A Deeper Black

A Deeper Black

Shelby Steele’s book on Barack Obama, an outdated critique of identity politics, misses the candidate’s essential power.


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.

Meanwhile, African-American voters have broken for Obama in margins that make Hillary Clinton look about as popular in the neighborhood as Rudy Giuliani. In this, the hamfisted and befuddled intellects of the world see the “advantages” of being black: chief among them a mindless mass of zombies willing to stumble into poll booths and press a button for the black guy. But what the African-American Obama voter sees is so much more than just the first black President. Indeed, she sees the blackest man to take the public stage ever. Forget about reparations, welfare and white guilt. Forget about 400 years, forty acres and a mule. Forget about the Confederate flag, marching through Jena and Duke lacrosse. Barack Obama is black in the Zen-like way in which white people are white–without explanation. Without self-consciousness. Without permission.

While we’re at it, forget the man himself: the clearest evidence of Obama’s blackness is his utter invisibility as a black man to the thinking class. The idea that took root as soon as Obama hit the national stage was that the junior senator from Illinois was not really black because he was raised in Hawaii by a white mother and does not scream about race every five minutes. When Obama made his now famous address to the 2004 Democratic convention, most of the earliest reactions denied the man’s very existence. In the wake of his speech, most commentators sounded variations on the same false note. Christopher Buckley, in the New York Times, called him “the new Tiger Woods of American politics,” while William Saletan, in Slate, said, “Obama isn’t exactly black.”

In all justice, the blindness extended across the races. After the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was under way, Stanley Crouch asserted that Obama does not “share a heritage with the majority of black Americans,” while Debra Dickerson simply stated that Obama wasn’t black. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Industrial Complex (CRIC), firmly allied with Hillary, did its best to dislodge Obama from the community he claimed as his own. Last fall, Andrew Young announced his support for Clinton on a local Atlanta news show; he’d probed his (presumably black) political connections in Chicago about Obama and reported that “they don’t know anybody around him.” Then Young pushed things further, claiming that Bill Clinton is “every bit as black as Barack.”

Since its conception in the guilt-wracked minds of slave traders, blackness has repeatedly sucked the light from otherwise intelligent folks, rendering them empty, dim vessels in its presence. But pundits did not simply stop at noting Obama’s lack of soul; they went on to charge that their measure was somehow universal, that their pronouncements could be trusted as the Doppler radar of electoral breezes and gusts in the black community.

The result was a flurry of stories, which employed the most preliminary of polls, asserting that Hillary Clinton’s roots in the black community would ultimately trump Obama’s. The swipe was twofold: it posited a black community wracked by xenophobic suspicion of Obama while putting distance between the obvious complexity of Obama and the assumed simple-mindedness of black people.

In fact, the notion that Barack Obama would be banished because of his ancestry is the sort of unlettered theorizing that presumes black people are just a mirror image of whites. But unlike white Americans, blacks have centuries of experience dealing (sometimes not so kindly) with biracial people in their midst. For African-Americans, the blessing of the one-drop rule is blackness as a big tent. Indeed, the first Barack Obama was Frederick Douglass, a biracial slave and autodidact who throttled his slave breaker, fled to the North, traveled the world as an abolitionist, became an ally of Lincoln and published his poignant memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. For his troubles, Douglass was vilified in his time. Critics of his day asserted that no slave, current or ex, could write so movingly.

Whites, on the other hand, often tend to be interested only in someone’s biracial parentage, as if there’s some credit to be taken. As Obama has acknowledged, were he a notorious drug lord–no matter his background–there would be no rush to analyze the impact of his biraciality. He would be black. There’d be no other choice.

More recently, actual black people who do not talk for a living have rarely reached for the tool of public banishment. At our roots, there is something cloying about us. Having masqueraded as the great American pariah for all our collective lives, we are quick to flock to the banner of even those who want nothing to do with us. O.J. Simpson, who seemed to spurn his origins at every turn, was suddenly transformed into Malcolm X after he was accused of murder. The idea that a black community wracked by misfortune would reject a handsome, Ivy League-educated civil rights lawyer turned senator turned presidential candidate, who’d married a black woman and made his home on the South Side of Chicago–who actually had a chance to win–is, and was, laughable. The fraud was exposed as soon as South Carolina’s exit polls started rolling in.

