My favorite scene in Black Panther is the interrogation between Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis, and CIA operative Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), both Wakandans, watch as Klaue and Ross banter—Ross wants to know how Klaue got his hand(s) on vibranium, while Klaue, an Afrikaner, insists on the existence of Wakanda as a “technological marvel” on par with El Dorado. The scene plays little role in the story other than to establish character, but cleverly recasts the “bad guy is ok with being caught” trope as a metaphor for race relations: Serkis’s white supremacist (“I can see you!” he insists) debates with Freeman’s well-meaning but naïve white professional (“I’m doing you guys a favor by letting you even be in here”) about whether blacks are more powerful and independent than they let on, as Boseman and Gurira (“Americans…” she hisses) roll their eyes from the other side of a one-way mirror standing in for the color line. The effect is to convey both the black and white experiences such that the viewer can relate to them simultaneously, no matter where you come from.
Boseman is from South Carolina. Gurira was born in Iowa and raised in Zimbabwe. Serkis and Freeman are both English. None of the actors are portraying their actual nationality, and the two British actors are performing a pantomime about the existential status of a country that, after all, doesn’t exist. The fact that we can still take this scene seriously is a direct product of Barack Obama’s own approach to race. There are important cultural—and political—costs to this.
Before reading Rising Star, I had forgotten my own skepticism of Obama after his 2004 convention speech through fall 2007, believing he was not ready and advertising his opposition to the Iraq War out of proportion to his accomplishments. I had forgotten the electric inspiration of his Iowa speech, which made his campaign feel like a movement. I had forgotten my anger at my parents, my sister, and myself for being so slow to support him. And I had not realized the extent to which these sentiments were emblematic of a new culture just then being born: claiming to navigate the color line while suppressing an actual politics of race.
It’s a huge book, but its underlying thesis is simple: “Barack Obama” doesn’t actually exist. Barack Hussein Obama, a failed biracial writer raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, is frustrated at the world for not giving him a history or sense of orientation from which he could describe who he is or what stories he should bother to tell. Inspired by misreadings of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., he remakes himself into an inheritor of their legacies as a post-racial politician, able to be all things to all people and forsaking a firm set of ideals or principles. The failures of his Presidency—Republican political gains, growing inequality, continuing racial strife, Trump’s election—reflect Obama’s fundamental lack of self-understanding and directionless ambition.
These are strong claims, and to be blunt I do not take them seriously. It is true Obama exhibited a profound willingness to compromise and reframe his own positions in response to changing political realities, but this clearly flows from his commitment to pragmatism. I find his emotional intelligence—and sheer intelligence—intimidating, not underwhelming. If there has always been an aloofness or superficiality to his public persona, I credit this to the kenosis of trying to be a national figure while also writing the most resonant and insightful American political speeches of the twenty-first century. Still, this book demands to be taken seriously, and the perspective it offers has provided grounds for reflection on my previous posts as well as myself.
Obama is a “We” politician whose life and training reflect the politics of the “I”. His tragedy and his accomplishment is that he found a way to identify not as black, nor as white, nor as biracial, but as a navigator of the color line, as a mediator of the difference it once enforced. This empowered him to reflect and refract the color line without fundamentally transcending its limitations, to displace its effects rather than demolish them. This distinction is crucial for understanding how Obama laid the groundwork for Trump’s Presidency, which is not an aberration from but an exacerbation of Obama’s rhetorical strategy.
I will explore these ideas in future posts. For now, I will summarize the narrative steps and events of Rising Star that suggest how this identity was formed:
-Obama is raised mainly by his grandparents, and feels severe abandonment at the hands of his mother (he later transferred these feelings to his entirely symbolic “father”, Obama Sr., who he never knew). He is a slacker in high school, goes to college in California to meet expectations, and is annoyed at professors who expect more from him than B writing assignments. He transfers to Columbia and dates a white woman, also raised in Indonesia and who shares his sense of disorientation.
