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.