Tuesday, April 30, 2013

President Obama Puts on the "Double Cork" for his Brilliant "Race Minstrel" Performance at the 2013 White House Correspondents' Dinner

Race minstrelsy was America's most popular form of mass entertainment for almost two centuries. This type of popular culture involved white men painting their faces "black" using burnt cork or shoe polish. "Blackface" was entertainment that validated white fantasies about the laziness, incompetence, and hyper-sexuality of African-Americans. By mocking chattel slavery and lampooning the capacity of black folks to be full and equal citizens in America, race minstrelsy was a playground for a pernicious type of white supremacy which reimagined the slave plantation as an idyllic place, and depicted African-Americans as childlike, simple, and stupid.

Blackface was also a means for white ethnics (and other whites) struggling with the rise of industrial capitalism to be made to feel more secure in the American racial hierarchy by participating in a type of popular culture that was predicated on reinforcing the inferiority of Black Americans. By quite literally "buying into" white racist norms about people of color, newly arrived--and not quite fully "white"--European ethnics could take one step closer to Whiteness.

There is a dirty little secret here as well: blackface was also popular among some African-Americans. The contemporary fans of Tyler Perry's movies and plays, as well as the worst and most stereotypical forms of commercial Southern rap music, can find their precursors in how black Americans participated in race minstrelsy as both performers and fans.

Historian Eric Lott has suggested that race minstrelsy involved a mix of "love and theft." America's racial history is bizarre and grotesque. As such, arbitrary categories of racial identity and group membership were reinforced culturally and politically to determine the life chances, safety, security, and (quite literally in many cases) freedom of human beings. Because it is a quintessentially American cultural practice, blackface race minstrelsy is similarly complex, conflicted, and grotesque.

African-American vaudeville performers who participated in race minstrelsy would often have to "double cork." This process involved a black man "passing" as a white man who in turn would then "blacken up" as he pretended to be white and wearing blackface. Limited by the realities of the marketplace and its restraints on black upward mobility, many of these artists made a painful and difficult choice to participate in a type of popular entertainment which reinforced the logic of Jim and Jane Crow America.

The African-Americans who double corked were participating in a profound ritual of race, one that highlights the absurdities at the heart of the color line in the United States. Blackness was/is a performance. The White Gaze dictated a certain stereotype of black humanity be reinforced and made real by the fantasy of race minstrelsy. This white fantasy then helped to legitimate a system of racial hierarchies of power, privilege, and opportunity which continues in post civil rights America.

Barack Obama's genius performance at the 2013 Washington Correspondents' Dinner was his version of "double corking." 

Obama's pretending to be Daniel Day-Lewis, a white man, depicting, the President, a black man, was also a type of "reverse passing." In a complementary manner, Tracy Morgan, an African-American comedian who deftly manipulated and signified on stereotypes of black authenticity and race on the award winning TV show 30 Rock, was cast as Joe Biden.

Obama's double-corked comedy routine, was like the best humor and satire, a means for critique and truth-telling. It was also transgressive and revealing in some quiet, but no less sharp, ways.

Obama is a man beset by paradoxes. He is the United States' first black President; he is also a President who just happens to be black. Obama has made the tactical and strategic choice to be silent on matters of black uplift, and how racism continues to negatively impact the life chances of African-Americans and other people of color. Yet, his opponents on the Right have viciously savaged him by mobilizing white racial resentment, overt bigotry, and "dog whistle politics" to suggest that Barack Obama is an illegitimate, black usurper who wants to "oppress" white people.

And in a most damning reveal of the mentally debilitating and morally corrupting power of the white racial frame in post racial America, Barack Obama cannot even make a factual observation about his own racial identity, i.e. "my son would look like Trayvon Martin," without being attacked by his opponents in the Tea Party GOP and their herrenvolk public for daring to have the poor taste to remind the American people that he, the President, is in fact an African-American.

Barack Obama has been limited to symbolic gestures of racial solidarity and support for the black community. He can give a tour to a young black child who is the country's "Kid President." Obama can host the Tuskegee Airmen at the inauguration, give long overdue medals to black and brown World War Two soldiers, or put a bust of Dr. King in the Oval Office. Michelle Obama can attend a funeral for a shooting victim on the Southside of Chicago, or make sure to pay special attention to elderly black women who visit the White House on a tour. These symbolic gestures are a poor substitute for the material compensation deserved by the black community--a group that has been integral to his being elected twice--from President Obama.

Obama's "all boats float" approach to public policy has meant that the specific needs and concerns of the African-American community have gone intentionally unaddressed (as an empirical matter, researchers have documented how Barack Obama has discussed race and public policy fewer times than any other president in recent memory). The "price of the ticket" (to borrow a phrase from political scientist Fredrick Harris Jr.) for black folks' support of Barack Obama has been very high and has brought with it few tangible results.

