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L'Étranger | The Nation

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L'Étranger

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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

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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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?

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