The most serious issue is power and the execution of policy, not the color of the man sitting in the Oval Office. But Jimmy Carter has just joined the group of print and cable-TV pundits who feel that they need to tell America some things about racism and how much of Barack Obama’s present trouble with right-wing hysteria over health-care reform is actually about hatred of his skin color. Many seem to take Carter and the others seriously because so many of them are white and if they say all of this redneck flapdoddle is about racism, every head should snap to attention.
Though the intentions of Carter and the others might be good and might have seemed courageous in some other time, they now appear as no more than a distraction, or a diversion from the issue at hand: wielding power by getting votes in place. The commander in chief has whales to catch and fry in public and we can be sure that he knows what is going on. It has gotten that late in the world.
Wow: The Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs make barely veiled ethnic criticisms and interpretations of the president’s every move. Such things go with the territory; if you are afraid of getting a punch, don’t try to get to the heavyweight championship.
There is no reason to miss any of this. Barack Obama has not forgotten something that many obviously have, preferring to see him as a powerful victim tied down on the beach by a gaggle of bigoted yahoos. Wrong. Not tied down. He is the president, which is a mantle worn with elegant ease and is but one of the reasons why he maintains the Fred Astaire relaxation of percussive rhythm that has always distinguished him.
• James Carroll: America’s New Racial Reality
• Eddie Reeves: Race and the Right While an Ivy League black-studies professor wished that the president would take on some of Muhammad Ali’s brashness, it seems to me that Obama does not have to prove himself ready by repeating the black-power huffing and puffing that was tired when it was new. Where we are right now is about power politics. It is not a blaxploitation movie filled with loud threats, cardboard white villains, and shallow black guys mean as a straight razor.
After all, how is it possible for Obama to be surprised by hot-air fringe addictions like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh? Wow: They make barely veiled ethnic criticisms and interpretations of the president’s every move. Such things go with the territory. If you are afraid of getting a punch or feel that you should not be struck, don’t try to get to the heavyweight championship.
Our duly elected president knows how it feels to have been dogged for years by the envious and the intimidated. He is a very bright guy, perhaps a genius, and Americans have always been suspicious of extreme intelligence. I once saw written on a bathroom wall the essence of it in conflation: A mind is a terrible thing to waste—especially on a n***r.
Are we to expect the green-eyed monster to stop roaring just because a colored man won by a wide margin after campaigning for two years through the wilderness of ethnic suspicion and surreal claims of his being a Manchurian candidate?
Even though Obama is actually a half-caste and one of the very small number of actual African Americans in the entire country, he is dark enough and has hair wooly enough to play the part of moving target for immeasurable hostility to the width and depth of his mind.
Things have not always been so completely misunderstood. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain makes it clear in the sixth chapter that rednecks have long suffered from fear and loathing of sophisticated, eloquent, and easy-going Negroes who are not perturbed by the beet color just below their intellectual and spiritual hairline. Nothing ticks off rednecks more than the inability to intimidate someone whom they think should be intimidated by their very presence.
Twain makes that clear. Huck’s father tells his son something we should all remember because of what it says about the ignorant when confronted with the educated and intelligent.
Oh, yes, what a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why looky here. There was a free n***r there, from Ohio; a m***r, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shinest; there aint a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as whe he had... And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college and could talk all kinds of languages and knowed everything.
In defense of ethnic decorum, Huck’s daddy feels that the Negro who was uppity before the term was popularized should be snatched off the street and put on an auction block. That would fix up the country and show government how those coons should be treated. After all, he had experienced the worst indifference from the Negro:
And to see the cool way of that n***r—why he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out of the way.
But I think the most important redneck to this discussion created something almost 100 years ago that deeply influenced the country. The redneck was a genius named D.W. Griffith, whose 1915 The Birth of a Nation so distorted the history of the South after losing the Civil War that the film slipped some Benzedrine into the Ku Klux Klan and brought it back to bloody life as it was about to doze off and lose its social place in the nation. Wide awake again, it went back to domestic terrorism and strange costumes.
As the first blockbuster masterpiece of propaganda, The Birth of a Nation led certain white people to believe some remarkable things. According to Griffith’s Big Lie, Negroes cruelly ran the South after the war, pushed white people around, and ended up chasing white women off cliffs after erotic dreams flushed dripping drool from the corners of their mouths. When white men woke up from that nightmare in a glacial sweat, were forced to sheet up and kill them some uppities you know what happened: Things got a whole lot better. The tree of liberty had been watered with some darkie blood, always a magic elixir.
That is not about to happen again. We are not even close. Not enough white people have stomachs for the violence, are possessed by the bigoted inclinations, and the irrationality that attracts an especially loud minority of big mouths, marks, and hysterics.
Over the weekend, the gathering of protesters organized and led to Washington, D.C. by meat-puppet shills for pharmaceutical and health-insurance interests, reminiscent of a dark 1995 moment in the race and victimhood follies, the Million Man March. When it comes to self-pity and cartoon rage, almost no group can outdo white people who think they are in The Birth of a Nation. The MMM might have turned into something of an actual ethnic crisis based in paranoia, science-fiction fantasy, and a hatred of the truth shared by the religious right. Might have if Louis Farrakhan had not been so incompetent.
Instead of using his very greatest recruitment opportunity to fill the ranks of the Nation of Islam with more of what Malcolm X rightly called “zombies,” Farrakhan took over an hour to “explain” the “meaning” of the icons on dollar bills. His teaching moment did not work. He failed not because “black leadership” lacked the integrity to call the loon out, but because Farrakhan’s ego once again got the best of him and he lost the interest of his listeners.
The Republican Party has no more integrity than those in positions of purported black leadership back in 1995. Black leaders thought that Farrakhan spoke most powerfully to their ethnic base and was even seen by that base as incorruptible. True: His bigotry was too pure to be compromised by rationality.
Black leadership chose to sell out to another irrational loudmouth and probably convinced white television viewers that black people had lost their minds. That sent more than a few black people into a depression. But that understandable blues was doomed by something no one could have predicted.
Barack Obama was just the wild card the nation needed to be played. He gave patriotism a second wind with his ability to speak across ethnic divides and his profound grasp of a shared American history of accomplishment against our nation’s shortcomings. That vision was collective and left no one out. Obama was almost home when the Democratic primary in Iowa made it clear that our nation had grown to the point that it resembled Martin Luther King’s dreams of A Great Good Place. That was the beginning of a new era.
In Iowa, Obama opened his acceptance speech with a sentence that left no doubt about where he thought the country was and where it was going, “They said this day would never come.”
We are always bedeviled by the combination of extraordinary technology and toxic fantasy. I have no doubt that D.W. Griffith’s mottled masterpiece taught Joseph Goebbels a thing or two about the power of cinema to justify bigotry. There should also be no doubt that the iceberg in which the American mind sometimes remains frozen started to thaw last November and is now little more than a small, vile, and pint-sized ice sculpture.
A psychological caveman has cracked through the ice with the aid of much hot air. That creature wants to follow the lead of Huck Finn’s daddy and shove Barack Obama off the road. Our American cave dweller will discover that no narrow road lies before him but a fate sealed in concrete. He is about to find out just how deeply that long foot belonging to the president fits into a bodily opening somewhere below the waist.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.