However, Barack Obama has engaged questions of race and the color line in a public way on several occasions.

The preeminent example was his much discussed and vaunted speech on race in American life and society during his first presidential campaign in 2008. This speech was deeply problematic and conservative as it tried to assure white voters that he, then candidate Barack Obama, was the "right type of black," one who would not hold them accountable for white racism in either past or the present.

President Obama's speech at the 2013 Washington Correspondents' Dinner is a second moment where he subtly revealed his deeper thoughts about race, and white racial hostility by some in the American public, towards the twin and interconnected facts of his personhood and legitimacy.

As shown in Stephen Spielberg's video, Obama in "double cork," reverse passing, as a pretend version of Daniel Day-Lewis playing the country's first black President, is now free to allude to how he is bound by white stereotypes about "angry black men."

This is a "post modern" performance: Obama is able to hint at the truth of his experience as a black President only by pretending to be a white method actor who loses himself in the role of pretending to be Barack Obama.

Obama's double cork race minstrel routine is also deeply troubling. The country's first black President can only give voice to how the dynamics of the color line and white racial resentment are shackles, changing, forced to be made less heavy over the centuries by the Black and Brown Freedom Struggles, but still real and present on both the most powerful and least among us who happen to be black and brown in America.

Given his or her seat at the apex of State authority, the President of the United States is institutionally and politically incapable of an act of what the Greeks called parrhesia--what is speaking truth to power, regardless of consequences, and at personal risk, to themselves.

A white president has more leeway in this regard. But, they too will still be punished--see President Jimmy Carter's insightful, but much hated at the time, "American malaise" speech. Like Obama, such a president would have to "blacken up" by putting on the "double cork" if he or she wanted to talk in a truth-telling way about racial justice in the United States.

History has weight. It is also beset by many cruel ironies.


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Wavenstein said...

It's a damn shame ain't it Chauncey? The only forum in which a black man can publicly speak on his black experience is to have present it in a comedic fashion so we can "all laugh together." We haven't really gone much further since Dick Gregory in his heyday

Bob Macias said...

OK, I get all of this, and totally agree with the author's assertions. Having said that, Barry is by far the most successful, most intelligent, funniest and most 'real' president I've had the pleasure to live under in my 57 years on this Blue Marble. Screw the people who hate him, and the same goes for those who put him on a hero's pedestal. He's a BLACK MAN who is THE PRESIDENT, and I will always be grateful that I am/was a connected and informed adult during his years of service in La Casa Blanca. He's imperfect (like me), and has reservations and ambivalence about many things (also like me), and therefore he represents me perfectly. I am an American of Mexican heritage (Latino? Hispanic? Mexi-Am? Cholo? Vato Loco?), and BHO is exactly who I expected he would be when I cast my ballots for him in 2008 and 2012. He has accomplished more than I could have ever hoped for in our divided and polarized nation. Thanks, Barry.

Ben Grim said...

Wow! He can sing. He can dance. He can do stand-up comedy. He can even act! No wonder they elected him president.

chauncey devega said...

Humor makes all things okay, doesn't it?

chauncey devega said...

I am a fan of him personally. But, his compromising approach--perhaps a necessity because of the unique position he is in--and position on privacy issues and surrendering to the plutocrats on many pocketbook issues will have history judging him poorly. He is a Rockefeller Republican.

chauncey devega said...

You can only contain him; you cannot stop him.,

Ben Grim said...

He is well qualified for the primary duties of POTUS: keeping the people entertained. I wonder if he can play any musical instruments...

Ben Grim said...

A shame and a myth.

Lee Viola said...

"But, they too will still be punished--see Jimmy Carter's insightful, but
much hated at the time, speech about American malaise in the 1970s."
Interesting essay.
Re Carter: I think it was post-dubbed the "Malaise Speech." Carter, a religious man, was trying to tell the US that man does not live on bread alone, that resources were not infinite. America---where everything is money and property and violence---rejected that speech and rejected Carter. Their Christ was mammon. Their Christ won.

A good analysis of this speech is offered in Morris Berman's interesting book, "Why America Failed." However, I have to warn readers here that his observations on the antebellum South are controversial.

Lee Viola said...

Yup. And like Bill Clinton's spawn who just bought a $10M 250-foot-long co-op on the UES of Manhattan, his daughters will be able to do the same. An that, in the end, is what his goal was.

chauncey devega said...

Thanks, I will look that cite up. Appreciated. I love that speech by Carter. Too bad we didn't listen to him.