Barack Obama’s post-race politics, Part I

(Originally posted at Blog Meridian–hence some of the internal links taking you there.)

“Old man, . . . have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you dont remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?” –William Faulkner, “Delta Autumn”

Readers of this blog know that I have come to admire Barack Obama and that the speech he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial back in November (linked to above) sealed the deal for me. I’m not alone in that admiration, I know; what I strongly suspect, though, is that many people, even those who admire him, misunderstand him at a very fundamental level, while, ironically, those who are uncertain of him understand him better. Or, perhaps that’s unfair. It might be more accurate to say that we understand him at a subconscious level but find it difficult to articulate just what we’re responding to in him. So, I’d like to help out some by noting my sense of why Obama so commands our attention and, for many, embodies our hopes for the sort of politics our nation deserves and needs.

When seen through the lens not of contemporary politics but of a certain branch of American literature and history, what Obama is about becomes much clearer. The foundation of his sense of himself and, therefore, of his politics, I want to claim, is centuries older than our nation–so old, in fact, that many of us just don’t recognize it (that foundation) as something that has existed before and beyond this nation’s particulars. What follows, then, is one reading of American (in the sense of “of or pertaining to the Americas”) culture that, to my mind, Obama and his politics are the embodiment of. As I hope to show below, what Obama is doing is not naïve, nor is it innocent of risk. It’s breathtakingly audacious, in fact. His goal is not to become, to paraphrase the title of James Baldwin’s scathing essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Everybody’s Political Candidate . . . or, rather, it is, but not in the everybody-feel-good way that Baldwin argues is the effect of Stowe’s novel on white readers. It may not work for him, and I’m certain he knows that. But I hope it will–and if not for him, then for someone else–and (much) sooner rather than later.

First, a bit of background to give you a sense of my starting point for all this, and then back to a couple of speeches Obama has given in which he makes all this abundantly clear.

In my dissertation I argue that the racially-miscegenated figure in the literature of the Americas can often be read as a trope of New World culture itself: that is, as a culture imagined by none of the parties that produced it, considered undesirable and even base by those parties, constantly policed; yet which nevertheless did occur and which has in the centuries after the Encounter has produced a new culture, distinct from the cultures that produced it. The mulatto is, in our country, a figure of shame and guilt, emerging as it does out of the all–too-frequent site of miscegenation, the plantation raping of black women by white men. Without in any way denying the truth of that narrative, it is not at all hard to find, running parallel to it, another narrative, preserved in the historical as well as the literary record of our nation as well as throughout the Americas: consensual relations between white masters (and mistresses) and slaves. Indeed, relations between white women and black enslaved men was so prevalent in Virginia that the legislature felt compelled to pass a series of laws with ever-increasing penalties punishing precisely that relationship. What fascinated me about those narratives of consensual relations is how, again and again, in the historical as well as the literary narratives, it is others–not the couple–who make their different races an issue. The couple knows only love for each other; “race” to them is a collection of laws and social restrictions to be escaped from. Meanwhile, it’s the community, both black and white, who are left dumbfounded in various ways that something other than power or sex is at the heart of such relationships.

It’s through that particular lens that I’ve been thinking about Obama lately, especially since I heard this NPR story from last month in which black politicians respond to the question, Is Barack Obama “black” enough for blacks to identify with–or him with them? As I understand what’s behind that question, in their eyes–and, I suspect, in those of more than a few whites, Obama is an embodiment of another stereotype of 19th-century American literature: the mulatto as a figure with divided loyalties who is potentially duplicitous and, thus, someone to be a bit wary of. To my mind, though, such a question reveals just how inattentively people are listening to him. They see a black politician but aren’t quite hearing what a black politician is “supposed” to say. Some blacks–and those whites whom an Obama candidacy makes nervous (in particular, his political rivals)–would much prefer that he, to paraphrase a song title, be real black for them–not just because he would more obviously fit the traditional narrative of a black politician but also, in the case of his rivals, because it then becomes easier to attack the weaknesses in such a politics.

I have news for at least some of these people: Obama is black, but he’s not running as a black politician. But neither is he some white person’s token. He is, in fact, so literally African-American by virtue of his parentage that he in effect calls into question the very meaning of that term as traditionally understood. More potently, he is the physical embodiment his politics of inclusion in ways that most black politicians, rightly or wrongly, are often seen as only talking about. Obama’s rhetoric, as I understand it, assumes a priori that that traditional way of thinking practiced by and attributed to black politicians is rooted in an older politics, one rooted in the injustices of the past but which he, while properly and powerfully acknowledging, wants to move–and wants to move us–beyond. I don’t know if Obama knows Richard Rodríguez’s book Brown (which I briefly discuss here), but I feel certain he would understand it and would agree with much of it.

Obama’s politics, in other words, is a post-race politics. Haivng said that, though, no one, white or black, should mistake that as meaning that in Obama’s eyes one side or another has “won” or “lost.” A better way to think about such matters is that they don’t drive his politics. They are ultimately divisive; they are about keeping score; they utilize the past as a club or as an excuse or hanging above us (literally as well as figuratively) as a wrong that no amount of legislation or court rulings or constitutional amendments or anger or guilt can ever truly make right.

That attitude is embodied in the Faulkner quote at the beginning of this post, spoken by a mulatto woman who has fallen in love and had a child with a white relative of the old man she addresses these words to–an old man who, as it turns out, she is distantly related to. Ike (the old man) assumes the woman wants revenge on her white lover, who has decided he cannot be her husband and so has abandoned her; when he tells her that, she responds as quoted above and then leaves. She wants no money; she wants no pity, nor revenge. Just love. Nothing fancy: just a shared life with its mutual responsibilities.

How Obama gives voice to this post-race politics is the subject of Part II of this post, above.

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