Sunday, February 25, 2007

Obama's Slippery Blackness

Obama's Identity: Where Do We Start?
By Patricia Williams, The Nation.

Posted February 16, 2007.

Barack Obama's pursuit of the presidency has caused the media to obsess over exactly how black he is, bringing into debate America's slippery notions of race, culture and ethnicity.

I mean, you got the first sort of mainstream African-American who's articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man. -- Senator Joseph Biden, in faint but unfettered praise of Senator Barack Obama

Recently the New-York Historical Society and the Studio Museum of Harlem curated "Legacies," a fascinating show at N-YHS in which contemporary artists reflected on slavery. One of the commissioned pieces that accompanied the display was a short film by artists Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. It featured McCallum, who is white, and Tarry, who is black, configured as a "twinning doll" -- a nineteenth-century toy that has two heads, one at each end of a common torso. At the doll's waist is attached a long skirt or a cloak. Held vertically, the skirt falls and obscures one head. Flipped one way, it becomes a white doll. Turned upside down, the skirt falls the other way and suddenly it's a black doll.

In the film, McCallum and Tarry, joined at the waist by some feat of pixilated trickery and dressed in nineteenth-century clothing, flip head over head down a long dark marble corridor, first a white head, then a black head, first a white man, then a black woman, first a Thomas Jefferson, then a Sally Hemings. As they describe it, "the races are joined head to toe ... continuously revealing and concealing one another." Such an interesting metaphor for the state of our union.

When I inquired further, McCallum told me that there was an old children's song about the dolls: "Turn you up/Turn you back./First you're white/Then you're black." I tried Googling those words in hopes of finding a recording. Instead I turned up a satirical piece by rocker Lou Reed, "I Wanna Be Black," in which a (presumably hypothetical) "I" desires "to be black" as an escape from a neurosis of whiteness. Actually, the word "white" is never used in the song. It's alluded to in the chorus -- obliquely but with crystal clarity nonetheless: "I don't wanna be a fucked-up middle-class college student any more." According to these lyrics, whiteness is a dull preserve defined by respectable class status, college education and world-class angst; black people have ever so much more fun, what with having "natural rhythm," "a big prick," a "stable of foxy whores" and "get myself shot in the spring" "like Martin Luther King."

The jolly entertainment of switching identity from white to black and back again is not the exclusive province of frat boys slumming around as pretenders to ghetto life. "Jungle parties" are still good clean fun at country clubs, at Halloween parties down at the precinct and in the unfortunate confusion that is Kevin Federline. The inverse -- switching from black to white and black again -- is more freighted. Blacks who present themselves as clean and articulate and sober and important risk being viewed as false, elitist or duplicitous. "Acting white" has all these connotations. Whites "acting black," on the other hand -- i.e., any coded masquerade of down and dirty -- tend to be read as cool or maybe disaffected or, at worst, stuck in some stage of rebellious adolescence.

Frankly, what I found most unforgivable about Senator Biden's recent remarks was his utter failure to learn from a past in which he was intimately implicated. He was, after all, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when our spectacularly inarticulate President's father nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. As every last minority graduate of Yale -- whew, ten or fifteen at least -- came forward to weigh in about whether Thomas or Anita Hill was more believable, media forces expressed shock and awe that there were -- gasp -- just so many black people who could string a whole sentence together! Astonishing sequences of subject-verb-object! A few years later, it was Colin Powell who was perceived as shockingly articulate; then Condoleezza Rice.

The persistence of this narrative is not limited to Biden. On MSNBC's Chris Matthews Show, Matthews hosted a discussion of Obama's decision to run for President. "No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery," Matthews opined. "All the bad stuff in our history ain't there with this guy." Not true, I thought. The "bad stuff in our history" rests heavily upon each and every one of us. It shapes us all, whether me, Matthews, Obama, Biden -- or Amadou Diallo, the decent, hard-working Guinean immigrant without any American racial "history," who died in a hail of bullets fired by New York City police officers because he looked like what the officers, groaning with racial "baggage," imagined to be a criminal. Some parts of our racial experience are nothing more or less than particular to our accidental location in the geography of a culture.

