Friday, September 11, 2009
Black, White, Other. . .
Last year, a few weeks before the election, I was complaining to a friend about the way various Republican hit-men (and -women) were attempting to tar then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"I know," he said. "It's not even like they're calling him black or African-American. They're calling him"--he paused, trying to find the right word--"Negro."
I've thought about that conversation for a while (I told you this blog doesn't run on Internet time), and I've decided he was wrong, even when he explained he'd meant it was impossible right-wing Republicans could think of Obama "in even as remotely a civilized term as 'Black,' let alone in a racially neutral way."
The right wasn't attempting to define Obama as African-American, black, Negro, colored, or even nigger because all--even (especially?) nigger--have been peculiarly American archetypes throughout our history. To have so defined Obama as any would have been to admit Obama was an American.
Instead, they called him a terrorist, accused him of palling around with terrorists, stressed his middle name (Hussein) in an attempt to define him as Other. They're still trying to. What else is the so-called birther movement, which seeks to prove Obama was born in Kenya?
My friend's mistake, I think, was to think of the word Negro as inherently derogatory. It isn't necessarily, instead referring to black men and women of a certain era and a certain class and to an inherently and inalienably American culture. Because he's white, he shied away from using the word nigger. I was grateful. Like colored or Negro, it's a useful word, but one I'm uncomfortable hearing from whites, even as part of a discussion of Huckleberry Finn.
I'm borrowing here, of course, from Ralph Ellison, who in turn borrowed from Constance Rourke, whose American Humor: A Study of the National Character, posits several American comic archetypes, including the Yankee peddler, the frontiersman, and the minstrel singer.
Thus for Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin to have called Obama a Negro (or even a nigger) would have been to admit familarity and even kinship. Think about The Jazz Singer, where the son of a Jewish immigrant becomes American by rejecting his father's wish that he become a cantor and then, in an archetypal immigrant rite of passage, anointing himself with blackface. Think of the way white Southerners used to call their white caretakers Mammy (mother), or the way they called black women Aunt and black men Uncle.
All connote familial relationships the right wanted nothing to do with.
We've had many chances throughout our history to solve the conundrum of race. Obama's election was our latest. We're blessed, as the friend who sparked these thoughts observed in an e-mail discussion a few weeks ago, to have him as president. In many ways, his election has brought us together. But it's also overturned the rocks and shown us some of the vile things dwell outide the light.