Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Of Happy Slaves and Racial Microaggressions: Why Herman Cain Could be the Perfect Obama Rival

If you prick me do I not bleed?

After reading The Christian Science Monitor's essay "Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival," I am in violation of one of my own pedagogical rules as something about Professor Charlton McIlwain's analysis has rubbed me the wrong way--and well, for lack of a better phrase, it feels personal.

I often tell my students that the "I" in our discussions of politics is a beginning and not an end for analysis. Normative priors are important to the degree to which they are transparent and acknowledged. Feelings matter, emotions matter, but they must not cloud reasoned analysis. Especially in discussions of race and identity politics--where the personal can be quite political--this is not always easy.

McIlwain's analysis of Herman Cain's branding in his campaign ads is spot on. And while the focus on the strategies used by Cain to distinguish and market himself as a black conservative to white conservative audiences may be correct, the conclusion (that those strategies will translate into electoral success) is a shaky one at best. By comic book analogy, if President Obama is Superman, Herman Cain is his bizzarro universe flying backwards doppelganger. Ultimately, the latter has not a snowball's chance in hell of winning the Republican nomination in 2012.

Nevertheless, there is a sharp moment in "Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival" that gave me pause. Consider the following passage:

But Cain counters the black liberal stigma in one fell swoop. He stamped “conservative” across his political ads, making the label his badge of honor. You see, in today’s racial parlance, conservative is not only antithetical to being liberal; it is antithetical to being black, which is what you must be if you’re a black man looking for Republican votes.

Cain further showcases his conservative persona. In one such ad he recalls one of his greatest life lessons. “My daddy always said, ’dem that’s comin’, get on the wagon, dems that ain't, get out the way.” Cain’s quaint recollection taps into conservative nostalgia. They remind viewers that the good ‘ol days were not only simpler. They were days when folks like Cain’s daddy still spoke the broken English of their slave forebears, and tended the mules pulling those wagons.

Label me a pedant, but as a point of historical clarification, those times were never simple.

McIlwain offers a half-digested thought where follow through is oh so critical. Most important, a failure to bring the argument full circle and to close its loop leads to an avoidance of some hard questions such as the following:

1. Why do Conservatives find said images comforting? Why the stereotypical image of worn over, former slaves, who are simple folksy types ready to receive the benevolence of the White Man's Burden, and not of a free people with agency who fought every step of the way to liberate themselves in the face of horrific and oppressive white supremacy?

2. What precisely about the idea of black folks a few years removed from slavery and perpetual status as human property resonates with the White Conservative Soul?

3. Is this a Gone with the Wind moment, where some silly, empty nostalgia of happy darkies on the old plantation still looms large over the American psyche? What types of political work does that do for Herman Cain, for the Tea Party GOP, for Conservatives?

4.Why do folks like Herman Cain (i.e. his obsession with "being off the plantation" or a "runaway slave") and others feel so free to abuse the history of black Americans and the hellish reality that was chattel slavery? No other group, with perhaps the exception of Native Americans, has their history so easily played with, where there are few, if any, consequences for such gross misrepresentations of fact?

There is angst afoot here. In sum, "Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival," feels like a racial microaggression, where it is not the intent, or even the soundness of The Christian Science Monitor's claims, but the context and implication of said work that signals an uncomfortable and unpleasant truth.

Help a brother out if you could. Am I on to something here?


Plane Ideas said...


You are being to hard on yourself..Like the Dr.Sue noted one must make the invisible visible when we confront racial microagressions..

I found the article very shallow and it did not elevate me of course we as Black folks have diverse opinions, interpetations , reactions etc to events and incidents..

I do think with regard to Cain you do have a "thang" about him as you suggested I had about white jewish folks and their racism..

Black conservatives to many of us are like slave catchers and anything they do we jump on them!!!

This article by the professor who BTW writes for the CSM( a publication I often viewed as arrogant, privledged patronizing rag for years) seeks to validate Cain's propaganda without confronting any of your legitimate talking points..Often well meaning scholars that are white simply have cultural blind spots and they cannot be free of their cultural dna which has them always as the VIP and HWIC mindset...