If, for example, I migrated to South Africa and were greeted as an exciting, exotic black American prophet (we "articulate" blacks are inescapably "exotic" when we travel abroad), I'd be no less implicated in the complexities of that country's racial struggles -- even if I were entirely ignorant of those struggles. At a more complex level, however, American identity is defined by the experience of the willing diaspora, the break by choice that is the heart of the immigrant myth. It is that narrative of chosen migration that has exiled most African-Americans from a substantial part of the American narrative -- and it is precisely his place in that narrative that makes Obama so attractive, so intriguing and yet so strange.

Obama's family history is an assemblage of elements of the American dream. His late father migrated from Kenya to the United States; his mother was from Kansas. Before him, the archetypal narrative of immigrant odyssey had been an almost exclusively white and European one. I suspect that Obama's aura stems not just from a Tiger Woods-ishly fashionable taste for "biracialism" but from the fact that he's managed to fuse the immigrant myth of meteoric upward mobility onto the figure of a black man.

Back on Chris Matthews, Cynthia Tucker, a black woman who writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, responded, "He truly does seem to transcend race because his mother, after all, let's not forget, was white." Matthews agreed: "His grandmother he went to visit in Hawaii is white. Yeah." This, to me, was a baffling exchange. Obama's mother's being white is supposedly what allows him to transcend this thing called race? He looks black but he really isn't? Is blackness really only defined by Jim Crow, anger and slavery? If American-ness, at least in this equation, is defined by patronymic immigrant hope, is racial transcendence then to be defined by maternity, relation to whiteness, biology? "Transcendence" implies rising above something, cutting through, being liberated from. What would it reveal about the hidden valuations of race if one were to invert the equation by positing that Barack Obama "transcended" whiteness because his father was black?

Senator Obama has many attractive attributes -- he's smart, a great writer and speaker, a skilled tactician, full of fresh vision, youthful, with a good-looking Kennedy-esque appeal. Yet there are many people to whom his appeal rests not on what he is but on what they imagine he isn't. He's not a whiner; he's not angry. He doesn't hate white people. He doesn't wear his hair like Al Sharpton. He is not the whole list of negatives that people like Chris Matthews or Joe Biden or a whole generation of fucked-up middle-class college students identify as "blackness." Indeed, part of the reason I am anxious about the trustworthiness of Obama's widespread appeal is this unacknowledged value placed on his ability to perform "unexpected" aspects of both whiteness (as in, proud immigrant stock) and blackness (as in, his remarkable ability to discern that the sterling fish knife is not a shoe horn).

This is not just about the dualism of black and white, of course. Obama's family raised him in diverse locales -- Hawaii, Indonesia, the world. Does the perception of his identity change if we think of him as our first Hawaiian presidential candidate? To paraphrase, is he the first mainstream Hawaiian-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy who wouldn't be caught dead in a grass skirt holding a ukulele? Or the first mainstream Indonesian-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy who had the interesting experience of going to a Roman Catholic school in a largely Muslim country, which might provide lots of useful cultural insights for a President to have in this time and place? No, unfortunately, as there are those at Fox News who can't tell a Roman Catholic school from a madrassa.

Worse yet, a lot of the analysis of Biden's comment has skimmed over his patronizing of Obama's substance. Rather, it has focused on whether the comments destroyed Biden's chances to run for President. Who, after all, even knew Biden had his hat in the ring?

But back to Senator Obama, a presidential candidate of profound decency, extraordinary smarts and great eloquence. He was president of the Harvard Law Review, a position that requires not just the highest grades in the entire universe but also the unanimous acclaim of a band of viciously competitive students and a famously divided faculty. Those who make Law Review are immediate stars, and fabulously fast-tracked. Those who have served on the Law Review include a stunning and stellar array of familiar names: Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Chief Justice John Roberts; Dean Acheson, Alger Hiss, Archibald MacLeish, Judge Richard Posner, Michael Chertoff and New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. It is, in the secretly assigned world of global power, an even better ticket to the top than being sealed in a coffin at Skull and Bones. It was acknowledged as such when Jews first joined the Law Review, when Democratic political pundit Susan Estrich became the first woman president of the Law Review in 1976 and when Obama became its first black president. It is a position whose credentializing power has never been questioned as far as anyone knows -- at least till a few weeks ago, when the New York Times published an article in which Ron Klain, informal adviser to Biden's presidential bid, wondered if being president of the Law Review really and truly required the same skill set as being President of the United States. As a cabdriver recently expressed it to me: "Maybe the mirage in the desert is no more than a benchmark constantly being moved out of reach." (He too was articulate, and quite poetic, that cabbie. Made me wonder what benchmarks had been moved beyond his reach to leave him ferrying me around at midnight.)

