Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Obama: Our Second Black President?

Watching the contest for the Democratic nomination, I'm struck by the manner in which our nation's struggles with race have returned so viscerally to the forefront of our national conversation. As anyone who has followed the 2008 campaign knows well, Barack Obama comes from a complex lineage; his mother was from Kansas, his father was from Kenya. He lived in Hawaii and Indonesia before seeking his advanced education and engaging in community action campaigns in the inner city -- as he once bombastically put it, "fighting on the streets of Chicago." A man living betwixt and between many well-worn lines of distinction, Obama has been challenged at a fundamental level about more than his policies and experience. A number of commentators have asked, "Is Obama black enough." It's a strange question.

To somehow authorize their query, the talking heads quickly thumbed through their reference rolodexes and brought forth a clever phrase offered by Toni Morrison who, in an October 1998 New Yorker article, declared Bill Clinton to be America's "first black President." Ah, they argued; here's the litmus test: Is Obama blacker than Clinton? Once again, though, we encounter evidence that many in the Commentariat have absolutely no clue what they're talking about, certainly that most have not bothered to read Morrison's short response to the racial dimensions of the so-called Lewinsky scandal. In that piece, Morrison suggests that Clinton's [American] "blackness" is superficially one of shared (though hardly universal) experience with economic struggle, single-parenthood, music dipped in heartache, and related "tropes." Yet on a much more fundamental level, Morrison affirms a connection between Clinton's sexuality and that which has been constructed for [many] African-American men, an embodied performance that is, to her thinking, a site of discipline and surveillance. Here's a snip:
Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear "No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and--who knows?--maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us."
Recalling this passage, I therefore found it odd and a little sad that Obama so inelegantly sidestepped a question posed to him during a debate about his "blackness" as compared to that of Clinton. The quote:
I have to say that, you know, I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill's dancing abilities, you know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.
Ignoring the awkward phrasing, which can be explained by the incontrovertible bizarreness of the question, I was troubled to find that Obama himself either had not read the original essay or, having read it, chose not to engage the deeper meaning of the question. Of course, I can't blame him. The formats for political exchange that we call "debates" are typically not places for deep-textual analysis; they're crafted to call for pithy, clever, or at least harmless, bumper sticker retorts to tricky questions. Yet the challenge remains: Will Obama, who thus far has maintained a solid demeanor as a "safe" candidate (somehow, amazingly, inoculating himself against attacks on his youthful drug use), be forced to confront the ugly intersection of race, sexuality, and politics that Morrison bemoaned?

It is not only Obama's integrity that is in question.


detroit dog said...

Hi again, Andrew. I think Obama will always have to face the expectation of others about his race - and I think those that question him will be from his own community.

As a Latina, I faced the most "general" types of racism from other Mexicans when I went to work in the predominantly Latino community here. The issue for many was always that I'm not perceived as being "Mexican" enough - my Spanish is without local slang, I was raised in the metro area, and I look like several other area ethnicities, among other things.

I think that often the "groups" of which we are a part ethnically are equally as hard on us as "others"; they both have specific expectations of us culturally. We are often caught between a rock and a hard place, though I cannot say that we do not put ourselves there in the first place as we do struggle to be "just people" - "equal" if you will. Race will always matter.

Andrew Wood said...

detroit dog, you raise a thought-provoking and timely point. I appreciate your reminder that race always matters, sometimes most vividly within groups.