Obama’s ‘race speech’ as neoslave narrative
Obama’s ‘race speech’ as neoslave narrative
By Tamara K. Nopper
October 15, 2008
This presentation was given at the panel “No country for old white men: A panel discussion on race and the election” sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and held at the Temple University Law School on October 15, 2008.
In a phone interview with Anna Deavere Smith and Thulani Davis, scholar, activist, and former political prisoner Angela Y. Davis remarks: “I was saying to my students just the other day that if in 1970, when I was in jail…I don’t think it would have been possible at that time to convince me that I would be absolutely opposed to a Black candidate.” The specific candidate that Davis was referring to was Clarence Thomas and her comments would be published in the book based on the 1992 play Fires in the Mirror. Referring to the spectacle of the 1991 Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, she concludes, “This is a very complicated situation, but I have no problems aligning myself politically against Clarence Thomas. I am very passionate about that. But at the same time, we have to think about the racism that made the Thomas-Hill hearings possible.”
Although both the ideological diversity among, and the unparalleled scrutiny of Black political figures is as old as Callie House’s struggle for ex-slave reparations, the relevance of Davis’s comment for the current presidential election is nevertheless striking. It shows that we’ve been here before: the vexing situation of condemning the racist and sexist tactics overwhelmingly unleashed on Black candidates by a white court of public appeal while simultaneously attempting to raise criticisms about, and perhaps even absolute opposition to Black candidates. And yet, this “here” is somewhat different because for the first time in U.S. history we may actually have, despite Toni Morrison’s quip about Bill Clinton, our first Black president.
The enthusiasm for a first Black president has made it difficult to publicly raise critical questions about Obama’s political investments without appearing unsympathetic to the grand legacy of Black striving and political mobilization and the very real concerns people have about the state of current affairs. At the risk of appearing insensitive, I want to critically interrogate Obama’s famous “race speech” “A More Perfect Union.” Specifically, I want to briefly discuss how Obama’s speech is an example of a neoslave narrative and consider the political implications of his rhetoric.
An extension of the slave narrative that was popularized in 19thcentury literature, the neoslave narrative is the American dream story in which struggle and pain are part of a progressive journey toward ultimate assimilation and socioeconomic success. Unlike the archetypal immigrant who struggles against cultural and social marginalization due to being from “somewhere else,” the slave, as a “domesticated other” must escape the plantation to assimilate.
As described by Joy James, the neoslave narrative “makes its appeal to the ‘moral conscience’ of the dominant culture” and “identifies fixed and therefore containable sites of freedom and enslavement.” Captivity and freedom are spatialized and temporalized. The southern plantation is the “site for the denial of freedom and democracy” and northern cities the “site for their acquisition.”
Obama alludes to this metaphorical movement “up north” when he describes the need to “deliver slaves from bondage” so to provide “their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States.” While Obama champions “men and women of every color and creed,” his metaphor nevertheless operates with the racial polarity inherent to the neoslave narrative. James explains: “The successful escape then exists as physical and metaphysical fleeing of ‘blackness’, understood as containment and debasement, toward ‘whiteness’, perceived as an enlightened citizenry shaped by ethical and influential liberals safeguarding and expanding the promise of democratic ideals.”
It is with this understanding that we need to consider Obama’s efforts to universalize his autobiography through appeals to multiracialism and globalization. Additionally, an attempt to flee “Blackness” also helps to explain Obama’s frequent rhetorical disciplining of his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright. While we can easily debate Wright’s politics, I want to emphasize how his pessimism is rhetorically constructed as white precisely because it is taken as too Black.
Before I begin, let me say that Obama is not the first to racialize pessimism or what he calls the “legacy of defeat” as Black. Nor is he the first to suggest pessimism is a psychological outgrowth and subsequently a causal—or, as he puts it, complicit—factor in shaping intergenerational social inequality. One need only open up practically any social science study on poverty or stratification to conclude as much. Regardless, Obama depicts pessimism as a psychological force keeping the slave from escaping the plantation and finally experiencing freedom. For example, despite his effort to explain the “roots” of Black anger and also draw attention to white anger and resentment, Obama goes out of his way to condemn Black anger because it is “not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition.” Consistent with the neoslave narrative, Black pessimism is the slave who refuses to run away and even more nefariously, is complicit in maintaining the slave system, thereby keeping others enslaved as well. To put it crudely, Black pessimism is not a legitimate political response but rather is treated as the ultimate form of haterism.
Whereas Black pessimism is an incorrigible position, the neoslave narrative is, according to James, endearing “to a general public that disparages radicalism” because “such narratives moderate racial politics.” She continues, “As the sympathetic reader lives vicariously through the dangerous risk-taking that typifies the life of the slave rebel and fugitive, she is reassured of reconciliation with prevailing power structures that permitted the liberating, albeit torturous journey.” We can think about how, in the case of Obama’s race speech, vicarious living allows the slave’s escape to serve as a spectacle that ultimately affirms the universal American dream narrative in which captivity and terror are carelessly reduced to temporary immigrant isolation and freedom or emancipation is equated with social mobility. Think of the spectacle of a Black candidate publicly confronting slavery and racism in the Constitution Center, a physical space meant to memorialize a document that had at least seven sections dedicated to the promotion of slavery. For the liberal consumer, “A More Perfect Union” is simultaneously an act of Black resistance and an expression of patriotism, or as James would describe, an admix of “assimilationist politics and loyal opposition to the racial state.”
The excitement and perhaps anxiety of watching a Black candidate talk about the nation’s past gives way to liberal relief brought on by remarks such as “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.” Ultimately, the spectacle of Obama’s speech only serves to affirm how “full circle” we have come as a nation, with, as James puts it, “the majority of moral-minded women and men reassured that the narratives represent the state as reformable and so inherently democratic.”
I would add, too, that this reassurance allows many to conclude that the country is well on its way to resolving what Obama calls the “nation’s original sin of slavery” and that subsequently Black suffering—or at least conversations about it—will finally be put to rest. Yet as Jared Sexton reminds us, “black suffering—especially in its gendered and sexual variations—is in no way visible, known, remembered, or properly told.”
Wright’s unwillingness to stop talking about Black suffering and the role of the U.S. state in such matters is ultimately an obstacle to the reconciliation necessary to move forward as a liberal, multiracial republic. The pastor is depicted by Obama as the slave who won’t psychologically give up the plantation: “he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country…is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” In other words, Wright dared to suggest that the United States was irredeemable, or as Obama puts it, he expressed a “profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” Additionally, according to Obama, Wright’s pessimism keeps him from appreciating the multiracial coalition that has rallied around the presidential candidate, a gesture that is tantamount to a slave rejecting the outstretched hands of abolitionists.
Obama’s speech also categorically denies the possibility that there exists people who are, to recall Davis’ comments about Thomas, simultaneously critical of racist and sexist tropes and strategies used against Black candidates and critical of their political ascendancy. If anything, we are more than just absent, but rather, following Obama’s neoslave narrative, we are anti-abolitionists.
This, then, is the irony, if you want to call it that, of Obama’s race speech: as an attempt to confront the legacy of slavery, it ultimately denied it. In the process, the slave became the master, black became white, and Obama’s supporters were all abolitionists.
© Copyright Tamara K. Nopper 2008