Tuesday, February 13, 2007

None More B[ar]ack

Is it just me or does the whole debate concerning the "blackness" of Senator Barack Obama evoke the scene from This Is Spinal Tap when the band first sees the black cover to their new album, Smell the Glove? Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) contemplates, "It's like, how much more black could this be? and the answer is none. None more black."

My point is that not only is this debate comically absurd, but its premise, "How much black is Barack Obama?", is inherently as pointless and absurd as the discourse that follows. As seen recently on both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show and with less humor on SNL, the argument over Senator Obama's level of "black" serves as ample comic fodder. Colbert interviewed (and exposed the useless logic of) author, Debra Dickerson, who supported her position against Obama's "blackness" with such substantive statements as: "He's a brother, but he's an adopted brother."

Dickerson does, however, expresses the underlying purpose of her argument, which is that she, and presumably those that feel similarly, feel that Obama, son of a Kenyan immigrant and a white, Midwestern mother, while he may be the "adopted brother" of the "black" community is being taken in too closely by pushy foster parents, namely white self-congratulationiks. Let's recap: Dickerson aims to critique white self-congratulation exemplified by Obama's high ratings with white voters who she feels have made the Senator into more a symbol than a candidate; and in order to critique the self-congratulatory white community she uses Obama as a symbol of otherness, a figure of racial ambiguity, instead of a serious candidate.

The debate over Barack Obama's racial identity reveals more about the black community that dismisses him than it does about his actual standing within it. I realize that this is dangerous ground for an openly white guy to be discussing, but this point is well argued in a recent New York Times editorial, in which the black author (which I point out to take the onus of racial commentary off of my shoulders) dismisses the idea that slave heritage is a deciding criterion for one's blackness. Most interestingly, he sees this debate as "positively antique", a remnant of the racial politics of the 1960's.

There is more one could say -- about Obama's self-admitted and often criticized ability to appear as a thematic blank slate; about how "81 percent of black voters tell pollsters that a white man will get the Democratic nomination, while only 58 percent of white voters do" -- but I'd prefer to leave the topic open. I will only say that I support Senator Obama's candidacy and that his background does carry a certain cache in my mind. The appeal of his heritage stems not, however, from the ambiguity of his race but from its eclectic and international aspects, which offers more for the evolving global debate and towards its evolution, so that if he remains a prominent figure in public discourse we may hopefully begin to start arguing about topics that actually matter, like how much more black can that album cover be.

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