The latest non-flap over President Obama, is the October Surprise that Black people sometimes talk to Black people. This, of course, has long been a source of white mistrust and apprehension. The commentators who have flooded television, blogs and Twitter with their horror over then-Senator Obama's 2007 speech at Hampton University are manifesting that age-old anxiety that if African Americans somehow address each other - especially on political topics - then it must be about division, separatism and conspiracy. Suddenly, the Fear of the Black Planet takes hold, and no matter what words are actually said, some folks with a deeply ingrained (and probably guilt-induced) phobia of Black people are going to produce their own pre-emptive narratives of imagined, future victimization.
It's worth acknowledging again that this kind of paranoia has deep roots in American culture. In American history there have been numerous attempts to legislatively prevent Black people from speaking to each other. Slave codes often banned gatherings of African Americans on the presumption that the only thing that Black people really wanted to talk about was rebelling against their oppression. Words of freedom coming from Black mouths must be a threat to the Republic and a threat to white life and property. Let's remember, however, that there are other moments that are lauded in US History that we also consider the height of patriotism. The mythos of the Founding Fathers is built on precisely such gatherings. Yet when such legalistic attempts to silence this devious talk of liberty failed, then there was always the option of terrorizing Black communities that might be invoked; the 19th and 20th centuries are replete with such examples, from the rise of the Klan to the counter Civil Rights Movement. But such suspicions linger in the post Civil Rights Era because history is not simply something we "get over." Some people take as an affront (or worse) any reminder that past injustices still underlie present inequalities. It's as if we should all dismiss the past as simply a past that had no bearing on the present; well, at least when it comes to some vision of the past that does not posit a present of perfect meritocracy. However, when the only African American president seems to be in need of excoriation for talking to other Black people, then the past is relevant. What's at stake in the revival of these videos is the care and maintenance of a double standard that has continually cast African American patriots, freedom fighters, politicians and intellectuals as being the un-American antithesis of the Founding Fathers.
Yet there is more than just a lesson is history and politics here. There is also in the (re)dissemination and promotion of this anti-Obama "evidence," a window into the on-going evolution of American social relations that are based on race. Let me put this another way, when a Black presidential candidate or president addresses a Black audience, it raises another version of that old cliché: "Why do the Black kids always sit together in the lunch room?". Of course, that tired, old query begs the question of segregation. Why do white kids do it, too? Yet there is great power even in logical fallacies, and the rhetoric of race-baiting is anything but logical (in the sense of making coherent, uncontradictory sense; racism, of course, has its own twisted logic). What's really significant about the question are some of the unspoken assumptions it carries with it:
- If you can't hear what a seemingly similar group is talking about, then they must be talking about you, the dissimilar one. Of course, this is the privilege of egotism at work. They may or may not be, and if they are, the discussion may be positive, negative or neutral. The irony of these "October Surprise" tapes is that they were readily available and given in a public forum in the first place, so there was never any reason to be paranoid about the content of the remarks, only about the social fact of Black people speaking to each other.
- Why should the asker of the lunchroom question assume that s/he is unwelcome to sit there also? Did you ever ask to sit there? Or just go claim your right to sit wherever you wish? Would it be taboo to do so? If so, doesn't NOT sitting there simply reinforce that taboo, rather than breaking it? Perhaps, we might not want to break it; it's just socially easier to assume than to know. And the broad strokes of American racial knowledge are always based on assumptions.
- African American public figures are expected to address the "majority." Only be doing so consistently and publicly can they come to be seen as "non-threatening." Black words must be vetted and dissected by white ears for them to be acceptable for the national norm. They must reassure the insecure of non-threatening nature. At the worst, those words need to pander to a kind of apathetic self-satisfaction that reinscribes the social hierarchies of the past.
Let's forget the fact that Black people might talk to other Black people because, well, they just happen to like Black people. They speak to them because they don't have to be "tolerated," "humored," or inexplicably categorized by their audience. The one thing that gives me hope in all this is how, for so many people, the revival of these tapes failed to be a topic of serious discussion. Perhaps we are, indeed, slowly changing America's past.