Obamarama: Killing a Vision?
February 1, 2008
I have become very curious, and suspect, about something and I just want to ruminate for a moment. Here, I am speaking from the point of view of Black woman reading American politics via the media:
When Barack Obama first declared his candidacy on the steps of the capital in Springfield, IL, I wondered how long it would take before 1) white people would start undermining his campaign with rumors and threatening his life, and 2) black people would start saying “who does this boy think he is that he can become president?”
As it turns out, my suspicions have been borne out, but in a more complicated way. The speculation among Black people that Barack “could” or “might” be assassinated, which is informed by a not so distant history here – Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X etc, – has made it to mainstream, and taken on a life of its own. This I find frightening at many levels.
In the January 14 issue of Newsweek, Richard Wolfe reports that Barack Obama has Secret Service folks protecting him (I thought that was SOP for senators and such?); also quotes as Michelle’s brother saying that, regarding threats against Barack’s life “that’s always in the back of everybody’s mind.” In the Jan. 28 issue, conversation with Michelle Obama again raises the question of whether she is afraid of someone trying to kill her husband. On NPR this week, there’s a town hall meeting being broadcast from Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD (a historically black university), and at least 10 minutes of airtime is dedicated to discussion about Black people’s fears about the possibility that Barack will be assassinated. One caller even calls in to say, in a rather strange logic, that Barack will probably be killed and that people should vote for him! Other commentators noted that this is the main topic of conversation in barbershops and beauty salons, both of which are often treated, like “the black church,” as reflecting the public opinion of most African Americans.
Ok, so, there is a racial reality that people are speaking to — we have the examples to support this. But it also has, and is being made significant through a gendered politics, as well. In my opinion (well, that’s obvious…) both are posing problems for Black people’s ability to think through the meanings of Barack Obama’s candidacy.
My first line of thinking ==
There is the constant allusion to the histories of Jim Crow violence against black men – lynching, etc., and linking that to the contemporary saga of “the endangered Black male/plight of the Black male” which posits Black men as the biggest threat to, and thus the biggest victims of, white supremacy. Thus, Barack Obama is the worse thing that could happen to America, and whites just won’t have this uppity Negro boy speaking for them. They just won’t tolerated. So, it seems that we have exhausted – or abandoned – the discussion about whether Barack is black enough and thus whether his lack of blackness – think of this like vanilla essence or food seasoning – is what has endeared white folks to him. We have now segued nicely to the conclusion that Barack is black enough, indeed, so black that white people won’t be able to stand him, and will therefore kill him at the first opportunity.
My question: at exactly what moment did Barack become so affirmatively black to both African Americans and whites that he became threatening to the status quo? Was there a media moment or a series of moments where this shift took place?
My second line of thinking ==
So what are we really talking about without actually saying so? That in a country that has a history of white supremacy and a sexist political structure, that a white woman, no matter what stripe she is, is infinitely safer and less threatening than a black man? So, does that explain why noone ever asks or reports about Hillary’s (or any of the other male candidates’ security detail?)? Because they are not threats to anyone and therefore don’t need to think about it? I don’t remember any discussions about death threats against Carole Mosely Braun when she ran a few years back. Nor do I hear any references to how dangerous it was for Shirley Chisholm to have campaigned to become president in the 1970s. So we don’t think she was a threat to the political system? Or, is it that we only think of the blood and gore of violence and murder in male terms; Americans would never assassinate a woman? Interesting; this is also the country that has never had a woman president. We have a recent example of Pakistan where there has been woman head of state and they have also killed a woman politician. Maybe we just need the experience of having a woman head of state to make the move to thinking of Shirley/Carole/Hillary as a logical target of assassination.
Or is it that we are being reminded, through the endless ruminations about Barack’s imminent demise that we don’t believe that this system can accommodate a specific male body that brings with it a particular experience of America’s political history of violence and exclusion? And that, if he was killed, it would somehow confirm that we were indeed right, that Black men are the ultimate threat — see what happens when an individual Black man (who in this racist system, stands in for ALL black men) look to become as or powerful than white men? Isn’t this kind of thinking rather perverse? But then, racism is perverse…
This notion that somehow, Black men, by their very bodily existence, always, everywhere, represents the biggest threat to the establishment, regardless of what they actually think and believe relies entirely on the belief that that male domination is about a contest among groups of racially unequal men. And that white men (and women, I suspect) would be sore losers if their surrogate, a white woman, didn’t win this contest for them. Its interesting then that we are becoming more, not less, invested in this idea during this presidential campaign, even though it is clear that many of the Black men who have recently aspire to positions of national stature are hardly distinguishable from most of their white male counterparts. Barack is a pragmatist and supports militarism; so does Kerrey. That’s why Kerrey’s supports him. How exactly was Colin Powell different from Dick Cheney? Um. Not much. If you take the Black folks who are so entrenched in the democratic machine, and we’ve been hearing from them lately for sure, you can hardly distinguish them from other white liberal men or women. And they support Hillary. So what’s that about? Is she less of a threat to them, and therefore more controllable? They still have the male power card to wave over her — and boy, do they know how to use it! — in a way that they couldn’t with Barack, if he became president? Maybe they like the politics as it is — working not from the top, but from the inner court — and can get what they want, without upsetting the machine. So, then, its not really that black men are a threat to the system then, its that, some black men are a threat to other black men who themselves are indebted to the racist, male-dominated political structure? The “generation” argument would work here; its not middle-aged black men who are seen as threats, its younger black men. And both middle-aged and younger folks buy into the logic too, hence the former’s reluctance to support Barack, and the latter’s conviction that somebody’s gonna kill that boy. Hmm… I think I’m on to something here…
My third line of thinking ===
If we are so convinced that somebody is going to [try to] kill Barack, do we know what we want to do about it, if that should happen? And if we are so gleefully entertaining this idea in private and public, what are we to think if and when white supremacists decide to do the same thing? Are we becoming too sidetracked and investing our creative energies in realizing our worst fears, and thus practicing self-sabotage? When will we think that we as Black folks are good enough, complicated enough, and bold enough so that these collective doubts don’t fester and contribute to killing the vision for a more progressive and racially just society?