Here is the lesson of it all: never write a book that can be summed up in a four-minute segment of Hardball. Item: Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. Christened “America’s foremost black intellectual” by George Will–an unsurpassed authority in these matters–Steele is an artifact of the identity culture wars that plagued the 1980s and ’90s. And when charged with analyzing Obama-mania, Steele declines to refit his spectacles for the post-9/11 era and instead reaches for the same rusting frames he’s been using for almost two decades. “The post-sixties black identity is essentially a totalitarian identity,” he writes. “It wants to be an activist identity; it wants black protest to be built into each black person’s sense of self.”

What follows is a flat and contemptuous rendering of black America. Steele argues that Obama can’t win because blacks will not vote for a man who doesn’t yell “white supremacy” whenever he’s presented with an open mike. Steele, like his compatriots in the pundit class, isn’t one to allow actual people to get in the way of a good argument. Writing on hip-hop, he argues that rappers can never assume the iconic status needed to transcend America’s racial divide. This would come as news to Will Smith, the first rapper to win a Grammy and currently the most bankable star in Hollywood. At his roots, Steele lacks the nuance to approach black America not as an idea but as a collection of actual thinking, breathing, contradicting (and self-contradictory) human beings.

This is why so much of what’s been said about Barack Obama and African-Americans has been so shockingly wrong. Intellectuals examining Obama are trapped in an ancient dynamic–one that even in its heyday was overstated–in which white and black America are constantly at each other’s throats, and agree on nothing. The either/or fallacy is their default setting. (“Assimilation, not blackness, is the road to success,” writes Steele.) They were made for a world where affirmative action and welfare reform were campaign issues, not one where universal healthcare and the Iraq War have dominated the debate.

A Bound Man has the whiff of an author who spends very little time around the people he deigns to judge. The book misses the essential power of Barack Obama: that he is revealing for white America the quiet mass of black people who do not spend their days calculating the wages of slavery. Steele can’t grasp that blackness, like any cultural force, works quietly and has no desire to be folded into square minds.

Fortunately, it’s people, not caricatures, who vote. Thus, if you need any more evidence of Obama’s blackness, do nothing more than look at the exit polls where he’s dominated most demographics, but especially his own. I would like to say that this is beyond identity politics, but really it isn’t. In South Carolina, where Obama’s hoarding of the black vote began, Al Sharpton, four years earlier, finished third among black voters. But Sharpton, like his comrades among the CRIC, is weighted to a media-driven definition of blackness defined by opposition. Obama’s blackness is at once futuristic and conservative. It recalls the blackness displayed in the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, in which racial paranoia is rendered an afterthought; it also reflects the experience of generations of black people who’ve encountered white America not as an idea but as a collection of individuals.

Barack Obama hails from Hawaii, but he also has roots in a rather large tribe of African-Americans of recent vintage who are intimately acquainted with both Americas. Some of them were raised in the affluent suburbs by parents who’d known only the rot of inner cities. Many others, like Obama, are the product of interracial unions, privileged to experience both white and black people on intimate levels. They are the ones who spurned the Ivy League for Spelman and Morehouse, or who rebuffed offers from corporate law firms for a return to the streets.

I speak not as one of them. I grew up like most of black America, de facto segregated. When I went off to college at historically black Howard University, blackness was only what I’d seen–row houses with shallow porches, a nasty crossover dribble, hard-driving parents and reverence for Nat Turner. But in my first year at Howard, I met all kinds–math majors fluent in Russian, Marilyn Manson fans, kids straight out of Jack and Jill with fond debutante memories. The first girl I ever fell for had an Indian father and a black mother. She would flash pictures from a photo album of her visits to the subcontinent. The next girl had turned down NYU for Howard and now ran the campus’s embattled gay and lesbian club.

