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A (NEARLY) FLAWLESS MASCULINITY

By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009.

In the aftermath of his victory last November, even Barack Obama’s most strident detractors had to admit that he ran a nearly flawless campaign. Election campaigns are steeped in science and indeed the Obama campaign came as close to perfecting that science as any presidential candidate has in the television era.

But there was another remarkable science at play, a science that is often given short shrift, if acknowledged at all. Barack Obama had many challenges in his 20-month campaign for the presidency, but I would argue that none was more daunting than making the nation-at-large comfortable with the very idea of a black man as Commander-in-Chief.

As such Obama, particularly in the closing moments of his presidential campaign, performed a nearly flawless (black) masculinity, that raised critical questions about the meanings of American masculinity and black masculinity, in particular, as new President transitioned from campaigning to governing.

As a black man and US President, Barack Obama’s body is the literal terrain in which the always already competing logics of black masculinity and presidential masculinity (an under-interrogated site of masculine construction)—both bound to popular mythology—have inevitably collided. Obama’s ability to negotiate this space—and truthfully he has little choice in the matter—only heightens the reality of his status as the most exceptional “Negro” to have ever graced the stage—“Barack Obama” is a performance that was surely meant for a holiday release starring Will Smith.

If such a (nearly) flawless performance of masculinity is the context in which this nation elected its first President of African descent, such a reality does not bode well for the idea of a so-called post-Race society. Indeed real parity in this regard, borrowing a logic Dwight McBride fashions in his book Why I Hate Abercrombie and Fitch, would be to elect a Black American candidate as nominally mediocre as the forty-three men who preceded Obama in the oval office and I’ll willingly concede that Obama’s immediate predecessor, number forty-three, might taint the sample.

In a provocative essay published three years before Obama’s election, writer Thomas Glave imagines the criteria for a first black President. I cite Glave at length here:

“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. 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)

Glave’s essay, which could have served as a cursory blueprint for then Senator Obama’s Presidential desires, captures both the high ends and low ends of national expectation on what might qualify a black man to be President. Obama had to run against the very blackness that made his candidacy legible in the first place, raising the concern that had Obama simply been a talented first term Senator from Illinois who happened to be white and male, would we have even bothered to pay attention?—would he even had been legible to us in the way that Obama was not only legible—but knowable to African-American voters, if not mainstream on the American electorate?

President Obama’s initial struggles with African-American voters are well documented with many citing the role that many African-American icons, notably Oprah Winfrey, played in laying a claim on the value of his blackness, that his name, African heritage and “fatherless” status was unable to articulate. As journalist Joan Morgan observes in her essay “Black Like Barack” there is a “proprietary tendency off native born Americans to use “black” and “African-American” interchangeably—as if to be black in America is necessarily to be descended from this ancestry.” (The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union”) Obama could be black, but for African-American voters—the the most visible arbiters of contemporary blackness—he could not be African-American in the idiosyncratic way that “blackness” is filtered through the prism of the African-American experience.

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 nigger…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.” (Once You Go Black: Choice Desire and the Black American Intellectual) Indeed it was an explicit appeal to black woman voters in South Carolina, with Winfrey and Michele Obama functioning as proxies, that helped Obama sway the black political mainstream, in large part because of former President Bill Clinton’s unwitting assist in the effort by reproducing demeaning references to black achievement and black aspiration that black voters—particularly strivers—were particularly sensitive to. Overnight, Obama had been made black though, his “fatherlessness” would put a fine point on that fact.

The Obama campaign tried throughout the presidential election season to downplay the significance of his race to mainstream voters, but Obama stood as such a dramatic counterpoint to long-held stereotypes about African-American men as fathers and husbands. In this regard, his ascendency challenged myths not only about the capacity of African-Americans to serve as commander-in-chief, but myths about black men as fathers. In his bestselling memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama provides a heart-wrenching account of the impact that not having his father in his life had on him. Obama’s parents divorced when he was a child and he had little contact with his father, who died in 1982. Obama literally had to conjure a father, who he saw only once after his parent’s divorce, recalling “I would meet him one night, in a cold cell, in a chamber of my dreams.”

There’s a veritable cottage industry associated with so-called black fatherlessness, as many books and studies make the link between under-achieving black boys and the lack of father figures in their lives. The very idea of the shiftless, lazy, irresponsible black male has reached such mythical proportions that when black men show evidence of even the most basic of parenting skills, 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.

