You might have heard that a half-black man named Barack Obama is running for President. This sounds ridiculous, but the last few weeks have revealed that some have not.
There is DMX, for instance. In an interview with XXL magazine last week, DMX not only revealed that he had never heard of Barack Obama, he was incredulous that such a person even existed: “What the fuck is a Barack?! … That ain’t no fuckin’ name, yo.” If they ever met, he promised he would tell him to “’Stop that bullshit’” and admit his real name (adopting ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ being, one supposes, the most subtle ruse in political history).
While the rest of America is pretty well-aware of Obama’s existence, a controversy over his preacher, Reverend Wright, that finally boiled over in the last two weeks revealed that a large portion of the country wasn’t quite aware he is half-black, and therefore fraternizes with other black people. Or at least they demonstrated a stunning ignorance of what some black people actually think and say. White folks around the country reacted with shock and horror at clips of Obama’s preacher saying such outrageous things as “America is a country controlled by rich white people,” and that America’s foreign policy might have played a hand in inspiring the September 11th attacks. But the real issue was less the things Rev. Wright said than the manner in which he said them—loudly and angrily, with occasionally excessive rhetoric (“Not God bless America, God damn America”).
Just as it began to appear that his image was irreparably tarnished and that his apparently inevitable path to the Democratic nomination might no longer be assured, Obama went on television to address the controversy. In a thirty-eight minute speech that has already been viewed three million times on YouTube, he did something both pathetically (in that it had to be done) and inspiringly (in that it finally was) historic: he aired the grievances of black Americans, and he asked white Americans to understand.
“We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country,” he said—but he did need to, and he proceeded to. Further, in an incredibly savvy but also compassionate move, Obama aired the resentment of the very same white Americans who were turning against him because of his association with Rev. Wright: that many of them are hardly doing well themselves, despite being the heirs and beneficiaries of white oppression. Not only did he tell them he knew why they distrusted him—he told them, straight-up, that they were being duped. “Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.” If Sean Hannity were capable of parsing that sentence, he’d be ashamed of himself.
Obama’s speech—which will, as everyone is already saying, be studied in history classes—effectively addressed every aspect of racism in America except the one truly at issue in the Wright controversy. By high-mindedly refusing to play into the standard distance/reject/denounce game—a fundamentally racist trap, in which white opinionators and power-brokers demonstrate their ability to control access to public discourse—Obama is now inextricably linked to Wright. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, were what Wright said the problem. Obama is a persuasive candidate; if anyone can get the media to contextualize for once, it’s him.
What’s at issue in the Wright scandal, though, is the way he spoke—angrily, passionately, without the reservations African-Americans usually have when moving in the restricted world of white-controlled discourse, in a uniquely black style of speech that a large segment of white America still and may never be comfortable with. Obama has made his career outside this rhetoric, transforming himself into an innocuous figure to white America without abandoning the causes of African-Americans.
There is every reason to believe he will continue to succeed in this way; though the networks can run the Wright clips endlessly, Obama has a voice, too. Nonetheless, it’s going to be ugly. The internal contradictions in America and Obama himself are now manifest in his candidacy. Obama’s campaign is going to place African-American needs and issues in the prominent place in the public sphere they deserve, but even he cannot avoid the fundamental discomfort many whites have with the Other. For those who don’t share it, it’s going to be a long and painful campaign.