My new article “Barack Obama’s Community Organizing as New Black Politics” has recently been published in a special issue of Political Power and Social Theory titled “Rethinking Obama,” edited by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Louise Seamster.
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.