Yet it was also implicitly understood, as suggested by Glave’s comments above that Obama represented an exceptional blackness, one that the culture at large—in conversations about dress codes on HBCU campuses, for example—has sought to make reproducible. As Reid-Pharr observes, despite mythologies attached to race in the United States, “blackness marks a site of becoming rather than a locus of fixed tradition.”

Obama’s cosmopolitan identity, or what Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu’s describes as Afro-politan identity—those Africans who live in the world—resonates within the discourses of so-called post-Race America, precisely because it is a moving target, perfectly pitched to audiences who all desired different meanings from the text that “Obama” represents and that they so willingly consume.

But with that positionality Obama derives a critical power; Reid-Pharr argues, “The moment at which the Black American becomes a cosmopolitan subject, the moment he is seen, heard, sampled in locations far from the red clay of North Carolina or the red brick of Baltimore, is the very moment at which he witnesses, or perhaps produces, the dismantling of the logic o Black American innocence.” According to Reid Pharr, appeals to black specificity, even as the cosmopolitan nature of blackness is self-evident is, “importantly a means by which to maintain a rather potent ethical position in this country and on the planet.”

As such the Obama candidacy served a national desire, a fiction designed to satiate what historian Nikhil Singh might describe 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 other words, Obama had to be to be a black man who won the presidency—not the honorary white man that Glave and many others, including running mate Joe Biden, suggested—so that the nation could again “move on” from the threats that so-called “diversity” poses to the sanctity of the Nation.

As Singh astutely observes in his book 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.”

The first black president might be thought, within such a discourse as the logical culmination of those struggles. Much like the Civil Rights Movement provided cover 50 years ago for charges that White supremacy undermined US national claims on democracy in the global arena, the first black president shields contemporary charges of American imperialism abroad and national anxieties masked as debates about illegal immigration.

Obama as first black President needed to literally service the needs of the nation, but his (nearly) flawless performance had to take into account age old tropes associated with well worn notions of black masculinity including negative presumptions of black male fitness for positions of leadership and of interracial desire.

The Thug and the Candidate: Musings on Black Masculinity

One of the prevailing theses of last year’s election season was that Barack Hussein Obama was not the round-way-brand of black man. Such a premise is palpable only to the extent that one chooses to read Obama against the image of marketplace confections of black masculinity, particularly those that legibly erect centuries’ old tropes of danger, bestial behavior, and sinister eroticism. The idea that we should distinguish between the candidate and the thug(s) is one of the defining truisms of contemporary polite society—less a measure of the candidate’s humanity and more so an index of the tolerance within said polite society. But black men do not live in polite society—however effectively they earn their keep within those spaces—and even the candidate’s wife understood this, telling CBS News in April of last year about her fears that her husband might get shot at a gas station in Chicago as opposed to being assassinated on the campaign trial by some desperate political actor yelling “traitor” or “liar.”

As Chris Rock surmised some time ago, niggas don’t get assassinated, they get shot—and there always been more of a chance that the Barack Obama’s fate would be decided by a bullet intended for a nigga, as opposed to that intended for the President, because quiet as it’s kept—Harvard pedigree notwithstanding—Obama never stops being a black man. And this is perhaps the implicit message of Byron Hurt’s film short Barack & Curtis: Manhood, Power and Respect. The film is a brilliant and thoughtful intervention on the subject of black masculinity at a moment when Barack Obama is poised to redefine black manhood for much of the world.

There is a telling sequence early in Hurt’s Barack & Curtis, where radio journalist Esther Armah, states that “Barack equaled Harvard, someone like 50 Cent equaled hood; hood equaled virility, Harvard equaled impotence.” That Armah’s compelling observation is rarely disturbed speaks to the extent that many of our perceptions about black masculinity have been finely shaped by a market culture that makes it easier for us to go to sleep at night, because we can so effectively distinguish the niggas from the black men. Barack Obama and Curtis Jackson are little more than brands, in a highly volatile and fabulously lucrative, politicized marketplace.

As Singh observes, “If the ideal inhabitants of the nation-state are citizen subjects, abstract, homogeneous, and formally equivalent participants in a common civic enterprise, than the ideal inhabitants of the market are private individuals endowed with a knowable range of different attributes and engaged in competition and personal advancement.”

The concept of 50 Cent—Curtis Jackson—as brand is a no-brainer, as a commodity who implores us to believe that he is a highly dangerous and highly sexualized (to all comers, I might add) embodiment of contemporary black masculinity. Barack Obama-as-brand (as historian William Jelani Cobb suggest we think of him in the film) is less-pronounced, presumably as running for political office doesn’t immediately translate into the salaries associated with being a highly compensated “gangsta” rapper—or a professional social menace.

