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.
Right-wing radio hosts politely dismiss the birthers’ conspiracy theories in the same way that they distanced themselves from Bardwell, but incessantly they deplore a regime of “political correctness” that, like the cabal of B-movie Africans swearing blood oaths in the night, has whites on the run. The radio, the direct-mail pieces, the calls at dinnertime from Newt Gingrich’s operation are all on-message: the leader of this regime is by turns a fool and a tyrant, an antiwhite racist whose fealty is not to the USA but to government, debt, appeasement, socialism, communism. If he is not himself a terrorist, terror is what he inspires. No one need say he’s out to sap white culture and rape white women; it’s enough that he will enslave their children, the black man’s revenge. How quaint it all seems that just a year ago some leftists were saying that Obama had dodged the expected racist volleys because his story is not a black story but an immigrant story. Somehow, in all the hoopla, they forgot about Africa.
American shlock-pop culture bulges with images of African menace and white vulnerability (or dangerous desire, as in The Gorilla Woman, with “Giant Monsters enthroned as love gods!” and a cheesecake heroine at ease in the hands of an ape), a trend that increased after World War II, as colonial empires crumbled, the cold war settled into a contest over the third world and, domestically, the black scare began to eclipse the red scare. Communists were associated with free love, desegregation and decolonization; civil rights leaders were called commie symps and had their beds bugged. The same elites who defended Jim Crow in the South–men such as Thomas Waring, a South Carolina newspaper editor who wrote, “Some basic truths stand out like the Ten Commandments. Southerners are not yet ready to accept an eleventh, ‘Thou shalt not protect the purity of thy race'”–shaped right-wing policy toward white supremacist regimes in southern Africa. They supported Barry Goldwater in 1964 and split the Republicans against Gerald Ford in 1976 for shirking his duty as the leader of a superpower and a white power. In Ronald Reagan, who backed the rump state of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, they had their man.
In these Southerners’ Rhodesian endeavor, from the 1960s to 1980, sexual anxiety, white rule and anticommunism “seemed to be part of a seamless garment,” writes Gerald Horne in his excellent book From the Barrel of a Gun: The United States and the War Against Zimbabwe, 1965-80. Rhodesia had no communist or left parties, and liberationists initially were not driven by socialist ideology. To white colonialists and their American amen chorus, that was irrelevant, just as the paeans to racial purity were undisturbed by a historic indulgence in what Horne calls “sexual plunder.” The white regime forcibly recruited colored women as prostitutes to service mercenaries who came by the hundreds from the United States to fight for white power and stanch the red tide. It recruited especially beautiful black women as spies. White claims to superiority hinged on imagining the African as a brute, which blew back in the form of white angst about sexual inferiority. A white Rhodesian researcher said she “‘personally’ recorded ‘the dimensions of the penis of each dead guerrilla’ she encountered.” Ronald Hyam, a historian of African colonialism, pronounced, “One thing is certain. Sex is at the very heart of racism.”
“Communism” was just a stand-in. It still is.