Denial is a part of every system of oppression. Republicans deny their oppression of working class families and the poor by pretending to be “for” family values and “free” enterprise, while shifting the balance of power and profit to those who exploit the public good for private and personal gain.
But what we are seeing with President Obama is a new class of denial. It’s a denial that denies it is denying. It calls for him to do things many–not all–but many don’t want him to do. Perhaps instructive is a story from my high school years, where as a member of the group of first African-Americans to integrate my hometown high school, I was encouraged to take full advantage of opportunities and activities. Except for the state BETA Club convention, when everyone wondered who would be my roomates, and the regional band clinic, another overnight trip, where we were suppose to stay with families (I was told I could decline the trip if I wanted to, although I had made first chair), and the Christmas parades where the good citizens of neighboring towns through cigarettes at the boots of our one African-American majorette. The point here is not to shock, open old wounds, or cite old history, it’s to point out that America never seems to know anyone who has done those things. We offer opportunity and equal expectations, but deny the invisible expectation of limits silently imposed by race–and then deny race is a factor.
With the President, remember the New Yorker magazine cover with his head wrapped and his wife in a 70s-styled afro with platforms with a fist bump, the American flag burning in the fireplace – the modern militant radical equivalent of the watermelon eating stereotype that supposedly was only a “parody”? Remember the discussions during the primaries as to whether the President had street cred (was he “black” enough)? So consumed were many with panning race and denying the panning, that no one saw what is obvious: it’s worse–his politics are neither racial or socialist (and socialist is simply another code word for race that can be denied by those who use it).
Now many who deny their denial have discovered they can have it both ways and are playing both sides. I feel like I’m watching an old Sidney Poitier movie, in which he is suffering silently under the yoke, as impotent as Gershwin’s Porgy, as tragic as Ellison’s Invisible Man’s battle royal–sympathetic, a source of fury–but safe.
This is meant to be a larger reading of Obama within the cultural dynamic of race outside of its usual confines of bias and prejudice. It is not a reading of his personality or politics, but of the subtle ways America invents to deny its denial that it (we) see race, and often hold out expectations which we don’t expect to be met. Newt’s “Kenyan anti-colonialism” was an unveiled, unvarnished clear academic reference to the Mao Mao, yet not one pundit, broadcast or print, labeled it or nailed it. I found it insidious and bankrupt. It labeled the President in a way that really labeled the broader image of African-Americans–no longer welfare cheats but now deadly killers of western civilization’s right to its manifest destiny. It shut a door for me that no one among the Republicans or Tea Party folk renounced the remark. To support those who hold or who let such views go by would be like fighting for the Confederacy. (Which incidently some African-Americans did not based on principles or beliefs; they were promised freedom and pensions, creating a win-win in their political hedge.)
How can the country leave unnoticed the Kenyan anti-colonial reference while wanting him to “man up”? Actually the country is doubling down on its denial; from the Duchess who found him uppity to the pan cake boxes that bootstrapped him to recyled imagery, no one seems to be able to find anyone who thinks race is an issue, when it fact, it’s all over the place, but outside of the narrow confines of bias or prejudice by which we have been conditioned to think about it. Cultural attitudes are difficult to identity and can not be counted in surveys or polls, or one by one. They linger and reproduce as a interior legacy–and a big part of that legacy is that the complexities of the culture of race are denied.
To borrow and paraphrase an image from my favorite Ismael Reed poem, “Jacket Notes,” the President is like a man going over Nigara Falls in a barrel. Many of the gawkers hope he falls on his face. Some don’t think much of his act. The barrel makers don’t think he can cut it. “But what really hurts is / he is bigger than the / barrel.”