Billie Holiday, Barack Obama, and the Pain of Black Women

Prominent black women have signed a letter protesting that Obama’s initiative to help young black men and boys ignores women. They misjudge the president’s commitment.

Gilles Petard/Getty

It was a strange feeling, watching Billie Holiday, as black women revealed their pain.

I was in the front row this week as the great actress Audra McDonald shed six decades and transformed into Lady Day. McDonald channeled us into Holiday's last year of life, in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. Between renditions of "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "God Bless the Child," and "Strange Fruit," we danced through the Lady's story, and fought the demons that fought her—the Jim Crow, the rape, the heroin, the loneliness. So little of her own choosing, so much inflicted by the country, and the men, around her, it was a wonder Billie still chose to sing. But she did, with a bright swatch of gardenias in her hair. Even in their ultimate sorrow, Audra—and Billie—were triumphant.

Right around the time that I saw this play, I read a letter from 1,000 black women pointing to another sort of pain. The signatories—organized by a group of professors and including such prominent voices as Alice Walker, Rosario Dawson, and Anita Hill—wrote to President Obama expressing concern that his My Brother's Keeper initiative for young boys and men of color did not focus equally on women and girls. This letter generated a fair amount of buzz in African American circles and for some called the validity of the overall My Brother's Keeper initiative into question.

I have to admit that this caught me by surprise. I worked in the White House for years. I saw up close and personal the amount of time and policy effort poured into women and girls—including women and girls of color. I saw our domestically focused agencies devote a substantial portion of their budgets to their pressing needs. I saw the influence of leaders like Valerie Jarrett and Melody Barnes, Lisa Jackson and Susan Rice, Heather Foster and, of course, Michelle Obama, and many more. They were bosses and mentors and friends to me—I felt their power, and know them well.

But those points did not matter this week. Some black women, in the face of My Brother's Keeper, felt left out. They saw it as yet another slight from a country, and a gender, that sees them as an afterthought, that has been doing stuff like this for years. Just like we have done to so many generations before this one. To Fannie Lou Hamer, and Hadiya Pendleton, and Billie.

In response to these concerns, I've been searching for the words to explain what I know to be true: that the president, at a bedrock level, gets it. If you spend more than a few moments with him, you'll realize that strong women, including black women, are at his vital core. That he paces most of his footsteps to the words “Malia” and “Sasha.” That woven throughout the Affordable Care Act and the education reforms and the STEM initiatives and the Women and Girls Council and the Mentoring Initiative and all the rest are grandmothers and mothers and daughters, Marian Shields and Ann Dunham and Michelle LaVaughn.

He gets it enough to know that in order to do all that we can for black women, we must also do all that we can for black men. Perhaps Billie Holiday survives if it wasn't for Jimmy Monroe. Maybe some of our boys need someone to pull them aside, and encourage them, and speak courage to them, and life. So that they can return and approach the world—and approach women—with constructive confidence and calm. In a lot of ways, that's what My Brother's Keeper is all about, and why it's so important.

We can do these things at the same time—empowering women and girls, and supporting men and boys. But only if we give this president—our president—the benefit of the doubt, and work with him to accomplish our goals. We just have a little more than two years left with the only black president we've known, and perhaps the only one we'll see in a while. I pray that we—black folks, and especially the African American academy—use that time wisely, focusing out on the issues that matter, instead of in, on each other.

It is difficult to say all of this without provoking the defenses and debates that get us right back to a deconstructive square one. It's hard to express how absurd it is to believe that this president—this man, Barack Obama—would exclude women of color from his policy agenda, when they are in fact central to so many aspects of that agenda. It's tough to put his concern into words.

But then I remembered—Barack Obama knows Billie. True and well. He has spoken about how he would listen to her to smooth over the rough days, or heighten his joy. He understand what the cracks and crevices in her voice meant, especially in the later years, when all that had been done to Billie Holiday began to come out.

This may not mean a lot to a whole lot of folks, but a few will get it. Obama loves, sees, and knows, Billie. He also sees her daughters, and her granddaughters, and her nieces and kindred and friends—in all of their brilliance, their struggle, their aching triumph. He has always fought, and will always fight, for them.

In fact, it was one my favorite passages in his first book. I'm a lover of Billie Holiday myself, and I grew up surrounded by a bunch of women who shared varying measures of her creative heights and agonizing depths. So when I read this passage in Dreams from My Father, I knew that the future president understood:

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"Behind me, Billie was on her last song. I picked up the refrain, humming a few bars. Her voice sounded different to me now. Beneath the layers of hurt, beneath the ragged laughter, I heard awillingness to endure. Endure—and make music that wasn’t there before."

Barack knows Billie. And I believe he'll do all he can to lift up our daughters along with our sons, and help them make the type of music they were born to make.