“James Baldwin Didn’t Have to Go Out and Get Votes.” Obama Reflects on Race, Dialogue, and Disinformation in PEN America Interview
In excerpts released today, the former president reflects on his own role as writer and politician as he receives the PEN America Voice of Influence Award at the organization's virtual gala this Tuesday
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(New York, NY) — Former President Barack Obama touched on fraught issues of politics, race, and public dialogue in excerpts from an interview released today by the literary and free expression group PEN America. In conversation with Pulitzer-winning biographer Ron Chernow, the former president allowed that the racial upheavals of the past year, coupled with generational change, may herald a more bracing and forthright, less cautious treatment of race in the political realm. It comes just days after the president warned that phrases like “defund the police” could risk alienating allies of reform.
In remarks that will be streamed as part of PEN America’s gala celebration on Tuesday, Dec. 8, President Obama spoke candidly about the differences between talking about issues of race as an American politician and as a writer. He contrasted discussions of race in the context of “politics and getting votes” with “truth-telling and the prophetic voice.”
“My role as politician versus my role as writer can diverge,” he said. PEN America will bestow its 2020 Voice of Influence Award on the president this coming Tuesday.
The former president did allow that such longstanding constraints in terms of how race can be talked about in the political arena might be on the cusp of change.
President Obama candidly discussed his own approach to talking about race and racial disparities. As part of a unique interview spanning politics, literature, and human rights, the former president heralded the bracing honesty of truth-tellers like James Baldwin, but reflected that as a political figure, he could not have summoned the same unvarnished discussion of race without challenges.
“If I spoke the language of James Baldwin as he speaks it on the campaign stump, I’m probably not gonna get a lot of votes in Iowa,” President Obama told Chernow, a former PEN America president. “James Baldwin didn’t have to go out and get votes.”
Amid a discourse in which certain politicians have sought to stoke “fears of the other in the white population,” President Obama said politicians often need to speak a “universal language” as a way to reach voters resistant to more pointed discourse about racial injustice.
“What I think has changed—and we saw this this summer—is, because of people’s witness of George Floyd, because of what seems like a constant stream of irrefutable evidence of excessive force against unarmed Black folks, that I think white America has awakened to certain realities that even 20 years ago they were still resistant to. That creates a new opening for a different kind of political conversation,” he said.
In additional excerpts released today, President Obama also warned that the rise of media outlets that not only repeat but originate disinformation poses the most immediate threat to democracy as the country prepares for a new presidential administration.
“The lines have blurred now between propaganda and what we would consider journalism in a way that has been described as truth decay,” President Obama told Chernow. “You’ve got an epistemological problem where people don’t know now entirely what’s true and what’s not, and the old authorities and curators of what is factual are greatly weakened. And that’s dangerous for our democracy, and I don’t think that that’s going to be solved just by a new president. I think, internally, news organizations and all of us, culturally, are going to have to think about what to do about that.”
In the interview, streaming in full this Tuesday, President Obama reflects on his own internal struggles between being a politician and being a writer. He looks back on the conspiracy theories that dogged his presidency and presaged the Trump years. He discusses the role human rights organizations played in informing his approach to advocating for dissident writers and journalists worldwide.
As part of its virtual award ceremony this Tuesday, PEN America will also honor five other heroes of free expression. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and Darnella Frazier—the young woman who filmed the murder of George Floyd—will receive the PEN/Benenson Courage Award. This year’s PEN/Audible Literary Service Award will go to songwriter and performer Patti Smith. Imprisoned Chinese dissident Xu Zhiyong will receive this year’s PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in absentia. And executive vice chairman of Hearst Frank A. Bennack Jr. is being celebrated as this year’s PEN America Corporate Honoree.
Hosted by film executive and founder of The Black List Franklin Leonard, the gala will include presentations and remarks from Madeleine Albright, Joan Baez, Bono, Spike Lee, Soledad O’Brien, Emma Thompson, Steven J. Corwin, Steve R. Swartz, Gabrielle Union, Sen. Cory Booker, Anita Hill, and many more.
Video clips currently available via YouTube. MP4s available upon request.