was more interested in finding out what Senior looked like. Lo and behold, this is what came up in my search, her personal website, with a headshot of her, a White woman, on the bio page.
I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head, let out a sigh and then continued to read the piece. From top to bottom, it is a good piece that I encourage everyone to read. Without spoiling anything, there is even a paragraph, three-fourths of the way through, in which Senior breaks away from the third-person and inserts herself into the story. She doesn’t do this as a White woman but rather a journalist who once interviewed Obama before, back in 2006. It’s a small moment but serviceable, a slight way of reminding the reader not only is this not her first rodeo of writing about Obama.
This isn’t the first time I Googled the name of a writer whose byline was attached to a piece about Black issues or Black people. I have been doing this for as long as Google has been around because as a Black writer who writes a lot about Black people, both famous and not-famous, the race of other writers who do the same is a pertinent issue for me. This is especially true whenever I see a piece about Black issues pop up in a mainstream publication like New York Magazine. It’s my own little personal diagnostic test to see which one of us, if any, made it to the so-called big leagues of publishing.
Of course, Obama and any articles about him or his family is a different subject entirely. When writing about him as a President, it isn’t always about race. It can be about politics, it can be about policy, it can be about life in the White House with his wife and two kids. The business of writing about the President of the United States has a long tradition in media. But ever since Obama was elected, a cottage industry within media has popped up based on him being the first Black president, and Senior’s piece is a perfect example of this. It is not a story about him being yet another American President, it is about him being a specific type of president for a specific group of people and how he’s doing within that group. Senior does some thorough reporting to get an idea of sorts by talking to a respectable handful of smart Black people, but she herself cannot give any keen insight into this question because she is not Black.
As a professional journalist who knows first-hand what it’s like to sit at editorial meetings for mainstream publications, I should know better than to hold something as cosmetic as the race of the writer against the piece. It is not fair to the writer, and to be clear this is not anything personal against Senior. I don’t know her at all. But without pausing or blinking I can list off ten very talented Black journalists who could have written the piece Senior wrote with more nuance and more depth than what was published. So whenever I see a piece like this one, I will always wonder why no editors at New York Magazine bothered to give a talented Black journalist the call to do this piece.
Saying something like that does me no favors as a professional. Often times whenever Black people take issue with the dearth of their own in any field, it can either come off as basic (which is why so many people’s canned response to any complaint by black people is, it’s not about race) or self-serving. I realize that some people may read this and think that I’m mad because I didn’t get the call to do this piece, but this is not about me. This is about my peers, the ones who as I said, are qualified to write a piece just as smart and just as compelling as what Senior wrote, but also could have brought a dose of relativity to this piece that is hyper-specific in its subject matter. Writers like Rembert Browne, Jamilah Lemieux, Zerlina Maxwell, and Gene Demby are not qualified because they are Black, but they are Black writers who are qualified.
Underneath the headiness of this piece is a noble idea put forth by New York Magazine that I appreciate. It is that throughout Obama’s presidency, all lives have mattered to him, but to Black lives, he has mattered more and so New York Magazine wanted to check in and see if we felt our love for him was being reciprocated. But they didn’t realize that in their deep rolodex of writers who are qualified to write about the President, the boldest move they could have made in crafting this piece is done a search outside of that rolodex and enlisted the services of one of the strong Black voices in media who have risen up in the Obama era. To somehow get a sense of how our nation’s first Black President is faring among black people, they didn’t think it was important for a Black writer to be the one who was asking the questions. They didn’t realize to understand Obama’s relationship with Black people in the era of Black Lives Matter, a Black writer matters too.