But Obama’s political success was largely premised on his ability to brand himself as a beacon of hope, as an alternative to the Clinton aristocracy and as a black man that we don’t have to fear Branding helps make these men legible to very diverse and often competing constituencies. In widely circulated cover story in Fast Company Magazine, a veteran advertising executive matter-of-factly stated that “Barack Obama is three things you want in a brand…new, different and attractive.”

What branding doesn’t help illuminate is to the extent that the candidate and the thug(s) are dependent upon each other to lay claim to that which their brand doesn’t—and quite frankly, can’t—allow. This is the point that literacy expert Vershawn Ashanti Young makes when he suggest “That black men who display hypermasculine characteristics fetishize—that is, simultaneously love and loathe—those considered less masculine or, to be explicit, that niggas covet faggots has been unmasked in insightful criticism. That faggots desire to be niggas has occasioned less critique…” Mr. Jackson’s ability to wear $2,000 suits establishes a mainstream upper-middle-class identity that G-Unit clothing largely undermines. Mr. Obama’s feigned performance of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” pivots on hypermasculine tropes easily accessed by those who would think otherwise.

Where the candidate and the thug(s) find common ground is perhaps more nuanced and to be observed in the “I don’t give a fuck” look that Obama so brilliantly deployed in the waning months of the presidential campaign or in response to Joe Wilson’s recent outburst during an Obama address to both houses. As Young notes in his book Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity, “What the phrase ‘I don’t give a fuck’ really does is convert racial and gender anxiety into a mask on nonchalance…That niggas carry it off so well, however is exactly why [black middle class professionals] are drawn to them.” Young adds that “whereas rappers exaggerate their blackness and masculinity, [black middle class professionals] are required to underplay ours.” Both Barack Obama and Curtis Jackson are fictions that are the products of the larger culture’s inability to imagine anything but radical dichotomies, for black men.

I Love that (White) Girl: Post-Race Nostalgia in the Age of Obama and Palin

As last year’s election season was coming to a close, R&B artist Raphael Saadiq released the video for the song “Love that Girl.” Retro-fitted with a sound heisted from the Brunswick label’s rhythm section—and imaging packaged with a giddy 1960s innocence reminiscent of The Wonder Years, “Love that Girl” is perfectly pitched for the so-called post-Race moment.

The video for Raphael Saadiq’s “Love That Girl” succeeds, in part, because it trafficks in the very anxieties of this moment, by inverting the cynicism (born of the same anxieties) that informs much of the political discourse emanating from media pundits. That Saadiq can celebrate his affection for a lily-white white women in the video—a dead ringer for former lover Joss Stone (who half his age) with little repercussion is not the point—Teena Marie and Rick James cut that ground more than 25-years ago with “Fire & Desire,” thumbing their noses, as it were, at Reagan-era attempts to turn back the race clock.

Indeed Saadiq’s own nuanced performance of black masculinity mutes traditional readings of inter-racial desire. The video though, does risk undermining our memories of what the music Saadiq sings actually meant for folks whose political concerns were invested with more than an unfettered affection for the white girl who lived in the next town.

As Daphne Brooks reminds readers is her brilliant essay last year in The Nation, much of the black music in the 1960s, particularly among the girl groups, “was about affirming black dignity and humanity amid the battle to end American apartheid.” More to the point, Saadiq’s amorous (reckless) eyeballing would have likely been met by Klansmen and torches if “Love that Girl” was in true synchronicity with the historical era that informs it. And yet this is beauty of the Obama-moment—the freedom to forget the country’s not-so-far-fetched racial history—and the very reason why so many of the old-race guard remained unswayed by the obvious possibilities of the moment.

For example, on the morning of August 29, 2008, another white girl entered the frame and the so-called post-race moment became little more than a nostalgic longing, sequenced as it was, to the pace of an unrelenting news cycle. And it really had nothing to do with who Governor Sarah Palin actually was, but everything to do with the white women-hood that she embodies. Call it a post-convention bounce or the re-invigoration of McCain’s masculinity (the MILF effect) if you want, but the reality is that Obama always loses in opposition to pure, unsullied white women-hood (a positionality that Hillary Clinton’s own political career has never allowed her to truly occupy).

