Barack Obama: A Story of Race and Politics

As evidenced by Dreams from My Father, talking about race comes naturally and forcefully to Obama.

Barack Obama: A Story of Race & Politics
Photo: Obama for America

Below is a snippet from Dreams from My Father, in which Barack Obama describes watching Black Orpheus, the first foreign-language film his mother, Ann Dunham, had ever seen.

We took a cab to the revival theater where the movie was playing. The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The story line was simple: the myth of the ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during Carnival. In Technicolor splendor, set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie, I decided that I’d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.

I post this not only as an example of how profoundly and compassionately Barack Obama grapples with racial identity but as a reminder of how people of color see race (mis)represented in art and, more selfishly, the estrangement I sometimes feel as a film critic of mixed-race heritage. “I turned away, embarrassed for her, irritated with the people around me.” Those are Obama’s words, about his mother and the crowd at the revival theater, but they could just as easily be mine, describing what I often feel whenever I see predominantly white audiences swoon for obscene films like Crash, Blood Diamond, and Under the Same Moon, wishing they could see how those films pander to white prejudices by condescending to non-white experience, and how that’s a symbiotic relationship worth affronting.

When I flip through Dreams from My Father, I marvel at the way Obama discusses race, an integral part of his being, and I find camaraderie in his passion, his rage, his frustrations, his curiosity, his understanding, and most of all his conviction. I read Obama and I ponder the way critics like Armond White discuss racial identity and critics like Amy Taubin discuss sexuality, sometimes with deliberate calculation and desire to provoke but always as a natural expression of their distinctive being and as a fearless extension of their life experience, and I am reminded of the hate mail that filters into my inbox, almost regularly since the jejune days of this site, in which I am called a faggot, a spic, a wetback, sometimes worse, at which point I wonder and sometimes laugh at the pain that has nearly provoked me at times over the years to cover my mouth and hang up the skates.

There are many critics who I admire who are white, who are white and who are men, who are white and who are men and who are straight, but I admit to feeling a closer kinship to critics who are not white, critics who are women, and critics who don’t treat their homosexuality as a dirty secret. Some are more radical than others, strident in their desire to level the playing field, but most speak naturally from the gut about the meaning of the flickering images they absorb with their own eyes, a know-how informed by what they have lived as persons who are not white, persons without dicks swinging between their legs, persons who worry if they’ll be reprimanded for expressing desire for a celebrity of their own sex. Rather than toe a hegemonic line, they keep it real, braving the wrath of persons unused to a certain frankness and diversity of discourse, scaring us by asking us to look, acknowledge, confront the dangers that are explicitly there, sometimes dormant, in popular art.

People asking critics to keep their sexual, racial, and gender politics out of their reviews is as insulting to me as asking America to pretend Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a vagina or Barack Obama’s face ain’t white. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” said Geraldine Ferraro earlier this month about Obama. “And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” Obama supporters cried foul, calling Ferraro a racist, as if they hadn’t seen the poll numbers that reveal Obama’s support among blacks, as if they never read his books or heard his speeches; if they had, they might understand that Obama’s race is exactly what makes him so special.

Ferraro’s comments may have been superficial and resentful but they weren’t racist, and the shrill reaction to her statement only confirmed that most Americans don’t know how to talk about race, and the fact that Slant Magazine’s Sal Cinquemani felt that I would incur less wrath (if any) for voicing anything resembling sympathy for Ferraro because he is white and I am not also shows that there are those who know how but censor themselves nonetheless because there are unspoken rules about how race should be talked about and who should do the talking. Joe Scarborough, earlier this month, braved such conversation on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher about how the language people often use to describe and praise Obama (like “articulate”) denotes racism, that we seem to prefer our black politicians to behave a certain way, a bitter truth amusingly touched upon in a recent SNL cartoon that bitingly depicted Obama subjugating Jesse Jackson and Al Shapton’s roles in his political campaign.

However knee-jerk and unpolished, Ferraro’s words acknowledge a mystique surrounding Obama that, in some ways, is not unlike the support Brokeback Mountain received a few years ago, when the film was perceived by gay rights activists posing as critics as a first-of-its-kind: the first mainstream gay-themed film to make money, and one to ostensibly turn the heat down on the nation’s homophobic temper. It didn’t seem to matter that Brokeback was about as aesthetically radical as a Bob Ross painting, only that it was a coup for gay representation on the big screen, and when it lost to Crash for Best Picture, the enraged chalked it up to homophobia, never considering that Crash, infinitely worse than Ang Lee’s prestige picture, simply appealed more strongly to a different, more insular, more topical sort of political bias. Of course, where the Obama-Brokeback analogy diverges is that while Obama does seem to inspire a certain degree of blind, therefore disingenuous, devotion from his base, I can’t say it’s unfair.