Of course, the crown of the Law Review presidency is not the only aspect of Senator Obama's "authenticity" that's being refigured as a mess of thorns. If no one doubts his blackness when it comes to the uniqueness of his accomplishments while on the Law Review, he's apparently not "black enough" in other contexts. In another article in the Times, perpetual contrarians like Stanley Crouch, Debra Dickerson and Carol Swain were quoted as questioning whether he truly was a brother beneath the skin. It is surely ironic that Obama -- one of the very few Americans of any stripe who has actual first-degree relatives in Africa -- is being figured in some quarters as an imposter of African-American-ness.

At the same time, Obama's identity reveals the complex blindness and slipperiness of American conceptions of race, culture and ethnicity. There's a lovely quote from Saidiya Hartman's remarkable new book Lose Your Mother: As she wends her way through Ghana on a Fulbright Fellowship, she notes, "I was the stranger in the village, a wandering seed bereft of the possibility of taking root. Behind my back people whispered, dua ho mmire: a mushroom that grows on the tree has no deep soil. Everyone avoided the word 'slave,' but we all knew who was who. As a 'slave baby,' I represented what most chose to avoid: the catastrophe that was our past ... and what was forbidden to discuss: the matter of someone's origins."

As I read Hartman's words, I wondered how familiar that sentiment felt to me, or to the many African-Americans -- whether they've never left our shores or traveled the world -- so relentlessly in search of "home." I wondered how familiar that passage must feel to recent arrivals to our peculiarly dubbed "homeland." Just today I met a Swedish woman who is phenotypically "Asian." When she was a student at the University of California, she went to the hospital with stomach pains -- and was almost committed as insane before she ever got to see a doctor, because the administrative gatekeepers simply could not reconcile her appearance with her assertion that she was a Swedish citizen.

And in this moment of unprecedented diaspora, I wonder how familiar all these sentiments must feel to Barack Obama just now. Flipped endlessly down a hall of mirrored images of blackness and whiteness, he is no less celebrated than Frederick Douglass was as one whose entire identity is mired in the exhausted exceptionalism of the "surprisingly" hyperarticulate African phenotype; yet simultaneously embraced as one who has transcended the embodiment of a troublesome past and emerged on the other side -- bright as a newly minted coin, "cleansed" of baggage, of roots, of the unacknowledged rupture that is, paradoxically, our greatest national bond.


Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University and a member of the State Bar of California, writes The Nation column "Diary of a Mad Law Professor."

15 comments:

browneyedsoul06 said...

As the old cliché goes, they only build you up in order to tear you down. This is especially true in politics, as evidenced by the article from Patricia Williams about the deplorable treatment that Barack Obama has had to face on his road to the presidency. Obama, a candidate who has received considerable attention from the time he entered the senate just a few short years ago, has to deal with detractors before he even announced his presidential candidacy, but I don’t know why I’m surprised his “blackness” (or lack thereof) is being called into question. Simply put, politics is a dirty game that will never clean up the muck. Politicians, political pundits and various media analysts tend to go for the easiest shot, in this case Obama’s race. The Illinoisan has not made the issue of race one of his primary concerns, it happens to be everyone else in the United States that continues to harp on it.

Never do you hear a candidate’s whiteness or femininity being called into question, because white political figures are not expected to “lower’ themselves to please minority voters. When someone of a different race comes along, they have to perform the difficult balancing act of being “down” for their own nationality yet inoffensive to the staunchest conservatives and misguided, unorganized liberals. Those same voters force candidates of a different color to search for validation from them, almost putting on a Vaudevillian minstrel show (that was witnessed in "Bamboozled") to please them.

