It happened decades ago, but former President Barack Obama still vividly remembers the day someone he believed called a racist surname.
“Look, when I was in school I had a boyfriend. We played basketball together,” Obama told Bruce Springsteen on her new Spotify podcast. Renegades: Born in the USA. “And once we had an argument and he called me ac ***. And I remember punching him in the face and breaking his nose.”
The move was an instant response.
“And he said, ‘Why did you do that?” Obama remembered. “And I explained to him – I said, ‘Don’t ever call me that.'”
Springsteen, a friend of Obama, told him something similar had happened to Clarence Clemons, his late saxophonist and close friend, who was also black. They had gone to a club when someone called Clemons the N word. Springsteen saw how upset Clemons was about the incident, especially because the person using the offensive word was an acquaintance of the E Street band member.
Then, once while touring Ivory Coast, they came “to a stadium with completely black faces,” said Springsteen. “And we stand there for a moment and Clarence comes over and says, ‘Well … now you know how it feels.”
The two were friends for four decades.
“It’s never something that comes back. You know? It’s … 45 years,” said Springsteen. “And the only thing we never made fun of was that the race didn’t matter. We lived together. We traveled around the United States and we were probably as close as two people could be. At the same time, I always had . ” realizing that there was a part of Clarence that I would never really know exactly and ah … it was a relationship like no other I’ve ever had in my … ever in my life. “
Springsteen was aware of the fact that Clemons – nicknamed The Big Man – had to team up with a white man seven years his junior to gain attention in an industry he had worked in for a decade.
The rocker asked Obama if he believed America was ready to “deconstruct its founding myths” or consider reparations.
“So if you ask me in theory, ‘Are reparations warranted?’ The answer is yes, “said Obama. “There aren’t many questions. Right? That a significant part of the wealth of this land, the power of this land, was built, not exclusively, perhaps, not the vast majority of it, but a large part of it was built on the backs of the slaves they built the house I stayed in for a while.
“What is also true is that even after formal slavery ended and Jim Crow continued, the systematic repression and discrimination against black Americans resulted in black families not being able to build wealth, not being competitive, and that. So when you ponder what is righteous, you would look back and say, “The descendants of those who have suffered such terrible, cruel, often arbitrary injustices deserve some kind of reparation, some kind of compensation – some kind of recognition.
Obama said he realized during his tenure as president that the country would not do that.
“And so this brings us to, ‘Could you actually get that kind of justice? Could you get a country to agree to this story and own it?'” Obama said. “And my judgment was that this was practically out of reach. We can’t even get this country to provide adequate education for downtown children.”
Still, he said, he saw value in discussing it.
“If there is no other reason to enlighten the country about a past that too often is not taught,” said Obama, “and let’s face it, we’d rather forget.”