Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Barack Obama's post-race politics, Part II

(You can find Part I of this post here)

So how does Barack Obama articulate a post-race politics in a nation--in a hemisphere--whose history has been shaped by racial tension literally since before Columbus? Here in the speech Obama gave at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, he reframes the theme of race in this country in such a way that no one can be excluded from that history by talking about it, and our nation, in theological terms:

By his own accounts, [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] was a man frequently racked with doubt, a man not without flaws, a man who, like Moses before him, more than once questioned why he had been chosen for so arduous a task - the task of leading a people to freedom, the task of healing the festering wounds of a nation's original sin.
Those last 12 words, as I noted back in November, so simply and directly and eloquently encapsulate the history of race relations in this country from Jamestown to the present that I literally had to stop reading to catch my breath and wipe a few tears from my eyes. But what really caught my attention is that, in his theological figuring of racial injustice in the political/cultural/historical context of a nation, all are complicit, all equally tainted, all equally punished--because all have transgressed (though, to be sure, in different senses). This sort of language doesn't emerge from focus-group testing but from deep conviction in the truth of those words. That fact makes them all the more audacious, all the more thrilling that a politician--any politician--would bare his convictions in such a way.

[Aside: compare to this language, from Hillary Clinton's speech in Selma on the same day Obama delivered the one to be discussed later:
"I come to share the memories of a troubled past and a hope for a better tomorrow. Our future matters, and it is up to us to take it back, put it into our hands, start marching toward a better tomorrow."
While I have no reason to doubt her sincerity, it's not as though her language exactly resounds in the memory, much less seek to engage us intellectually, as Obama's does.]

That trope of "original sin" unites blacks and whites in our common inheritance as Americans, compelling us to work out our national and cultural "salvation" together, bearing equal individual and collective responsibility for that working-out. Framed in this way, then, race, as traditionally talked about in this country, isn't an issue. The question of Obama's blackness becomes moot.

Or ideally, it should.

In the speech Obama recently gave in Selma is in some ways an extension of the speech above, in that he begins by noting that he's a member of the Joshua generation, speaking "in the presence . . . of a lot of Moseses." Even so, though, he mentions an exchange he had with some guests earlier that day at the (ironically-named) Unity Breakfast:
I was mentioning at the Unity Breakfast this morning, my -- at the Unity Breakfast this morning that my debt is even greater than that because not only is my career the result of the work of the men and women who we honor here today. My very existence might not have been possible had it not been for some of the folks here today. I mentioned at the Unity Breakfast that a lot of people been asking, well, you know, your father was from Africa, your mother, she's a white woman from Kansas. I'm not sure that you have the same experience.

And I tried to explain, you don't understand. You see, my Grandfather was a cook to the British in Kenya. Grew up in a small village and all his life, that's all he was -- a cook and a house boy. And that's what they called him, even when he was 60 years old. They called him a house boy. They wouldn't call him by his last name.

Sound familiar?

He had to carry a passbook around because Africans in their own land, in their own country, at that time, because it was a British colony, could not move about freely. They could only go where they were told to go. They could only work where they were told to work.

What happened in Selma, Obama goes on, "sent a shout across oceans so that my grandfather began to imagine something different for his son. His son, who grew up herding goats in a small village in Africa could suddenly set his sights a little higher and believe that maybe a black man in this world had a chance."

Under any other circumstances--and perhaps with any other politician--the above would have been more than sufficient to demonstrate one's bona fides. But Obama pushes this narrative even further, into a territory that, not all that long ago, would have been unthinkable, especially for someone in Obama's position facing the audience he was facing:
This young man named Barack Obama got one of those tickets [and scholarships offered to Africans during the Kennedy administration] and came over to this country. He met this woman whose great great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves; but she had a good idea there was some craziness going on because they looked at each other and they decided that we know that the world as it has been it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child. There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Alabama.
Again: absolutely stunning in its audacity, this reconceiving (no pun) of one of the key moments in the history of black people's struggle for equality in this country as an act that makes possible his (mixed-race) parents' love for each other and, thus, Obama's very existence. Even braver than that: the vagueness of the referent for the bolded "they" allows us to think that Obama is saying it was the people marching across that bridge, every bit as much as his parents' meeting, that led to his conception.