Despite all of this, I don’t feel as if Senator Biden’s comments were of a malicious intent but with all of the spin-artists, publicists and behind-the-scenes puppeteers that go along with politics, what on earth would possess him to say something like what he said, knowing it would get the coverage that it did? I feel it was a backhanded compliment given by an aging pseudo democrat who was trying to gain “cool” points for supporting a maverick such as Obama. I tend to agree with the text, that Biden was almost trying to jumpstart his DOA presidential campaign with the comments, as well as the somewhat painful appearance on The Daily Show the same day the story broke.

Obama has a serious chance to win the Oval Office but with stereotypes being reinforced from people in the media and a hype that has been going on for quite some time, I have to wonder if it’ll just be too much and a disappointment (i.e. a non-election) will occur. I truly hope that the American voters will see all of the conservative nonsense and democratic fumbling as no match for what an amazing, truly admirable politician, humanitarian and human being that Barack Obama just so happens to be.

GreatAmerican said...

After reading this posting I just want to say that when you are in politics you are going to be bad mouthed and beat up to the point that you may want to give up. But I do not think Obama will do this because he is just to bright and smart for that. In this posting you noted that people would not vote for him because of his race and ethnicity and people were saying that he wasn’t black enough. Well I am one who looks at the issues, not the color of there skin. But in the United States I am probably in the minority because most people do look at the color of your skin and judge you. I do not like this. If I choose not to vote for Obama it is because of his stance on many issues not because he is a black man. As far as him being a good president I have no doubts that he would make a very good president. The other thing that is hurting Obama is Hillary Clinton because she is attacking him and I believe that this hurts both of their chances for the presidency. I am a conservative and probably will not vote for Obama but I believe that he will give the Democratic party a good showing in the 2008 election.

viper10 said...

Congratulations, you truly are a great American. I say this about your views on voting and judging people. Like you I don't hold anyone's skin color against them, and I vote according to the politicians’ stance on the issues. I too think that Hillary is hurting Obama. However I think she is hurting the whole Democratic Party, not because she's a woman, but because of who she is, and what she stands for. I probably won't vote for Obama either, because I too am a conservative.

viper10 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jimboaimstrong said...

I would first like to say that I disagree with any statement saying Senator Obama has transcended either race, black or white. This is an impossible task for any person to accomplish. Race is not something to be transcended through. It is not something to rise above, or a laceration which can be sutured. Race is simply a skin pigment. Racism is what needs to be overcome Obama’s situation, and generally everyone else’s on this planet. If there is anything in this election that he must transcend it is the constant talk of his race, not his race itself.
Secondly, I found it odd this blog covered the talks on Obama’s race and childhood, but not the media’s scare-tactic of exploiting the Senator’s middle name, Hussein. Right wing media (namely Fox News) has attempted to make this name an apocalypse for Obama’s campaign. Which is a very sad, and in someways, hilarious attempt at gaining republican support. Although, would we really expect much more from the right? The answer here is “no”. Just as it is the answer to questions of if Obama’s race will affect his ability to fulfil the office of President, or if his childhood schooling will do so as well. After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, right?

Mr.Liberal said...

I am a big Obama supporter. I have no problem with a black president, in fact I fell that it would be a good thing for the country, better than a woman. Obama is a strong canadiate for President, that was until Joe Biden made those remarks about him. Somebody should do the political world a favor and get rid of Joe Biden. He has no idea what he is doing, and I can.t see how he was ever elected to any office. Back to Obama though; we need more senators like him, ones who actually care about this country and actually do things for the people that they represent. The article is off point of what kind of person that Obama really is, the kind that can get things done, work for the people, and represent us. Williams just focuses on the issue of how "black" Obama really is. Why is that so important? It should be the person and what he/she represents and not their skin color or religious background. This is what is wrong with American politics today, we focus on the person as an image and not what he represnets. This is also why we have so many Senators and Representatives that never get anything done. We need a change and the best change right now is Obama.

Buck_FuSh_9 said...

