Obama 24: Obama in Black and White 10.03.13

This is the culmination of my Obama series. It is an easy, shorter and hopefully enjoyable read. You can read it to your kids. I`d love your feedback. Howard

Obama 24: Obama in Black and White 10.03.13


Howard Adelman

Morgan Freeman famously said that, “America’s first black president hasn’t arisen yet. Obama’s not America’s first black president — he’s America’s first mixed-race president.” People "just conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white – very white, American, Kansas, middle of America. There was no argument about who he is or what he is." (Quoted by Kristen A. Lee, New York Daily News, 11 July 2012) Somatically, Freeman is perfectly correct. However, in terms of character, Obama may not be black at all or he may be black and white in a very different sense than Freeman meant it.

Recall that it was widely held that Bill Clinton was America’s first black president. Not somatically, of course. Nor even in the way that Toni Morrison meant it when she famously wrote her 1998 (October) New Yorker essay, "Clinton as the first black president". For, as she later clarified, "I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp." (Quoted in Justin Dews, "Toni Morrison On Calling Bill Clinton The First Black President And Endorsing Obama," (05/16/08)

Clinton was America’s first black president in far more than the way he was treated. "White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and–who knows?–maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.’" (Toni Morrison)

This view of Clinton as America’s first black president was initially regarded as clever but condescending and almost insulting, certainly of those who treated Clinton so shabbily. However, the truth of the assertion came to be recognized at a much deeper level. First, Blacks responded to Bill Clinton as if he were Black, Second, Clinton’s treatment of and relationship to Blacks was unprecedented in American history that went well beyond his being born as a member of a poor family in Arkansas (see Suzy Hansen, "Why blacks love Bill Clinton," Salon, 20 February 2012):

· Quoting Toni Morrison, "Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas"

· Though FDR and LBJ passed the most important legislation that benefitted African Americans, Clinton appointed far more Blacks to senior policy positions than any previous president – this went well beyond appointments such as Ron Brown as Secretary of Commerce to include his most intimate staff: his budget director, his director of public outreach, his deputy chief of staff, his liaison between the White House and Congress

· Clinton, unlike Obama, grew up hanging out with black kids when he grew up in Hope, Arkansas

· Clinton identified with black music and black culture

· Most important, he connected personally and up close with African Americans and even as President would drive across town to a Black restaurant to eat soul food, chitlins and hang out with Blacks with whom he felt totally at home

· Alexis Herman who headed the Women’s Bureau in the Labor Department tells the story of her visiting Little Rock with Ernie Green who was an assistant secretary of labor when Bill Clinton was Governor on the occasion of Clinton`s honouring the Little Rock Nine who led the integration of Little Rock High School; afterwards Clinton invited them both to hang out in the Governor’s mansion, ordered ribs from a black take-out, picked up some six packs and they all talked well into the night about music, growing up, family and friends (cf. DeWayne Wickham (ed.) Bill Clinton and Black America)

· In Passage to India, E. M. Forster wrote "only connect" and Bill Clinton connected on a personal and intimate level with African Americans

· With the exception of Black academics, social and political activists, the vast majority of Black Americans supported his efforts at welfare reform and attempts to cut out fraud

· The most important issue to Blacks is probably education, and Bill Clinton as Governor of Arkansas oversaw the total reform of the educational system in that state so that it went from one of the worst to the very best system

· Blacks even recognized his sexual peccadilloes as Black and radically other than the high level white collar crimes of corrupt defence contractors, of bilking banks of billions in quasi-fraudulent mortgage lending and even in overseas wars that kill hundreds of thousands but make fortunes for those in what Eisenhower dubbed the military-industrial complex

· When he left the presidency, the Clintons settled in Harlem

Let me expand on the second last point. Whitewater just showed African Americans that Blacks, including the Clintons, could not compete with Whites in their realm of high-level trickery. Clinton`s deceit was Black. Toni Morrison noted that the root of the word, adulterare, means "to defile," and, at its core, in the white dominant culture it is indentified with treachery, something cloaked in deception and secrecy, that is more than a sin. When Bill Clinton was trapped by his evasions and misrepresentations over his sexual peccadilloes, he was not viewed by African Americans as a traitor guilty of an act equivalent to treason. Rather, he was viewed as a rascally trickster beloved in Black folklore going back to the Bantus in Africa. Clinton was the mischievous Br`er Rabbit, relatively small and vulnerable with only his cunning intelligence to escape a life and death situation when trapped by the enormous white power of the establishment.

If Bill Clinton is the Black American equivalent to Bre`r rabbit in high level American politics, Barack Hussein Obama is a trickster of a very different kind — Anansi, the trickster spider of West Africa even though his father was a Kenyan where tales of tricky hares are more prevalent. The American fringe right regard Obama as a deceiver of the first order in stories about his birth, in his pretence at being a Christian. The American right regard him as dissembler who pretends he is sympathetic to Israel and Zionism but is committed to dismantling Israel as a Jewish state. Obama says he supports free enterprise but the political right regard him as the leading socialist in America. In this respect, they impose their own sense of dissembling, a white sense of hypocrisy and misrepresentation. But Obama tells it as it is. He says what he means and means what he says.

