Right around the time the mainstream news started wetting themselves with excitement about Hilary Clinton's primary victories in Texas and Ohio (despite the fact that it changed nothing, despite the fact that Obama continues to maintain a near insurmountable lead in delegates, despite the fact that Americans of all stripes, regardless of how you break them down demographically clearly prefer Obama to Clinton) and Clinton egged them on by
But tonight I'm flipping through the channels and all the talk is about Obama and the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ. Lou Dobbs is taking a break from talking about immigration to predict the demise of Obama's campaign. Greta Van Susteren is talking to some poor, deluded, black man, forcing him to agree with her when she says, "We're as close as brother and sister" and feigns shock at the "offensive" statements of Rev. Wright. And what offensive statements you ask?
Web sites and television news shows recalled Wright's praise of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and played a greatest-hits compilation of Wright's most incendiary comments: that Sept. 11, 2001, meant "America's chickens are coming home to roost." That former president Bill Clinton "did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky." That "racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run."
Wright's statements, along with Michelle Obama's assertion that she is proud of her country for the first time, are being taken as signs that Barack Obama can't in fact bring us together, that he won't be the racially transcendent candidate that so many want him to be.
But let's call a spade a spade, shall we? Nobody gives a fuck that George W. Bush is not a racially transcendent candidate and never pretended to be. His administration is attentive and responsible to white male monied interests, and barely apologizes for that. When we say "racially transcendent" we mean "a black man that white people can like." That so many black people seem to like Obama (he got 91% of the black vote in Mississippi, as Pat Buchanan kept insisting, just before he told a black woman to shut up), that he goes to a decidedly black church, that his wife seems to be exactly the kind of black woman that makes white people nervous, that he is running his campaign with funds drawn from black wealth and the hard-earned dimes of working class black folk--all this makes white people nervous. Obama is fine as long as white people can chant "Yes We Can" at rallies and forward the will.i.am video to everybody in their address book. But point out America's racist past and present, suggest that the same American flag that you want me to get teary eyed over is the exact same one that my ancestors were slaves under, the same one that my grandparents were denied the right to vote under, the same one under which my mother attended segregated schools, the same one under which I didn't go to integrated schools until 1982, and watch all the warm, fuzzy, feeling fade away. Suddenly we are the racists and Greta Van Susteren is deeply hurt (you see, she's never heard a black person talk this way).
People believe hanging nooses from trees and professors' doors is funny. People see nothing wrong with displaying the confederate flag. John fucking Calhoun stands atop a giant fucking pedestal less than a mile from my office. Robert Downey, Jr. will perform in blackface in an upcoming movie. This is the country I live in. Maybe it's not the country Greta Van Susteren lives in. Maybe she's never been asked to be proud of a country that is more than happy to give her syphilis and then lie about it, or sterilize her without her consent, or leave her stranded for days as a city floods around her. I'm asked to be proud of that country every goddamned day. You'll have to forgive me if there are days that I can't quite muster the energy.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Barack Obama is not a special black man, a superhuman racially transcendent black man. He is, simply, a black man, like lots of black men trying to negotiate a black identity and an American one, two warring souls in one dark body, as Dubois said. Any black man running for president of the United States clearly has a deeply felt patriotism. Otherwise, why subject yourself to this? At the same time, any black man running for president is still a black man and always feels his two-ness (to borrow another phrase from Dubois), always recognizing how all the contradictions of this country are embodied in him. As Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes,
Let's be clear. American democracy has always coexisted with vicious,state-sponsored racism. The nation's first presidents worked to establish aninnovative, flexible, radical democratic republic while simultaneouslycodifying enslaved blacks as a fraction human and relegating them tointergenerational chattel bondage.
After emancipation, as blacks helped make America the greatest industrialand military power on earth, the country stripped blacks of the right tovote, segregated public accommodations, provided inferior education to blackchildren, and allowed and promoted the terrorist rule of lynch-mob violence. This week Barack Obama was pressured to denounce Jeremiah Wright. But in the hundred years following the end of the Civil War more than five thousand African Americans were lynched and not a single president denounced the atrocities. Because of this history, black patriotism is complicated.
Black patriots love our country, even though it has often hated us. We love our country, even while we hold it accountable for its faults.