Or more accurately, Barack Obama is just white enough. Enough to what? Well, to be a presidential candidate that “mainstream Americans” (i.e. white middle class Americans) find credible.
I don’t mean to say that Barack Obama isn’t phenotypically black. He obviously has black skin, and he certainly has more than the required one drop of “black blood” coursing through his veins. But blackness is much more than skin color, or this debate would never occur. It’s a performance, a set of particular behaviors, speech patterns, ways of dressing and acting that signify a particular racial group, that inform your audience what role you’re playing.
It should come as no surprise that in a nation born and raised on racial violence, the people designated as “black” had limited input over how their role was written for them. The fantasies, desires, and political needs of the white ruling class have allowed rampant misinterpretations and distortions of the cultural life of the descendants of African slaves, creating such well-known archetypes as the Sambo, the Mammy, and the Black Buck. These roles were policed by symbolic and actual violence: an “uppity” black man could be tortured and murdered for the crime of speaking or dressing too white, when caricaturing him as “Zip Coon” wasn’t enough.
Of course, the white ruling class didn’t have complete control over making these roles — how could they? Blacks used these roles as a kind of camouflage to thwart the hostile white gaze, shuffling while the master was around and cursing him when his back was turned. Blacks constantly critiqued their roles while inhabiting them, often through symbolic play and exaggeration that whites misinterpreted as manifest signs of cultural difference. This was no organized conspiracy of subterfuge; rather, just a natural response of human beings to physical and cultural bondage, expressing their forbidden hopes, dreams, and desires through a coded language. And it is not to exclude the possibility that some enjoyed their roles, or at least made ingenuous attempts to perform them.
And yet a performance is not something completely inauthentic and artificial: who we pretend to be informs who we are. And so the complex and misunderstood history of “black” culture: that it is not some African essence, transmitted throughout the centuries through darker-skinned bodies — and it is always pertinent to point out that descendants of slaves all have white ancestors as well. Black culture is forged in the tension between the projection of white desires and expectations on to ethnic others and how those others meet and challenge those desires and expectations. As historical contexts change, so do the roles, the performances, and what exactly it means to be — authentically — “black.”
And so we come to Barack Obama, the black candidate who excites white voters, particularly young liberal ones eager to display their progressive egalitarian leanings. Phenotypically, and by the laws of this land, the man is black. His skin is dark enough, his father a black Kenyan. And yet, he doesn’t seem to fit into the roles our nation has built, through media propaganda and violence, for black performances. The U.S. has never had very compelling roles for the black middle class, although I see that changing as the black middle class, anxious over its precarious place in America’s hierarchy, attempts to wrest the white gaze away from its endless fascination with poor blacks (they are rooting for Kanye to beat 50 Cent a couple Tuesdays from now). The limited middle-class black roles that exist are typically negations of the stereotypical poor blacks — smiling, industrious, overall nonthreatening to the status quo, but with enough signifiers of blackness to come across as authentic — think of the light jazz music and African art in The Cosby Show. But Barack comes across as something different. In his speech and comportment, he strikes one as foreign and other, yes, but not black; he simply doesn’t fit into pre-established semiotic molds for what a black man should be. And because blackness is, at its core, nothing more than a construct, a performance complete with makeup and costume requirements for what certain individuals in our society should be, must be if this perverse set up we call a country is to keep going the way it is, then that leads us to one conclusion: Barack Obama isn’t black. Or not very black. Certainly not black enough to be black black, like the people we see on cop shows and music videos. But at the same time, black blacks never get to be real presidential candidates, just side shows.
Not black enough is actually just black enough to be a serious presidential candidate. Not black enough is the only amount of blackness he could be.