-Ambitious but unsure of himself, he signs up for a community organizing gig in Chicago, apparently looking for writing material. He is only hired because the team’s exclusively white members are not trusted in Roseland, on the far south side. While there he immerses himself in the philosophy of Saul Alinsky, which helped him understand community organizing as a quest to identify heroes and villains in order to gin up anger and resistance, before ultimately rejecting its strategies as parochial and unable to sustain real political change across diverse communities facing the same structural problems caused by a changing economy.
-Obama’s sense of abandonment is quenched by the love he finds there: from his teammates, from role models like Jeremiah Wright, from the community members he helps (and sometimes sleeps with), from a biracial UChicago grad student with whom he goes steady and to whom he later proposes, and ultimately from himself, when he discovers his destiny to be President. Obama quickly maps out the next thirty years of his life: he will go to Harvard (as his father did), he will return to Chicago and become mayor (as Harold Washington did), then governor of Illinois.
-His experiences in Chicago—and in particular his failure to convince his girlfriend’s parents, who perceive him as entitled and arrogant, of his worthiness—motivate him to break up with her and identify fully as black before undertaking his master plan. Somehow he realizes that the ticket to his own political ascendancy is to accept and inhabit the standpoint of a black man who can understand whites from within, rather than a biracial man at home in both worlds (or neither). He imagines marrying a dream woman with the “mind of Toni Morrison and the body of Whitney Houston”.
-He spends his time at Harvard Law running circles around other students and professors alike, armed with an organizer’s sense of resolving interpersonal conflicts and an actual knowledge of how race and inequality work beyond the classroom. He learns nothing there except how to win friends and influence people, and knows it. He decides not to apply to join the Law Review (but is roped in), not to run for its Presidency (but is roped in), and not to pursue clerkships (though he is offered all of them and wins even more respect for saying no). In his spare time he wins Michelle.
-He experiences failure back in Chicago: loses potential black allies by challenging Alice Walker’s signatures to become a state senator, is horrified at the consumption of graft and cuisine and loose sex in Springfield, runs for Congress in 2000 and loses, struggles to impregnate Michelle, and does not quit smoking. He toys with the idea (which Michelle encourages) of leaving politics entirely, before a broad coalition of white allies (e.g. Mayor Daley, who does not want Obama to challenge him, and David Axelrod, who wants to redeem himself from Daley’s corporatism and lack of ideals) and key black supporters (e.g. the Springfield majority leader, who wants him to be a feather in his cap rather than a thorn in his side) to run for U.S. Senate. He also pens a dishonest personal account of growing up black in Hawaii and combines or erases his non-black girlfriends, portraying his life as a story of race relations.
-He wants to bide his time in the U.S. Senate and soak up achievements before running for President, but others’ expectations—supporters across Illinois, his own Chicago network, the media, and finally national Democrats who realize the party will embarrass itself if he doesn’t run—force him to declare after just two years. His abandonment issues flare up when Wright leaves the campaign, but this affords an opportunity for more personal reflection on race and political grounds to cut Clinton off at the color line, which he does in “A More Perfect Union”. His nomination is sealed when he loses Indiana by a smaller than expected margin.
The rest is (mostly) history. Here are my more analytical takeaways:
-Every post-college career step Obama took was made possible by his adopted racial identity as a black man. He is considered more prepared for a position because, and not in spite of, his blackness. It is his main qualification, like a bullet point on his resume.
-Obama never truly understood or took seriously the foundation of white racial anxiety, despite possessing a profound understanding of its mechanics and how to assuage them. Nor did he understand the causes for black parochialism that made Chicago neighborhoods not see each other as allies, or made some abandon him after he turned on Alice Walker and Bobby Rush. For him, race is a heritage you adopt in order to find your place in the world and hitch your wagon to a wider sense of purpose, what allows you to relate to other people. But the experience of race as something you possess against your will, that ethnicity is ultimately rooted in nationality, a sense of place that is exclusive and to which others simply cannot belong or fully appreciate, was beyond him.
-There is a ghostly cynicism and indifference about Obama that never goes away. There’s something deeply sad about a man who decides when he’s 25 exactly how he will spend every year of the rest of his life, and I got the sense that Obama gave up trying to become an independent writer when he realized that he could just embody the great unfinished story of the Civil Rights Movement. The hunger of whites around Obama from Harvard on, who openly expect him to be that movement’s capstone, is disturbing, as is Obama’s willingness feed that hunger.