What they all shared was a flight from bastions of whiteness, where their names were often shackled to the prefixes “first” and “only.” What they shared was a constant flurry of backhanded compliments from their white peers, who, having witnessed them succeed at anything nonathletic (AP English, debate team, smile), would assure them that they “were not really black” or at least “were not like other blacks.”

From their unspoken variety, from the Alphas and Omegas, from the buoyant Afros and long dreads, from the night-blacks to those who were almost passing, I drew the great lesson that black was a country, a broad, beautiful America refracted through a smoky lens. For sure, they were different from me. I was young and bursting with militancy and nationalism–among my treasured effects were obscure tomes of proto-Afrocentricity, a burgeoning collection of music, a stack of notebooks crowded with bad poetry of the “Kill Whitey” persuasion. But when we talked, I could feel the shared essence between us.

They were some of the most confident black people I’d ever known. All our lives we’d been raised to see white people as wraiths, as demigods worthy of either complete subservience or unrelenting opposition. This was the logic of our parents, who’d never been free to see whites as fully human and thus to see themselves in the same way. It’s also the logic that Shelby Steele thinks still dominates black America. What I learned from the black émigrés who’ve walked through America, and what I gathered as I aged and walked the land myself, was that the much-ballyhooed powers of white people were neither good nor wicked, just overrated.

This is the blackness of Barack Obama. It is an identity that asserts itself without conscious thought. It has no need of marches and placards. It rejects an opportunistic ignorance of racism but understands that esoteric ramblings about white-skin privilege do not move the discussion further. It does not need to bluster, to scream, to hyperbolize. Obama’s blackness is like any other secure marker of identity, subtle and irreducible to a list of demands.

It also lines up perfectly with even those younger blacks who’ve never ventured beyond the veil but who, minus the shadow of segregation, have concluded that their skin is as worthy as the next man’s. This is why all the fuss over how much or how little Obama addresses racism misses the point. Obama mentions white racism about as often as black people actually think about white racism–which is to say rarely.

This is not an endorsement. I came up waving The Final Call and convinced that the answer to everything lay in the last words of Frantz Fanon. To which most of my friends would reply, “So, who won the game last night?” Survey the average voter in Harlem, Detroit or West Baltimore, ask her to rank her presidential concerns and see where “reparations” or “abolishing the Confederate flag” compares with, say, “healthcare” or “ending the war.” In the wake of Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia, the pundits swooned, marveling specifically at Obama’s willingness to say that those who fled inner-city America, who opposed affirmative action, were not racist.

It is the final insult of segregation that such unthinking logic is allowed to stand. In fact, anyone who knows black folks understands that Obama had nothing to lose–black people have been fleeing those same inner-city neighborhoods since the 1970s. To see Obama’s point as a mark of courage or even a concession, you’d have to imagine a black America that woke up, every morning, thinking only about welfare and affirmative action. The olive branch Obama extended to white people came directly from the grove of black America, not from some newly discovered transracial hinterland. This is why Obama was able to secure South Carolina without becoming entrenched in the patronage schemes of various black preachers. Obama is a black man, and thus he needed no surrogates to translate for him, no verification from the crumbling CRIC.

Whatever comes of it from here on out for the larger country, Obama has redefined blackness for white America, has served notice that wherever we are, we are. What he is positing is blackness as a valid ethnic identity with its own particular folkways and yet still existing within the broader American continuum. Already a wave of black politicos–Deval Patrick, Corey Booker, Jesse Jackson Jr.–have raised a similar banner, and there is nothing “postracial,” “postblack” or “transcendental” about it. (By the way, does anyone call Joe Lieberman “post-Jewish-American” or Mel Martinez “post-Cuban-American”?) Indeed, it is a deeper black, the mark of a less defensive, more self-assured African-American leadership. Our forebears, God bless them, held blackness like an albatross, which they sought to affix around the neck of white America. But this generation, Obama’s generation, holds blackness like a garland, sure in the knowledge that the only neck it belongs around is our own.

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