Obama The Less And Less Magic Negro

05/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Back in March of '07, black LA writer David Ehrenstein wrote a now-famous piece called "Obama the 'Magic Negro'." In it, he likened Obama to a favorite media "figure of postmodern folk culture..." that needs to be added to the canon of media caricatures immortalized in Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks. This new figure provides "yeoman service to his white benefactors." It is a character seen as selflessly serving white people--with his life if necessary. Think Scatman Crothers in The Shining, who sacrifices his life to save the white hero. Think the semi-retarded "magical" creature in The Green Mile, who uses his healing Negro powers to save the lives of white people associated with his false imprisonment.

Ehrenstein's analysis was tainted when Rush Limbaugh stole it, sucked the brains out of it, and spewed it into his microphone like so much beer and bile-soaked fratboy swill. However, the analysis was sharp, and it holds up remarkably well at this later stage of the campaign.

In this media-soaked age, Obama's initial magic played particularly well with the young, the affluent, and even conservative-leaning whites. (Recall that blacks didn't climb wholeheartedly aboard the Obama bandwagon until Hillary Clinton was seen as racially belittling him.) The young are the children of media images, and the Negro savior--the all-forgiving, supernaturally inclined Morgan Freeman-like healing figure is as familiar to them as text messaging. Obama fit the role brilliantly. He promised to heal all societal rifts, all but end the separation between the races, and bridge the right/left divide--seemingly with a wave of his magic hand.

Well-educated, affluent whites comprised another initial Obama support base. In his piece, Ehrenstein highlights John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation, based on the true story of a young, gay, black con man who gained access to New York's intellectual and financial elite by playing on their Magic Negro longings. He posed as the son of the iconic Sidney Poitier, the epitome of the Magic Negro stereotype. Guare saw this elite group as particularly susceptible to such imagery. Obama locked them up early.

Similarly, white racial conservatives like Jim Sleeper and Andrew Sullivan fawned over Obama's "transcendence" of race, basking in the glow of benevolence, healing and forgiveness (and forgetfulness) that could be read into his persona.

But now a change is coming, and Ehrenstein predicted it. "For as with all Magic Negroes," he wrote, "the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white American couldn't project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him."

David Brooks' recent New York Times column bore the title "How Obama Fell to Earth," and it reads like a primer on Ehrenstein's thesis. "But the fact is," Brooks wrote, "that voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences." The unspoken here is "white" before the word "voters." Why would he believe that a half-black man born of a Kenyan father and raised in Malaysia and Hawaii who went to Ivy League schools would share "values and life experiences" with the average white American man? Only the Magic Negro could do that.

Brooks admits as much when he writes: "When Obama began this ride, he seemed like a transcendent figure who could understand a wide variety of life experiences." Translation: "He seemed pretty white." Brooks tries to remove the racial tinge by saying that Obama now seems too much like "my old neighbors in Hyde Park in Chicago." Please. Obama never presented as anything other than an Ivy League intellectual. He has never seemed anything other than Hyde Park. However, the Magic Negro glamor allowed whites like Brooks to project upon Obama their Fantasy Black Man. To them, he was one who sympathized with white southerners who abandoned the Democrats during the civil rights movement. He was one who sympathized with whites who crossed the street when they see a black man walk toward them. He was Magic.

As the race rolls on, it becomes less and less possible to remain a fantasy. The flesh and blood tones start creeping into the comic-book Magic Negro sketch, and the more they do, the less folks like Brooks see in Obama. The press is turning on him (note the tone of the Philadelphia debate), and if, as seems likely, he wins the Democratic nomination, he will seem less the magical incarnation of white men's fantasies of what black men should be and more an individual black man with thoughts, opinions and associations of his own--the same kind of man that whites have traditionally found so threatening.

Even Obama's supporters buttress the Magic Negro thesis. In his Washington Post column called Obama Gets Schooled, Colbert King paints Obama as some sort of innocent Peter Pan figure, the light of whose crystalline purity is being doused by the evil forces of Clinton and the Republicans. King says that they're teaching Obama about the "dark side" of politics. If he didn't know about that side, he had no business running in the first place. If he doesn't know how to function within it, he will lose. If Colbert truly believes what he's saying, he should be chastising this naïf for climbing his 28-lb weakling ass into the political ring in the first place, not complaining that the bulked up opposition might have bloodied his nose.

Cleverly playing to the Magic Negro stereotype has gotten Obama this far. I'm assuming that he is smart enough and savvy enough about America's racial landscape to know exactly what he was doing. To win the presidency, however, he will have to show equal wit in subverting it.