Just to remind the reader: many in Obama's audience, even if they didn't actually attend Emmitt Till's funeral, they certainly saw the pictures of Till in his casket in Jet. As much as any other reason, perhaps more, Jim Crow was about the policing of black male social (read: sexual) contact with white women. But Selma, for those marchers, was emphatically not about challenging that particular Southern taboo . . . that is, not until Obama's speech asked his audience to see it in that way so as to explain his physical--and political--existence. He joyfully declares, in effect, that the White Citizens Councils and Klansmen were indeed right--but to their shame, not to his.

Obama is not rewriting that narrative or denying its crucial importance to the story of African-Americans in the U.S. As you'll see if you read the speech, he clearly reveres the Moseses in his audience. Instead, as would be appropriate in a post-race politics, Selma acquires a larger, broader significance. It comes to symbolize not "merely" freedom and justice for African-Americans but freedom and justice, period . . . and, for an African man and a Kansas girl, a glimpse of a coming world in which they, even they, could love each other.

I've heard two common knocks against Obama's candidacy, one a corollary of the other: 1) He's just full of pretty words; 2) But what do those pretty words add up to? I don't know about (2), but that will come with time. As for (1), though, I'll say it again: either those who say that just aren't listening, or they aren't understanding what Obama is doing, the grain against which he's speaking. Way back in Part I of this post, I said that there were two strands of the miscegenation narrative in this nation, the plantation-rape-scene narrative and the consensual-relations narrative. The politics of race in this country has had that former narrative as its subtext: white shame and guilt and black victimhood and a desire to right those past crimes have been the twin fuels for that politics. Obama is a living, breathing embodiment of the second narrative: this is one mulatto that, near as I can tell, doesn't have a tragic bone in his body. He believes that so strongly about his own life, he's willing to believe this nation can be, and I don't mean this at all sarcastically but very much in the spirit that Dr. King meant it, free at last of that all-too-familiar hate- and shame-filled narrative. His success or failure, at least in terms of leading us toward a post-race politics, will depend on the extent to which we collectively cling, for whatever reason, to that more-familiar narrative.

UPDATE (April 15, 2007): Chuck Todd, in this recent MSNBC piece on the Obama and Clinton campaigns' respective responses to the Imus kerfluffle, gets Obama right . . .
I have yet to see paper from the Obama campaign since both NBC and CBS announced their decisions to terminate Imus. That’s not an oversight. Obama is a candidate for president who happens to be black; he shies away from any attempt to become THE black candidate for president.
. . . but for the wrong reason:
Obama seems to tiptoe around issues that are so defined by race. He must believe his candidacy has a lower ceiling if he becomes too defined by his race.
Again: It's not that Obama refuses to engage in identity politics; it is that identity politics simply aren't his politics. The speech at Selma could not have made that any clearer.

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R. Sherman said...

Nice analysis.

It remains to be seen whether he will be able to change the metanarrative you describe. I certainly hope so, but it seems there are too many stakeholders with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo to allow that for long. Think Maxine Waters. That will be the real test for him, I think. Can he maintain his position in the face of power driven politics or will he surrender to court votes? I hope it is the former, because like you, I see Mr. Obama as pointing a way toward a more civil future for all of us.

Will Robison said...

Great analysis. I was on the bandwagon before - now I'm inching towards the driver's seat. This guy is the most dynamic politician I've seen in an entire generation of politicians. To dream of his Presidency... well, it gives me hope again for the United States.

Winston said...

I am fully in-tune with the comments of r. sherman and will robison. Obama embodies the most appealing combination of intellect, charisma, and oratory seen in my lifetime. Clinton and Kennedy came close, but Obama has that certain something -- a spark that welds it all together into a seamless entity.

You have done a most credible jof of collecting, analyzing, and articulating this. Thanks...

The County Clerk said...

I like your blog but a not a member of the Obama congregation. To list my reasosn would be antagonistic. To not do so, apathetic.

So... My comment is simply a question: Is this blog going to become more political as the silly seasons overtakes us?

John B. said...

Thanks to all of you for stopping by and commenting.

Hank, not to worry: these things were floating around in my head and, as I noted, happened to intersect with academic interests of mine; I just wanted to get them down in a more-public space than a notebook. But this blog isn't going to go all political on you.