-His career steps all take the same shape: 1) join a new organization, 2) be horrified at its backwardness, racism, and insufficiency, 3) adopt a principled stance of “aren’t we better than this” that impresses a set of old institutional hands who nod silently at his pronouncements, 4) resist their calls for him to take charge of it before giving in, 5) briefly take charge, 6) abandon responsibility for its maintenance when the next opportunity is in sight. Per his Mandela speech on global capitalism and populist anger, Obama’s current arc is somewhere between 2) and 3).
-The tragic dénouement offered by his Chicago girlfriend is that Obama’s willingness to meet the world as it is in order to make the world what it should be—his pragmatism—came at the cost of his sensuousness, the capacity to feel and breathe and just be himself without already evaluating whether it is possible or practical to feel those things. This is disturbing to me and I am still processing its implications. Axelrod observed that his famous 2004 convention speech would have been conventional and over-rehearsed if not for his being interrupted by the Kansas delegation’s cheers—he smiles, points to them, puts his shoulders back, and is suddenly “there” in a way he wasn’t before. At key moments in his path, this sensuousness or “We”-ness somehow pointed the way for his next great evolutionary leap, before receding into an “I”-ness of strategy and calculation and post-racial hobnobbing.
“Cast down your bucket where you are” is one of the most infamous statements on race relations in American history. Uttered by Booker T. Washington, it is often interpreted as the need for African-Americans to know their place and not try to rise above their station in life—to become sharecroppers and shoe-shiners before politicians and poets. The hero of Invisible Man, which apparently served as both inspiration and structural model for Obama’s Dreams from My Father, recites it after taking part in a bloody battle royale for the amusement of white patrons, for whom it serves as his admission to a historically black college. But Washington’s parable illustrating the line is instructive:
“A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, ‘Water, water; we die of thirst!’ The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ A second time the signal, ‘Water, water; send us water!’ ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.”
Race is such a complex category because it is both existential and sensuous. It must be both owned and felt, inhabited and accepted, chosen as well as obeyed, for a true reconciliation to occur. It is both a story you tell every day and a script you cannot help but follow. What intrigues me about Obama after Rising Star, and which makes me respect him more even as I admire him less, is his willingness to align his own process of ethnic self-actualization with the demands of his chosen political destiny. Had he not done this, it’s doubtful he could have become President, and we are richer for his having done it, if more disoriented in turn.
Obama, despite his thirst in New York and Harvard and Springfield and Washington, refused to cast down his bucket where he was, but not because he was ambitious or lacked principle. It was because he deliberately abandoned the effort to make sense of himself in terms of himself, and with it whatever organic versions of himself may have emerged. He learned to navigate the color line at the expense of learning to navigate and accept the full blessed contradictions of his own being. Without him there is no Ta-Nahesi Coates, or Jordan Peele, or Childish Gambino, or Ava DuVernay. But there probably also would not be Sherriff Joe Arpaio, and assuredly not Donald Trump. We are now all navigating that estuary, many of us against our will. How many of us are willing to cast down our buckets where we are?
I cannot help but imagine some other version of Obama who, after successfully linking up with and inhabiting the black experience on the south side, rejected the Harvard offer in favor of Northwestern (where he was also accepted) and stayed with his UChicago girlfriend. School allegiances notwithstanding, it would have been hard. He would probably have become a civil rights lawyer, stayed involved in organizing, perhaps run for local office. It would have meant fewer speeches, less money, and certainly less attention. He would not have married, and would have either given up the effort to reinterpret himself as black or dedicated himself to a more protracted struggle for identity. But he might have begun to put down and cast earth around the roots he so desperately craved, and perhaps arrived at truths about race that are less inspiring but more edifying than the ones he is known for. I can’t claim to understand what it means to be biracial or post-racial, but after growing up in the political order he helped articulate, I recognize they are not the same thing. Thanks, Obama.