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Mark Anthony Neal

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Performing Herman Cain

Posted: 12/ 5/2011 6:06 pm

I've taken as much interest in Herman Cain's now suspended campaign for president, as I might have over whether individuals choose to use mustard or mayonnaise on their ham sandwiches. Beyond simple curiosities about why some potential voters found Cain appealing, I've had little desire to find out what animates Cain's political concerns. This is not to say that I didn't share the belief among some African Americans, that Cain was some index of the ultimate limits of post-race discourses -- themselves a victory for multiculturalism, as opposed to a victory over anti-Black racism, as Vijay Prashad has described it. Yet, Cain's candidacy has been shrouded in so much absurdity, that it's hard to see him as anything other than a performance artist.

For all the talk that necessarily questions Cain's commitment to a Black political project and wrongly questions his "blackness," as if Black identity can be simply reduced to a content analysis, Herman Cain's "performance" is filled with enough racialized signifiers, that his oft willingness to break out in song is far more interesting than even the sexual dramas (some potentially criminal and others simply morally questionable) that have all but ended his quest for the Republican nomination for President.

It was during a recent dinner conversation with two colleages, Guthrie Ramsey, Jr. and Angela Ards, neither of whom who had spent much time watching Cain, that the performative aspects of Cain's public presence came into focus for me. Both Ramsey and Ards have expressed relative shock over Cain's clearly "raced" diction; if Herman Cain had once called you on a cold sales call some thirty years ago, there would be little to suggest that he wasn't a Black man from the South.

Indeed, the way that Ramsey and Ards described recoiling at the sound of Cain's voice (as opposed his "twirling in my head" moment) was reminiscent of some of the struggles faced by New York Governor Alfred Smith more than eighty-years ago, when running for President. Potential voters outside of the Northeast, similarly recoiled in response to Smith's decidedly "New Yawk" accent, particular in an era well before television became such a vital component of national politics.

The irony is that only four years ago, then Senator Barack Obama would have never been taken seriously as a presidential candidate had he sounded like Cain or any number of Southern Black men -- something the President's current running mate, noted at the time.

Both Obama and Cain's vocal performances are reminders of the role that the voice has played in establishing the "authenticity" of Blackness. One hundred years ago when Black "black-faced" minstrels were in open competition with White "black-faced" minstrels over who were the real "darkies," the tipping point occurred with the development of the phonograph and the "talkies" (motion pictures with sound), and the ability of Black artists -- most prominently Bert Williams -- to approximate Blackness in sound (as opposed to the use of black vernacular language) in ways that were more challenging for White "black-faced" minstrels; Al Jolson simply sounded like he was trying to sound Black.

Despite his "sound of Blackness" Cain had been successful reaching a broader audience than expected, in large part of his deft negotiation of racial nostalgia and racial accommodation -- none which makes him any less Black or so-called self-hating, but simply more willing to work within the constraints of a highly racialized society, on that society's terms. It goes without saying, perhaps, that Cain is a racial throwback.

The oft-cited example of Cain's experiences at Morehouse College in the 1960s, where his father insisted that he "stay out of trouble," in an era when Black college students were indeed starting trouble and changing the world for the better -- even at an institution known today for its marked social conservatism. This admission on Cain's part, no doubt strikes a chord for potential voters who still read President Obama as postmodern Black Power radical, as embodied in the frank racial talk of his life partner Michele Obama during the throes of the 2008 primary season.

That bit of autobiographical positioning on Cain's part was easy; more deliberate -- and complicated -- has been his performance of spirituals, at any number on campaign events. His willingness to take on the role of the minstrel -- the American brand of traveling bards who traveled the country, telling stories of far away lands, and not to be mistaken with the "black-faced" variety, who traveled the land embodying "the other" in Blackness -- has in some way been a stroke of performative genius, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the Black rank-and-file feel.

The songs are a gesture towards nostalgia, a way to make some Whites more comfortable with Cain, and clearly not a performance for simply performance sake; Cain has clearly been singing these songs all of his life and sounds pleasing doing so. Quiet as it's kept, Cain's gestures were every bit as effective as the President's "dirt off my shoulder" gesture, which quickly became part of the mythical lore that has characterized Candidate Barack Obama.

For example, when Cain broke out into a version of "He Looked Beyond My Faults (Amazing Grace)," at the National Press Club, to a melody most recognizable as the Irish ballad "Danny Boy," few knew that there was a version of "Amazing Grace" that was set to "Londonberry Air," an Irish song that dates back to the late 18th century. "Londonberry Air" later served as the melody for Frederick Weatherley's "Danny Boy," which the late Dottie Rambo later appropriated for her 1970 southern gospel classic "He Looked Beyond My Faults".

That Rambo worked closely with well-known televangelists like Oral Roberts, John Hagee, Jim Bakker, Paula White, Pat Robertson and T.D. Jakes, speaks volumes about the audiences that Cain was trying to reach with his gestures. As much as positioning himself at the anti-Barack Obama -- which can't be easily conflated as "anti-Black" -- Cain shrewdly, via his use of Southern gospel, positioned himself as the true southern conservative.

In many ways, it is not surprising that what has undone Cain's campaign is not his shuffle back to Dixie routine -- which none of his Republican peers could have ever pulled off credibly -- but the basic truism that as an African-American candidate you simply have to be above the moral fray.

Unfortunately for Cain there is no nostalgic era that he can conjure to help navigate the still-water mess that continues to be race and sex, unless he starts singing R Kelly's "Bump N' Grind" at future public appearances.

 

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