Michele Elam: Why Obama is Black Again

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Prof. Elam is an English professor and the Director of the Program in African & African American Studies. ]

Barack Obama’s inauguration was for so many an awe-inspiring, historic and transnational event: It was full of grand pageantry and a good-humored pomp and circumstance that made D.C. the place to be. People were called together in many ways, and one of the more important ways they were asked to unite was over the contentious matter of race.

But it is worthwhile noting that this unlikely racial consensus was achieved through a strategic kind of absenting: Gone from the inaugural coverage were all the hand-wringing equivocations preceding the Democratic nomination about whether Obama’s person and politics went “beyond race” (and if that was a good thing or not), whether he even met the minimum standards for blackness (it was never clear who got to wield this racial measuring stick), or whether he was capitalizing on what novelist Danzy Senna calls the “mulatto millennium” of mixed-race celebrities.

Remember back when Barack was not yet vetted as black? Journalist Jonathan Weisman commented that Obama “is much more white than black.” Conservative radio show host Glenn Beck called Obama “colorless,” saying that he “might as well be white.” Rush Limbaugh daily replayed “Barack the Magic Negro,” a ditty set to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” written and performed by a white man mimicking the Rev. Al Sharpton complaining that Obama was not “authentically black.” Perhaps most humorously, African American commentator Debra Dickerson, appointing herself the gatekeeper of blackness, told a skeptical Stephen Colbert that Obama was not black at all according to her criteria. (To which Colbert responded that he was terribly disappointed; he had been so looking forward to voting for a black person).

So it is all the more striking that Obama was brought so firmly back into the racial fold—symbolically blessed first with Congressman John Lewis’ placement of Obama within the arc of the civil rights struggle in his Democratic National Convention speech, then anointed by the divine concordance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on the eve of his inauguration, and finally given a benediction by the civil rights icon Pastor Joseph Lowery that opened with lines from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often referred to as the “Negro National Anthem.”

When Obama became president, Barack became black again.

How did this happen? What does it mean?

This consensus about just who Obama is serves its purposes—America unites over the idea of “the first black president.” The ritual and spectacle of the music, the mega-screens, the invocations, the prayers and the poems, played and replayed around the world, formed the powerful collective representation of Obama as both president and black. At least for the moment, his political and racial statuses are unimpeachable. The inauguration was the climax of his transformation from a black suspect, to a suspect black, to mixed-race cosmopolitan, to MLK’s heir to, finally, America’s Native Son.

It is a story that both includes and excludes; as Toni Morrison advises in her essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” it is always important to consider what is “not there” in a narrative, for “certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned they call attention to themselves … like neighborhoods that are defined by the population held away from them.”

Obama may well be figured as the main character in a shared national vision of unity, but it is important to see when and where that empowering image of communion might sometimes be enabled through the suppression of competing voices, whether they be disagreements over race, gay civil rights or anything else perceived as a challenge to the hope and the dream. Indeed, the tableaux of togetherness on the National Mall threw into greater relief HBO’s drop of the live broadcast of gay Episcopalian Bishop V. Gene Robinson’s pre-inauguration invocation.

These representations of Obama are all, to some degree, revelatory of our contemporary national neuroses, fantasies and investments in race. The welter of conflicting and competing images of him in text, on screen, on stage, online and in his own memoirs reflects the imaginative processes and narratives by which social realities are made and unmade. They both point to and produce changing commitments to particular ideas of race, to the sway of some racial stories over others.

Often when we talk about race, scholars reference—and rightly—the sobering health, economic and incarceration statistics associated with African American life and death. The potent images of Obama’s inauguration also suggest that overcoming racism is not simply a matter of recognizing and righting structural inequities but also, as W.E.B. Du Bois argued repeatedly, of exploring how profoundly representation shapes the national psyche.

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