That does not mean he is not a trickster. Like Clinton, he is a Black trickster, but he is no Bre`r Rabbit. He cannot cry out to Bre`r Fox after he escaped one more time: I was born and bred in the Briar Patch. Born and bred! For Obama was born in Hawaii. If Obama is indeed a trickster, why is he not identified with Maui, the Hawaian trickster fathered by a stranger? Because, although Obama`s father was a stranger, there is no version of the Obama story that presents him as a heavenly stranger. Obama`s mother never denied he had a father. In contrast, when Maui asked who was his father, Hina denied that he had a father and insisted that the loincloth (malo) of Kalana was his father. Nor is Obama a Promethean figure who steals fire from the gods (or the hens in this case) and can slow the sun`s rotation down. Obama is neither the downtrodden escapist trickster of Bre`r Rabbit nor the powerful godlike magician like Maui. Obama is an Anansi, or Aunt Nancy as colloquially known in the south.

Anansi is synonymous with skill and wisdom in speech. "No one goes to the house of the spider Ananse to teach him wisdom." Bre`r Rabbit is clever. Anansi the spider is wise. Rhetorically, he is brilliant. Like all trickster figures in literature, Anansi emerges from the fringes, from the sidelines, and uses his intelligence to defend the oppressed and gain the upper-hand over those with military and economic power. Though trapped within an existing power structure, Anansi beats the establishment at their own game though he does not usually transform the game itself. Unlike Bre`r Rabbit who has his own unique bag of tricks, Anansi uses the rules of the system against itself just as a clever judo expert uses the strength of the other to defeat his opponent. Anansi goes further for he inspires long term strategies of resistance that enable those who are deprived to transform their situation and to assert their identity within the system that has entrapped them.

Anansi works by trapping others of much superior strength. Four sample tales will give you the idea. These are drawn from the story of how Anansi was able to get Nyame (God) to release his store of tales to the world. Nyame demanded a tribute in return for the stories – a python, leopard, hornets and a dwarf. Anansi captured Onini, the Python, by allowing the Python to overhear him in an argument being sceptical about the python`s reputed great length. Onini wriggled forth and said he could prove his length and would allow Anansi to measure him. Since Onini had trouble lying straight, he agreed to let Anansi tie him up at either end to take his measure at his most extended. Once tied up, Anansi was able to deliver Onini to Nyame.

Anansi trapped Osebo, the leopard, by digging a hole, covering it up and luring the leopard over it so the leopard fell in. Anansi offered to help Osebo get out of the hole. He said he would wrap Osebo in his webs and pull him out. Anansi did wrap him in his web and pull him out but only to deliver Osebo all wrapped up to Nyame. Anansi trapped the Mmoboro Hornets by pretending it was raining into their nest and inviting the hornets to take shelter in an empty calabash which, when they did, Anansi closed up to deliver the calabash to Nyame. Anansi caught the dwarf in the same way that Bre`r Fox caught Bre`r Rabbit by making the equivalent of a tar baby, but this time it was a doll covered with sticky gum and set under the Tree Of Life with a bowl of yams in front. Mmoatia, the dwarf, came to eat the yams and then thanked the doll for the meal. The doll just sat there and din` say nothin`. The dwarf became incensed at the doll`s rudeness for not acknowledging the thanks. Still the doll sat there and din` say nothin`. Finally, incensed at such rudeness, the dwarf struck the doll and his arm got stuck. `Let go o`me or I`ll hit you with my other hand.` Of course the doll sat there and don` say nothin`. The dwarf struck with the other hand and that hand became stuck. Then he lashed out with each foot in turn and then finally butted with his head until he was entirely stuck and Anansi delivered the entrapped dwarf to Nyame. Nyame kept his side of the bargain and released his store of tales to the world.

In the story of "Opondo’s Children" released by Nyame, the wife of Opondo kept giving birth to monitor lizards instead of regular human babies. The parents, repulsed by their hideous children, destroyed each in turn just after childbirth. Finally, desperate to have a child of their own, they decided not to destroy the child that looked like a monitor lizard and raise the child as if he were a normal human baby even though he was rejected by the children of all their friends and neighbours. When the child was an adolescent, a neighbour followed the child to his secret river where the neighbour watched the child swim. The neighbour immediately went to tell the parents who then accompanied the neighbour to hide among the reeds beside the river and watch their child go the river to swim the next day. To their surprise, they watched their child take off his monitor skin and plunge into the river as a normal human being. They destroyed his skin and the child had to return looking like everyone else but, as compensation, he was accepted and loved by the entire community.

Obama was raised as a white child and allowed to grow up wearing his darker skin. In Harvard, but especially in Chicago, he learned that it could be of great advantage to him to acquire and wear another coat of an African woven out of the fine silk spider threads of Anansi. Thus, Obama became the oreo cookie of American politics wearing a black skin to cover his white ass while he used the rhetorical skills and practiced the wisdom of Anansi, his newly acquired black coat of words and wisdom.

Obama24.Obama in Black and White.10.03.13.doc

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