Recallings of William Bennett's arguments come into play when I read this article and the stereotypes it speaks of. He would say that Barack Obama has stepped outside of the group like tendencies of African Americans and that he has embraced more of an individualistic view of himself. He has embraced "white" traits such as having a hard work ethic, loads of ambition, and respectability. I think that Bennet would also say that as well. Personally I think that Bennet and other neoconservatives like him are full of shit. Since when does wanting to better yourself and trying to have a good, decent life a race trait. A trait honed by one race and disregarded by another. Deeply rooted stereotypes and assumptions are laced inbetween the comments made by people like Biden. That is sad that character traits are given just because of race. I like Obama and the fact that he hasn't played the race card shows alot about him. We are far from a day when people will be just people instead of a categorized creed or racial bracket. Until that changes I am sorry to say that people like Obama, people just trying to make it, will forever be hounded as too white or too black or too whatever.

no_names_available said...

Obama, in my opinion is a great candidate. He knows what he believes in and I think he will fight for what the people want. I think it is ridiculous that people bad mouth him because of his color, or his background, but I am beginning to think it is a part of American History to just tear down the aura of ones opponent.
I had a conversation with someone a few weeks ago and it ended with someone saying Obama was not just black, that the people will see him as white because that is the only way he will be elected.
I don’t agree with this. I think it is time for change. I believe our next president will be the first woman or the fist black man. Both to these people are going to hear and endless amount of ridicule, and it sucks.
I think Obama makes some white Americans uneasy because he doesn’t put off the usual stereotypes one would expect from him. He is half black, but he isn’t ghetto. He is half white, but he doesn’t look it. He lived in Hawaii, but he isn’t playing a ukulele. People do not know what category to put him in and that worries some people. He is not the norm. I personally like that about him.

clintbanks said...

I think Bush_fuck_9 was correct in pointning out that William Bennett is relavent in the argument of Obamas views on race. William Bennett I think would paradoxically agree with many of the messages delivered by Obama in his addreess at the DNC. He made statements to the affect that blacks should not view a black child with a book as white, and also that there is no Black america and no White america, only the united states of america. Obama still supports social systems such as affirmative action, but you can see his much larger philosophy is closer related actually to the conservative views of race if you take these comments as any indicator. This may be one reason that he is not seen as blacks, and actually loved by whited.

open_minded said...

Hopefully one day articles like this will be seen as ridiculous because we'll have moved on from the issue of skin color and it's effects on politics.

MLK didn't just want to be seen as a black man who was of equal value to a white man, but as a man who is equal to other men, regardless of the color of his skin.

It's actually an embarassment in my opinion that we're so wound up about Obama happening to be black. So what? What's his platform? How does his voting record look? Anyhting else is irrelevant.

JRHORNE said...

Well really I not surprized about the attack on Obama's blackness in politics. It has been proven time and time again that one of the huge tools politicans have used throught out time has been distraction and honestly I believe partly this is the what is going on here. Personally, out of all the canadates running right now I find Obama to be a breath of Fresh Air is the fore-runner for my vote when the time comes. Obama's "blackness" to me is irrelevant issue, becuase ideally I would like to believe that people choose their canadates based more on thier idea-ology then based on how black he is or isnt. But sadly we are a nation of stereo-types and categories. We like for people to be able to fit inside all these little preconcieved categories we put them. What human aspects can definately really determine ones blackness? Is such a thing possible? Honestly I dont think a way to measure such thing is a bit absurd.
Now saying Obama's racial identity has no meaing on this election is a bit far. The fact that Obama is an Africian American is sadly going to make most scrutinze everything he says and does into either trying to appease the public and deny who his black heritage, or he is going "against the general america public" to cater to those of his racial identity, and I think its sadly that this will be done.

And having heard people say that Obama's blackness is in question due the the fact that he has no direct black ancestery who was enslaved in America's history is about the most MORONIC thing i have ever heard. This fact will will have nearly no signifigance over the stereotypes, discriminations, ect that any Africain American would face in our society today. I once spoke earlier of boxes, and how we like to categorize people into the them, and I do not believe for one second our public makes this distinction for Obama at all.

drware12 said...

