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
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?
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.