It must have been about the time that Barack Obama was being born or toddling around that I got my first, alarming introduction to the white man’s idea of Africa. As I remember it, I was sitting in my grandmother’s parlor, watching TV while she bustled about the kitchen. The images are fractured now: beating drums, a blood oath, white people sleeping in an isolated farmhouse and large, gleaming African men on a rampage with machetes, closing in, in high-contrast black and white; letters scrawled across the screen in a classic scare font, “Mau Mau!”
Maybe this was 1959, when British colonial forces in Kenya finally crushed the seven-year peasant revolt through a counterinsurgency campaign of murder, mutilation, torture, concentration camps and mass public hangings. Or maybe it was 1963, when the Africans of Kenya secured their independence. And maybe a television programmer somewhere thought that the 1955 grind-house shockumentary Mau-Mau, narrated by a proper newsman, Chet Huntley, was good enough to excerpt in a proper news broadcast years later, or even to run as entertainment on a slow afternoon, censoring out the naked black women and half-naked white women on the edge of ravishment, the filmmakers’ whole reason for calculating they could make money off such a flick in the first place.
These shards of memory came to mind when I saw the image of Obama as Witch Doctor, which Dr. David McKalip, a right-wing Florida neurosurgeon, forwarded to a listserv of tea-party zealots a few months ago. Liberal bloggers who had made a cottage industry out of caricaturing George W. Bush were predictably appalled, but the unknown graphic artist and McKalip did the country a perverse favor. More than all the words on the subject spilled so far, this lone image banishes the nonsense of postracial America and reminds us of the sturdy foundation blocks upon which racial America in the modern period has rested: white supremacy/anxiety, anticommunism and sex.
The image is a pastiche. Obama’s head is grafted onto a picture of a man wearing nothing but bead necklaces and a loincloth, his legs spread wide, his long, thick fingers grasping a stick in front of him. There’s a bone through his nose and a confection of feathers and flowers on his head. The picture evokes the world of National Geographic that once gave children a guiltless excuse to indulge their curiosity in the flesh. Under the witch doctor picture is the slogan “Obama Care,” with the red, white and blue campaign symbol serving as the O and a sickle and hammer as the C.
The statement McKalip and his cohort were making is thus a political pastiche as well: Obama is foreign, strange, not “natural born”; half-naked, he is a figure of danger, seductive perhaps for his exoticism, his magic–the promise of cures–but ultimately loathsome, at once clownish, somehow thrilling to confront but also frightening, certainly not someone a white man would want to leave alone with his daughter… and a communist to boot.
It’s demented, but not in the way commonly suggested when liberals laugh off the birthers, their fellow travelers in Congress and those now trying to breathe life into the rattling bones of anticommunism as “crazies.” What seems to be a hodgepodge of interests is all of a piece, following a familiar logic, welded to sex; its mouthpieces merely had to come up with a diverting language.
Fifty years ago, white Southerners rallied on the steps of Little Rock High School, the ladies in their summer dresses, the men in shirt-sleeves and scowls. In one famous picture, some await their turn at a microphone while others bear placards that declare Race Mixing IS Communism. Today no one is so crude as to decry “race mixing,” which back in the day drew a straight line from sharing a blackboard to sharing a bed. Even Keith Bardwell, the Louisiana justice of the peace who recently refused to marry a black man and white woman, says he was thinking only of “the children.” Perhaps he’s seen the streets of Baton Rouge grow darker; the mothers pushing brown, black or mixed-race babies more numerous. Like him, the fringe ranters emphasize birth, nattering on about a constitutional crisis while nurturing the more fertile idea of a woman and man reproducing, unnaturally.