To me this is clearly a case of ‘Roots’. Alex Haley in the book ‘Roots’ was remarkably able to track his ancestry back through slavery, from his ancestor’s arrival to America. From Kunta Kintet to Chicken George he tracked his family through slavery. I feel that America has this obsession with the Black man breaking new ground in the 21st century that it really only leads to alienation of blacks. Most Black trailblazers break new ground and the media loves to spin how there ancestors were slaves. With Obama this can’t be done. So to some he can not truly be black. How could America’s first black president, not have the blood of a slave? All the time we read about blacks have accomplished things were grand-kids or great-grand kids or even great-great-grandkids of slaves. Why does his blackness matter? I think because if Obama was a descendent from a slave and became president some white Americans would say well now you’re even. We gave you your president. But, now he is questioned as being the black race’s president because his family hasn’t been through slavery. What does it mean to be black. The only people concerned about it are people in politics. I know one thing blacks will disown him if he is unsuccessful as president and tell lies of how he is there next of kin if he has a successful presidency.

Mr. Moneybags said...

Obama, upon becoming president, will be this decade’s O.J. Trial for African-Americans. The pure pandemonium that followed the O.J. verdict stunned white America and proved, according to some, that a black man could play with the white man and win. Obama is attempting to replicate this atmosphere, but must do so appearing white while staying black. However, the only way this push for black national reconciliation can be hampered is if his "blackness" is called into question. Liberals and conservatives alike are not as color blind as they would like to appear and what bounds the power hungry parties is their whiteness. The whites are still considered the "man" and are associated with both parties. The "man" in this case would take a serious blow if a black man was elected president. So the "man" sets-up various interviews that begin a whirlwind of "blackness" debates. William Bennett's idea of a color blind society is obviously being called into question. Martin Luther King Jr. writes about the oppression and how "every black man" must challenge it. This challenge is a metaphor for the entire race. The challenge, however, is not to challenge the system but to find yourself in fair guidance with the system. Furthermore, as long as "blackness" is in the media's vocabulary their will not be oneness in our society. For the word blackness to become common in media jargon was not Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream; he would not have wanted the first black presidential candidate to have a black-meter attached at his hip with a reading of blackness. What’s next? Do we get to put a truthness meter on Hillary Clinton? Or a insult meter on Ann Coulter? Just a question, and if we do I will buy the truth meter for Hillary.

raiden5060 said...

I’m getting sick of hearing about Obama’s race, the strangeness of his name, his cocaine use, his Islamic roots, etc. It’s all so very irrelevant. This is what the media seem to do every election cycle. Ignore the issues that matter and focus on the candidates personal lives. They did it to John Kerry, they did it to Howard Dean, and they did it to Al Gore and Bill Clinton. They DID NOT do it to George Bush (who himself has a undisputed history of cocaine use and alcoholism; a dubious record in the military—much more so than John Kerry’s service record; his grandfather, Prescott Bush, had questionable financial connections to the Nazis prior to WWII; we didn’t hear about any of this in the media and when we did the reports were quickly dismissed *See: Dan Rather*)
I know people who have told me that they will not vote for Barack Obama because of his name. I questioned to myself whether it had to do with just the name or the whole package: His blackness, his African ancestry, his Islamic history. When I see Obama, I see a man who has made a name for himself and has been successful on his own terms. I think he is an inspiration and a refreshing change from politics as usual (gosh is that phrase ever clichéd!). I wish the media would look past his race. There is a lot of depth there and there are many more important issues that if he is too black or too white.

rodeo8 said...

I agree with Raiden5060, I am getting sick of hearing about Obama and his race as well. I thought we as a society were over the whole racial issues. I realize that if he becomes president it will be a historically a huge thing for America because he will be the first black president, but I don’t understand why in every article and in every report about him, it has to be brought up the fact that he is black and Islamic. He is running for president just like anybody else is and just because he is black or Islamic should not affect people at whether they vote for him or not. American’s voting decision should be based on his platform and what stance he takes on certain issues. There are many more important issues in American and issues that America is involved with, than to worry about whether Obama is white, black, purple or blue. We as American’s should be focused on what he can do for our country and how he can get us out of some of the situations that we are in right now. We should be concerned about how he can better this country, by what he has to offer us.
Obama has been very successful in what he does and he deserves to have the opportunity to become president. He has done great things as a Senator and has made a great name for himself. I think that if Obama was elected president I think it would be a huge step in American because I think that it would show those who are in doubt that blacks can do anything whites can and that everyone is equal, if you work hard at what you do.