Your points are on point but why work up the sweat ( you have to get over Cain he is not the boogie man as I think you know that in the larger frame of variables being played out here in the Obama era...

Oh Crap said...


3. Is this a Gone with the Wind moment, where some silly, empty nostalgia of happy darkies on the old plantation still looms large over the American psyche?


What types of political work does that do for Herman Cain, for the Tea Party GOP, for Conservatives?

The white conservative bigots in the Grand Old Tea Party have never gotten over having their noses rubbed in desegregation (and that supposed "remedy" of busing), let alone what their forebears whom they admire so much did in the 10-20 decades prior to Southie.

Interesting choice of video. I'm not sure how many of the regulars have seen Song of the South, but I own it on overseas DVD (Disney won't release it in the states but will in other countries. Blacks in general and that evil, censorious NAACP are blamed for this miscarriage of justice which deprives SO MANY young people these innocent images.)

I can't tell you how many arguments I used to get in when I was younger and dumber, about movies like Birth of a Nation, Song of the South, and Gone With the Wind.

This won't be news to you, CD, but people will scream and spittle in your face that there's nothing wrong with these movies because they are an accurate portrayal of how things were, and that any critique of them is imposing our 21st century politically correct racial views on the past. Boo hoo.

15-20 years later, the "arguments", if they can be called that, have not changed one single solitary iota. http://imdb.to/qJ9fYW

No other movies but these get this treatment, as if Hollywood movies on any other topic are ever an accurate depiction of anything.

That's how emotionally attached they are to these images, yet these same people shriek to the top of their lungs that "the blacks" live in the past and won't let slavery go.

Their entire identity is wrapped up in these images.

dogscantlookup said...

"Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival?"
Herman Cain plays the Eunuch for his masters (the Koch Bros).
Cain just may beat Alan Keys numbers
(Keys and Obama split the black vote)?

Abstentus said...

Nostalgia can be a powerful drug, and it's often a hallucinogenic. When it's the political version of the `drug, it is almost always hallucinogenic, in the sense that the good old days never were as they are remembered. (In other words I agree with Oh Crap.)

Putting the race issues aside, remember the GOP is the party of "Morning in America." They are revanchist. The current tea party with it's love of the 18th century as an ideal is evidence of that. And now we can add the race part as so much of the current GOP base is the generation who lost (to a great extent) the coin of obvious white privilege, and their succesor generation, which has been stripped of that ancient (sorta) birthright.

Where Minstrel Man Cain fits in with that is still something more of a conundrum. I think his one man version of a Tambo and Bones skit appeals to certain kind of a white racialist revanchist. But I think it's more on the entertaiment level. Some may trust him, but by and large, I can't see the GOP Establishment trusting any black man with the nomination any time soon.

And I am harsh on him, but that accent gotta go! Get a diction coach!

chaunceydevega said...

@Thrasher. He does get at my craw. Unavoidable. But I still think there is something troubling--not surprising here. Remember, my point is not about Cain, but about the abuse of history.

@Oh Crap. That is funny. As I am always surprised by how some white folks are attached to racist images of the past and the present. Somehow correcting the record is an afront and assault on them. They pray at the cult of individualism, but then defend like a hive mind the befouled history that is represented by Gone with the Wind...or even Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.

@Dogs. Split the black vote for republicans? Both get 2 votes each?

@Abstentus. White racial revanchist. Quotable. Now stealing for myself.

nomad said...

In a way, it might be better for blacks if Cain was Obama's replacement. Unlike with Obama, the libs and progressives would not be hypnotized into complacency. There would be vigorous opposition to policies that could hardly be more pernicious than those that, for some reason, liberals find acceptable coming from Obama. Cain and Obama are not bizarro opposites. They're twins. One is just a lot smoother.

Abstentus said...

Use it in good health, CD. Obrigado.

nomad said...

He wants to cut social security and medicare. I wonder if we will find that acceptable? Sadly, we probably will.