What does it say when those who have held you in open contempt lavish sweet praise on one who vies for your allegiance and claims to speak for you? That's the question I find myself asking in regard to Barack Obama. In the Guardian, writer Gary Younge quoted Hardball host Chris Matthews saying, "I don't think you can find a better opening-gate, starting-gate personality than Obama as a black candidate. I can't think of a better one. No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery. All the bad stuff in our history ain't there with this guy."
Let's review: "No history of Jim Crow. No history of anger, no history of slavery..." No history of "all the bad stuff."
According to the line of thinking put forward by Matthews, for a significant number of people, the fact that Obama has a white mother, a Kenyan father and no cultural relationship to the sons and daughters of African slaves save voluntary ones makes his blackness no more than a genetic quirk of the skin. Obama lets them feel "colorblind" because his color is not attached to their shame--their historical, legally sanctioned viciousness toward black men and women. When we black Americans mention it, we're accused of conjuring "white guilt." Statements such as Matthews', however, suggest that we don't need to conjure it. People are so busy projecting it onto us that they obviate the need.
Andrew Sullivan, who to this day defends his endorsement of "The Bell Curve" and its theories of black genetic inferiority as a "speaking truth to power," is another Obama fan. He wrote a wet, sloppy kiss to the candidate in the Atlantic entitled, "Why Obama Matters." In it, he claims that Obama, in classic "Magic Negro" form, will heal the divisions in America, and in the world at large.
"What does he offer?" Sullivan asked. "First and foremost: his face," was the answer.
Consider this hypothetical. It's November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man-- Barack Hussein Obama-- is the new face of America. In one simple image, America's soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy.
Note the omission. Sullivan gives us a brief of Obama's full biography, excepting one crucial, largely unspoken fact for Obama champions: Obama's mother was white. For Sullivan and people like him, Obama can be just as white as he is black. All the easier to revel in his comforting biological divorcement from Afro-American history.
There was a great deal of ridiculous noise about whether Obama was culturally black enough for black voters. In fact, the real question has always been: "Is he white enough for white voters?" In Sullivan's case, the answer is a resounding yes.
Jim Sleeper is another writer who has expressed his love for Obama. In his book "Liberal Racism," he wrote, "When Rosa Parks quietly refused to give up her seat on that segregated public bus in Montgomery in 1955, she expressed a desire to embrace and redeem society, not to rebuff it as inherently racist..."
What self-aggrandizing swill. A tired pissed off woman refuses to give her seat to a white man and faces as a result arrest and bodily harm-- and Sleeper, a white man, dares to say she did it for him; that she did it because she was a good little mammy who knew her job was to serve white folks, this time cleaning their moral toilets instead of their porcelain ones. Of Obama, Sleeper wrote:
Claiming one's identity as an American, therefore, means standing up... against exclusionary racial, religious, and other strains that have persisted alongside and within our republican framework.
That is what Rosa Parks did, and it is what Obama is doing-- first by being what he has made of himself, and second by running for president. And I must say here, as one who has argued for years that Americans must let race go as an organizing principle of progressive politics-- because too much of even what passes for anti-racism only ends up recapitulating racism itself-- I can't help feeling that Barack is everything I've hoped an American leader on this problem could be.
Note that it is only non-whites who are asked to sacrifice anything here. Whiteness is presented as the ultimate normative state, the stem cell from which all else grows. Black self-interest, in other words, is counterproductive: it does not serve whites. There is no other way to read, "...what passes for anti-racism only ends up recapitulating racism itself." He ain't talking about racism against whites. Like Chris Matthews, Sleeper is demanding we sacrifice our history, our culture, and thus the principal part of our Afro-American being on the altar of America's "republican framework." It's a demand that we forego what everyone else is allowed to celebrate. We are asked to abandon our history and become nothing more than a color-- for that's the luxury Obama accords this ilk of supporter. He's nothing more than "darker."
I am so much more than "darker." Chris Matthews's "bad stuff"-- Jim Crow... slavery-- it happens to be me. It is my history, the roots of my culture. In those few words, exposing what I believe to be a not-uncommon attitude, Chris Matthews spat filth on all of it-- on my father, my mother, and my forebears. It was classic projection and a revelatory insight into a larger attitude toward the American sons and daughters of African slaves. We are the taint. We are the sin many Americans want to forget. Our very existence reminds America that, for most of her history, she befouled her ideals like rodents foul their nests. And then we have the gall to walk around, signposts of their shame. How dare we insist that they remember it? And anger? We haven't the right. Jews can rightly proclaim "never again," but we dare not. White Southerners can resent their defeat in the civil war and fly their hateful flag with pride, but we dare not suggest that we remember our historical treatment in this country. We dare not show "anger." That's a right reserved for the fully human.
The "colorblind" conceit is nothing more than self-absolution. It is the product of a people desperate to whitewash their past because they are so vain that they must see themselves as impossibly good, as opposed to good and bad like all the rest of us. "Colorblind" just signifies your desperation not to see me because, you see, I am your shame-- and my glory. I am all of it. I am the scars on a black slave's back. I am the son of the white master's black slave whore. I am belief that one day I'd be free. I am the strength or foolishness to endure the unendurable. I am the unbreakable will to create a world of my own. I am the genius of music and speech, of rhythm and movement. I am blind rage. I am tears at the sound of Abbey Lincoln's voice. I am apart, yet part of. I am the glorious and misbegotten son of my past; and it is the parchment on which my future will be written.
This brand of Obama supporter demands I give that up, that I reduce myself to the generic level of dark hue on which they view their champion. They ask that I negate one of the most significant parts of my very self.
No questionably sourced chorus of "Yes we can!" will induce me to do that.
This piece is cross-posted on Pop and Politics.