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Obama, Color And Masculinity

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Three years before Barack Hussein Obama became the first Black President of the United States author Thomas Glave wrote a prophetic and insightful essay with pin-point accuracy abut what it would take for a Black man to become president of the United States. His words now possessed the unmistakable ring of eerie truth in the context of the Age of Obama and the new paradigm of the present American Discourse. Here's how Glave saw it:

""That if the president were black, he would of course have to be a "good" black--light skinned, surely thus skirting associations with the darkness of evil, ugliness, and licentiousness; serious appearing (as opposed to feckless); not too young appearing, young black men equaling in the skewed popular imagination danger, frenzied sexual appetites, general depravity, and so on.

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"The black president would greatly benefit from "legitimization" of a preferably elite education"He would also have to be remorselessly capable of spelling his own name and that of his cabinet members: a combination, say of Colin Powell, Andrew Young, and Julian Bond, but subtly deracialized out of the dangerousness of blackness and inducted"into the approved realm of tacitly "honorary" whiteness." (Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent).

These observations now help to shape the public discourse on exactly who is President Barack Obama a refrain echoed throughout the last presidential campaign by the young president's critics and opponents. The essay also helped to capture the high and low ends of what is the national expectation as to what might qualify a Black man to become president of the United States. In an ironic ideological twist Obama ran against the very thing that made his candidacy legitimate and legible his blackness. The evidence of this is to be found in the fact that had Obama been young, white and male his candidacy would not have been exceptional or stood out as new, novel and exciting.

Literary scholar Robert Reid-Pharr explains it this way: "blackness is perhaps the most tradition-bound product that [the] country manufactures," adding that the "Black American is not produced at the location at which the African was dehumanized, at the point at which he becomes a n-word"Instead the Black American is produced at precisely that moment at which the attempt to dehumanize the African is met by the equally bold attempt to resist that dehumanization."

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A skilled politician, Barack Obama tried very hard to distance himself from his African ancestry to appeal to so-call mainstream American voters - a euphemism for "white America." The narrative of his implied blackness and fatherless condition was a subset of texts that did not feature prominently in his campaign's public discourse since it was felt that because of his color he'd already picked up the Black vote. Surrogates like Oprah Winfrey and others were able do a far better job of selling the then Illinois senator on the national campaign trail. Of course, the reasons for suppressing and downplaying this part of the Obama narrative had all to do with his fitness to serve as commander-in-chief and the mythical unsuitability of Black men as fathers articulated by countless Caucasian tomes, radio talk shows, and spurious investigations.

Today, the very idea of the shiftless, lazy, bed-hopping, irresponsible black male has reached such mythical proportions that now when black men show evidence of even the most basic of parenting skills and familial responsibility it's cause for celebration. Indeed, much of Obama's personal appeal lies in the fact that he has overcome the limitations of his black father--an absent black father, who nevertheless powerfully marks Obama as "black" within many American discourses.

Indeed Obama's cosmopolitan identity lends itself to the other aide of the American discourse the notion of a post-racial America in the Age of Obama. But that's a moving target that is sold in varying portions to Americans that have yet to confront the real horrendous issues of racism and the slave legacy. So that the advent of Obama and his political ascendency served to fulfill a national desire to once and for all shake the crippling and stultifying yoke of racism by pretending that with Obama as President it never existed.

This is what historian Nikhil Singh describes as the incessant need by the American body politic for the comforts of Nation, where "race is the provenance of an unjust, irrational ascription and prejudice, while nation is the necessary horizon of our hope for color-blind justice, equality, and fair play." In essence therefore Barack Obama had to be a "Black man" who became president so that ironically his "becoming" would facilitate America's movement in a direction that removed the threat that the establishment and status quo perceive that diversity in all its forms poses to the very foundation of these United States.

To quote Singh in his "Black Is A Country," "in this dynamic, African--and later Negro, black, and African-American struggles against civil death, economic marginalization, and political disenfranchisement accrued the paradoxical power to code all normative (and putatively universal) redefinitions of US national subjectivity and citizenship."

By this reasoning America's first Black President is perhaps the end-result, the culmination of these historic struggles whose rise to power now symbiotically shields current charges of US imperialism, hegemony and great-power chauvinism abroad and domestic anxieties at home that are today obfuscated by debates on such issues as border security and illegal immigration.

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But the Obama presidency opens up yet another conception of the American discourse. Recent attacks on the president from the Tea Party Movement and the racism peddled by people like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and others have raised the old bogey of Black masculinity set against old stereotypes of Black men as lazy, intellectually inferior, prone to bestial behavior and debauched sexuality. The constant depiction of Obama as a monkey, despot, incompetent, "backasswardness," as Sarah Palin stated, are not accidents or an exuberance born of the difficult economic times.

Instructive is the constant painting of Obama as a despot a portrayal that puts him on the level of the thug in society. This part of the discourse tries to place Obama in the realm of the angry and impolite black man, the anti-social, worthless hoodlum more comfortable with terrorizing society than making it better. Of course, this is a reminder that Barack Obama will always be a black man and no matter his education and careful breeding deep down he's still genetically linked to the lazy, shiftless, debauched and erotically inclined "plantation buck."

That's why a white Congressman genuinely shouted "liar" at Obama in a place and time that called for decorum and politeness. It's why the New York Post could allow a cartoon caricature of Obama as a monkey. But be that as it may the irrefutable evidence is that no matter what mainstream America thinks and says Barack Obama is in a position to redefine Black masculinity like never before.

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MICHAEL DERK ROBERTS Small Business Consultant, Editor, and Social Media & Communications Expert, New York Over the past 20 years I've been a top SMALL BUSINESS CONSULTANT and POLITICAL CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST in Brooklyn, New York, running (more...)

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