Illustration by Doug Chayka, 2008
To say that Barack Obama is our first serious black presidential candidate drastically understates the matter. When Obama greets his political allies, he does not give a simple, firm, businesslike handshake. Instead he offers the sort of dap–a little English in the wrist and a one-armed hug–that black males spend much of their adolescence perfecting. If elected, surely Obama will be the first President to greet foreign dignitaries with a pound. Obama warms up on election morning not by running a three-miler or swimming laps but by shooting hoops. The Illinois senator sports a flawless and ever-fresh Caesar demonstrative of the razorwork native to only one side of the tracks. Think Jay-Z–“I’m not looking at you dudes/I’m looking past you”–not Jay Rockefeller.
Likewise, Obama’s wife, Michelle, is not merely a black woman but a black woman bearing the diction of that particular tribe of overachieving South Side Chicago blacks who, as children, were corrected with old adages like “ain’t is not a word.” Reporters have been stunned by her raw wit, by her unwillingness to fawn and gush over her husband. But that’s standard procedure in black America, where conflicts stretching back to slave ships have taught women to spurn the Stepford act and view every alleged Lancelot askance.
At campaign events Obama is known to crack himself up–once at a barbershop he began snapping, unprompted, on a customer’s alligator shoes. During a speech in South Carolina, to the amusement of himself and a predominantly black crowd, Obama noted that his opponents were trying to “bamboozle” and “hoodwink” the voters. He pulled up after noting that he was “having too much fun.” The schooled observer could have seen through the first layer of laughter and beheld the real fun–here is a black man running for President by paraphrasing Malcolm X.
Obama’s favorite TV series is The Wire. His favorite character is Omar, the coal-black antihero who prowls the streets of West Baltimore toting a shotgun and robbing drug dealers. Of course, there’s the matter of Obama’s retired pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and his United Church of Christ, which right-wingers have taken to equating with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, respectively. A few months before the professional babblers began frothing at the mouth over Wright, the Obama campaign got wind that it might have an image problem. Its response? Filming a YouTube spot of what must be one of only five white members praising the church’s openness. It’s the old “some of my best friends are black” misdirection play, but executed from the left side.
At night the cable talk shows are filled with trifling gibberish that either extols Obama’s “postracialism” or cautions him against being branded the “black presidential candidate.” Usually it’s both. These pronouncements are almost always made by men who would most likely be hard-pressed to recall the last time they sat down to dinner with a black family. Their viewpoints are shaped by focus groups, polls and warmed-over bromides like “defense moms” and “NASCAR dads.” I can’t think of a group more ill equipped to bear witness to humanity, much less a phenomenon as intricate and complicated as race in America.