The Black President

A brief survey of the media, mainstream and non-mainstream, which is mostly populated by white reporters (hello, Salon!) reveals an interesting, if not unanticipated, trend. Daily, through a series of rhetorical tics, we are reminded that Obama is black.

David Brooks, for instance, writes with the anguished despair of the white male conservative, comparing Obama to a “colossus,” the reference being, of course, to Cassius’s famous speech to Brutus on Julius Caesar. Shades of Thomas Dixon run through Brooks’s prose. Obama may not be raping white women, but he sure is raping the economy. Lost in all this, as some commentators continue to point out, is that Obama did NOT get us into the mess we’re in.

But he seems to have inherited the presidency, along with all culpability for Bush’s idiocy over the past eight years.

It would tax my patience too much to parse Joan Walsh’s prose—she always wins the prize for self-flagellating, tortured white liberal—and point out how race is invoked. Thankfully, she has resisted turning Obama into a Magical Negro. Woe to him if the economy should revive faster than forecasted.

Even that sacred cow, Glenn Greenwald, you know, the one we are NEVER supposed to critique, because he “speaks truth to power,” even he is culpable. And here I must confess that his rhetorical tics have been grating on me: find outrageous thing conservative says, demonstrate it’s outrageous, mock conservatives for being LOSERS! (it really is this puerile). And let the groupies chant your name in support.

Yet his prose, his “speak it, brother,” prose, recaps, in form if not substance, all the Reconstruction-era anxieties: black man in power; orange alert; black man in power; watch the nation; black man in power; see, he’s a liar! And a cheat! And if he goes back on this, what will he do next! Save Yourself!

By no means am I suggesting that Obama is above critique. But it strikes me as being somewhat disingenuous to proclaim his “badness,” when we already knew, going into this, that he was not of the far left, though he speaks to those on the far left. We already knew he was more centrist than we liked. And for those of us busy condemning his stance on U.S. imperialism, the clues were there in his speeches all along. He never promised he’d re-think U.S. imperialism, only that it *might* become more benevolent. Might.

Obama is not beyond critique. And we on the left need to keep being loud and active, voicing our critiques of actions and policies that harm us. At the same time, the racial coding is overwhelming, perhaps more so for those of us familiar with black histories in this country, most especially in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era.

I want someone to write about Obama and Reconstruction, because the tropes are eerily familiar. And the current rhetoric is haunted by that forgotten era.