Obama and the Black Historical Narrative

James Baldwin wrote: "...it is part of the business of the writer--as I see it--to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at length, with nothing to be articulate about. ('You taught me language,' says Caliban to Prospero, 'and my profit on't is I know how to curse.')"

Maybe you find Baldwin's criticism antiquated, and point to Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father" as evidence that contradicts Baldwin's point. But, I'll say, that's just the issue.

The New York Times Magazine’s cover story this weekend is titled "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?" and written by Matt Bai. The Times, and Matt Bai, are off the mark when they address the end of "black politics," which I find a loaded term that obfuscates the writing that follows it. The question that should have been asked has to do with the African-American voice. What is at stake with Barack Obama's ascendance and this new generation of black politicians, is the black historical narrative in America and the way that narrative is shaped and told.

Glenn Loury, in an essay "Losing the Narrative," wrote: "My fear is that, should Obama succeed with his effort to renegotiate the implicit American racial contract, then the prophetic African American voice – which is occasionally strident and necessarily a dissident, outsider's voice – could be lost to us forever."

Unlike Loury, I think the dissident's voice is always destined to run out of steam. Unless it is purely satirical, the lampooning of power for the sake of it being power (and this is a much different voice), all dissident voices eventually join the mainstream. This is not a bad thing necessarily. It can be an indication of success. A dissident voice loses its raison d'etre the moment the political system, religion, whatever, that it opposes disappears.

Bai notes in his Times Magazine piece: "For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama’s candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle — to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream."

With Obama's rise, the dissident black voice those aging civil-rights era politicians crafted for the past 40 years is on the way out. This is an existential threat to such politicians; their reward for the success of their life's work is a page in the history books. A nice plaque on the wall commemorating their achievements and a Ken Burns documentary, to be sure, but the struggle moves into a new phase and they will have little role in defining the new narrative. Perhaps it is not so easy as knowing you’ve improved the lives of millions.

For a while, the black American voice sketched out a new narrative that seemed to follow two paths, in the post-civil-rights era, simultaneously; there was a new dissident voice – represented most prominently in American culture by hip-hop – that continued to chronicle a sense of no-exit desperation, and a second voice that was an economically empowered, upwardly mobile one that was/is working its way into the faceless mass of the mainstream.

But hip-hop found financial success, too, and now the norm for that artform is “microwave rap.” Music that is just a vehicle for a paycheck and no longer the gritty urban poetry written on the border of life and death by people like Nas. The dissident path that prospered artistically during the 1980’s and 1990’s came into some money and joined up with the mainstream as well. Although this occurred on a relatively small scale, not every impoverished black child has the opportunity to rap to financial freedom, the change of tack in the musical philosophy was significant, and debilitating, to the dissent of the genre.

Loury’s concern that the dissident black voice may be lost is probably passe. That voice has been lost. Part of the credentials of the dissident black voice was its “otherness” from mainstream American society (enforced, of course, by white mainstream America). But Obama’s personal narrative brings a distinctly untraditional black American history crashing into the mainstream. We all know the biography. By bringing the other so into the mainstream, Obama explodes the space for otherness in which the dissident black voice resided.

In the same Baldwin piece quoted above, Baldwin wrote that, “what was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt.”

Baldwin, here, addresses black provincialism. Furthermore, Thomas Williams, in a piece in n+1, wrote in February of this year; “Anyone willing to spend an hour in the company of Black Entertainment Television or to venture into the ‘Urban’ section of the bookstore could argue that today black culture has lapsed into a greater provincialism than ever before. It would not be hard to argue that.”

The question, for me, concerning the black American narrative and the future of a dissident black voice hinges on a difficult Catch-22. If black America is able to overcome the still significant socio-economic issues that plague a portion of its population and join the mainstream fully, then I’m not sure a distinctly black “Rembrandt,” a cultural, artistic force that overthrows a history of provincialism, can be created from the nest of the faceless mainstream where money, more than race, defines your place. On the other hand, the black American narrative has long been defined, as Loury states, by a dissident voice, and that voice has yet to find Baldwin’s Rembrandt, despite having produced some of the greatest cultural products in America’s history. Furthermore, I don't think a dissident voice can produce a Rembrandt as the dissident voice depends on some other agent (oppression, injustice) to provide the fuel for its work. I don't think a Rembrandt can come out of a system like that.

And no, Obama’s no Rembrandt.

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