Ferraro’s resentment for the Obama mystique becomes laughable when you consider that she was a booster for Hillary Clinton, whose viability as a presidential candidate wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for her sex (or nepotism). If there was a time when I was hesitant to rally behind Obama, specifically around the time I cast my vote for Clinton in the New Jersey primary (there, I admit it!), it was because I had a difficult time (still do, actually) associating with Obama supporters (essentially all my friends) and how their stokedom for Obama hinges, in part, on sexually humiliating Clinton. (They are the same people raging against SNL for its supposed bias against Obama, people like Joshua Alston of Newsweek who’ve misrepresented Fred Armisen’s racial background, failing to recognize that the comedian’s mixed heritage actually makes him the best choice to play the role of Obama in the show’s political sketches.) For proof, just listen to the way the belligerent Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann, no longer my favorite news guy, talk about the woman on MSNBC—though I’m sure Amy Taubin would say I sound the same way when I talk about Asia Argento (thanks, Nathan, for making me lose sleep this week!).

As evidenced by Dreams from My Father, talking about race comes naturally and forcefully to Obama, a point the media, Obama himself, or his campaign hasn’t really been upfront about, no doubt because the Obama campaign, like Scarborough, understands that the perceived antagonism of Sharpton, who some think gave the most important speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, is not something they want to come close to evoking. In Dreams from My Father, I get a sense of a tougher, more vigilant and conflicted Obama, one who thought about and lashed out against the cruelty of racism in its many manifestations (like the people who would traipse into his Harlem neighborhood so their dogs could shit on his sidewalk, like the white lady in the elevator of his grandparents’ Hawaii apartment building who thought he was stalking her), one who has struggled to understand, sometimes defy the stereotypes of black experience, an Obama I have rarely seen on television. Until this week.

When the insidious FOX began to smear Obama by drudging up Reverend Wright’s presumably controversial opinions about 9/11, the liberal media played dumb, “parroting” (to quote’s Political Action Team) FOX’s hate speech and pretending as if the seven years since 9/11 never happened—all that death, all those walking wounded, all that political discourse we’ve had about cause and effect (why 9/11 happened, then why Iraq happened—or, rather, why it shouldn’t have happened). The world suddenly became stupider—and then Obama gave the single greatest speech of this entire political season, one delivered with close to the same ardor and ballsiness with which Obama once described his weary flight as an embittered black man throughout his youth, the devil nipping at his heels.

This is the Obama who once wrote: “Look at yourself before you pass judgment. Don’t make someone else clean up your mess. It’s not about you. They were such simple points, homilies I had heard a thousand times before, in all their variations, from TV sitcoms and philosophy books, from my grandparents and from my mother. I had stopped listening at a certain point, I now realized, so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me. To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that white spoke about black.”

It was probably too much for Obama to argue that Wright was more right than he was wrong, ceding not so much to the white world as to a political machine wary of too much gumption, but he still risked plenty for a presidential hopeful wanting to remain electable, renouncing the Reverend’s words if not the man himself, showing the world his backbone, getting philosophical on us without condescension, acknowledging the legacy of slavery, that racism is a problem, that race should be a topic of discussion in our everyday lives, recognizing our unique needs, our common hopes, giving us the context for Wright’s speech that the media did not, referencing the conversations people have inside churches and barbershops, loci of male identity for men of all races, intimating throughout that while he may not have been in public office for as many years as Clinton or John McCain, his experience is of a greater sort, rooted in his genes, the know-how of having lived abroad, having seen racism and colonialism in action, having contemplated the causes and effects of hate, and having struggled, desperately and painfully, to translate vision into action.

Obama’s political courage should be studied, and though his speech was generally well-received, he has been declining in polls (against both Clinton and McCain) since the Wright scandal, and one wonders if he’ll fully recover, having dared to go where few, if any, politicians ever go, having suggested that race should be kept on the table, having shown that his smoldering desire to cultivate conversation about how people are split along racial and ideological lines is not only essential to healing our nation but reaching out and brokering peaceful relations with the non-white leaders of nations abroad. It appears that he will be the Democratic candidate for president, and though I worry for the mental health of anyone who would opt for McCain over Obama, if Obama were to lose in November, he always has a career as a film critic.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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