Overnight Barack Obama became the contemporary default representation of OJ Simpson, The Scottsboro Boys, Nushawn Williams, and Jack Johnson for many white women—his campaign a contagion that needed to be contained, if you were to measure the disdain that Today Show co-host Meredith Veira barely masked at the mention of Obama’s name. Another victory for gender in the gender vs. race debate, though in this instance Obama’s gendered identity—as a black man—trumps his identity as simply an African American.

Then as in now, Obama can barely risk even a cursory critical response to Palin’s criticism of his administration without reproducing centuries old narratives about bestial black masculinities and the purity of white femininity in the face of black male sexual desire and presumed physical endowment. Obscured in the reproduction of this historical fiction is the fact that American electoral politics had never witnessed the presence on the national stage of a black man and white woman, so highly sexualized and attractive in conventional and not so conventional ways, who were at political odds in the way that Palin and Obama were.

The sexual tensions between Obama and Palin were palpable, if only for a nation that had come to desire the presence of such spectacle in popular culture as some measure of the very reconstitution of nation that Singh identifies above. The anxieties produced in the midst of these performed tensions were borne out in the sexualized gaze placed on Michele Obama’s body—as expressed in black masculine celebration of the First Lady’s ass—I’m thinking immediately of my friend Michael Eric Dyson’s televised commentary—as if such celebration asserts that Barack Obama is obviously satisfied with the well endowed Michele Obama in the ways that heterosexual black men are satisfied and presumably enamored with such things (I stand accused).

Never before has a First Lady's body been subject to the amount of scrutiny and surveillance as is the case with Michelle Obama; she has been rhetorically poked, prodded and groped. Many would have found such a line of coverage unfathomable and even offensive if applied to women like Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, or Roselyn Carter, as was rightfully the case with depictions of Sarah Palin as the Vice-Presidential "MILF."

In this context, John McCain’s on-going campaign to seek a posthumous presidential pardon from Obama on behalf of Jack Johnson, the late black heavyweight boxer who was convicted in 1913 for violating the Mann Act, which ostensibly prohibited the transportation of women—white women--across state lines for "immoral purposes"—seems destined to make explicit the threats posed by interracial desire and miscegenation within the national culture that Obama, as a mixed raced citizen, has little choice but to embody.

Barack Obama had little room to maneuver culturally or politically, having to be willing to be queered in both traditional and non-traditional ways in opposition to performing even a healthy black male sexual desire as anxieties about such desire became palpable for the American public.

Obama, then as now, had to perform a tightly choreographed form of restraint. Descriptions of Obama as “Obambi”—in relation to his foreign affairs strategies—are the most obvious expressions of that queering process as are expressions of Michele Obama as alternately the kind of domineering black woman that Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about in his infamous critique of the black family and some contemporary iteration of the Hottentot Venus that Obama is sexually and politically flaccid in the face of.

At the crux of the many meanings placed on the body of Obama—itself marking a kind of conceptual queerness as John Erni might describe it, where there are just far too many meanings associated with Obama to ever read him as conceptually straight—are fundamental questions about his fitness as commander-in-chief.

In closing I’ll returning to Glave for a moment, who in the aforementioned essay titled “Regarding a Black Male Monica Lewinsky,” argues that American presidents are “sacred godhead (and, by extension, guardian of the nation, the national body, and the kingdom/empire) created by people—those who hold the most power and privilege—in their desired image: whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, Christianity, perceived virility, relative good looks according to culturally sanctioned standards of beauty, et cetera.”

It is in the context of this particular definition of Presidential masculinity, that Glave imagines—with his undergraduate students at the overwhelmingly white State University of New York at Binghamton—what the implications would had been if Bill Clinton had been involved in an illicit sexual affair with a black man instead of a young white woman named Monica Lewinsky.

Specifically Glave imagines, “A black male sexually interacting with the President’s white publically heterosexual body, perhaps penetrating the anally (and/or orally) receptive white presidential body and receiving penetration in return.” Such contact, Glave argues, would “not only fatally endanger the mythic-symbolic ideology surrounding the scared presidential body’s white/racial and heterosexual purity but also seriously undermine, to say the least, the ‘real man’ masculine power and force the only a homosexually unpenetrated male body can possess and claim.”

Glave’s observations are useful, because it captures exactly what happened in November of last year as a “queered” black male body penetrated the office of the US President, reproducing politically, socially, and culturally all of the anxieties that Glave and presumably many other imagined years before Obama’s presidency.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books and a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. A frequent commentator for America’s National Public Radio’s News and Notes with Farai Chideya, Neal also contributes to several on-line media outlets, including NewsOne.com.

 

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