Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Obama the 'Magic Negro'

Trying to one-up Don Imus, Rush Limbaugh played a song on his show called "Barack the Magic Negro." Limbaugh was inspired (and I use that term loosely) from an article in the L.A. Times which points out similarities between Obama and a type of film character known as a 'magic Negro' (see: any Morgan Freeman movie).

In movies and fiction a 'magic Negro' is:

  • An African American usually disabled by discrimination, disability, or social constraint.

  • He appears one day to help the white protagonist.

  • He is a black stereotype prone to criminality or laziness which is counterbalanced with some sort of magic power (Scatman Crothers in "The Shining") or exceptional ability.

  • He is patient, wise, and full of sage advice

  • He typically uses his power to help the white protagonist get out of trouble, usually by helping him recognize his own faults and overcome them

By now you probably have a good idea of what I'm talking about. According to
David Ehrenstein, the writer of the L.A. Times article, and an African American, Obama has arrived, seemingly out of nowhere, with his incredible political ability (or, magic) to "assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history." Ehrenstein points out that Obama's popularity has little to do with his political record, or his books, but has much more to do with his charisma and demeanor. It's a provocative article.

Limbaugh's take on the matter is entirely different. His song is sung by Paul Shanklin, a white, good ol' boy from Tennessee, who channels Buckwheat in order to sing the song like Al Sharpton. The's become da's, and grammar quickly goes out the window because, well, it's supposed to be a black man singing.

Listen to the song here.

The chorus goes like this (to the melody of "Puff the Magic Dragon"):

Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C.
The L.A. Times they call him that because he's black but not authentically

But the point of the L.A. Times article was not to question Obama's "authenticity" as an African American. The article questions Obama's experience. Is he ready to be President? Or is he simply well-liked because whites feel sorry for blacks? Is he, in effect, a "magic negro" to many whites? These are legitimate questions. But criticism of Obama's "authenticity" as a black man is something the author is all too familiar with.

"The only mud that momentarily stuck was criticism (white and black alike) concerning Obama's alleged 'inauthenticity,' as compared to such sterling examples of 'genuine' blackness as Al Sharpton and Snoop Dogg. Speaking as an African American whose last name has led to his racial 'credentials' being challenged — often several times a day — I know how pesky this sort of thing can be."

The author wants Obama to be addressed fairly, based on his merit, not as some 'magic' black character come to save the protagonist. Anyone who views Obama in this way is guilty of a sort of reverse racism. But Limbaugh,
Shanklin, and so many others are really only curious about Obama's race, the traditional kind of racism. Obama is so popular because of his charisma, and it seems to surprise some people, including perhaps David Ehrenstein, that charisma is not race based. If Obama were white would anyone question the legitimacy of his charisma?

Qualifications mean little when it comes to running for President. The modern day presidency is dominated by the more charismatic person, starting with the inexperienced John F. Kennedy who beat out political heavyweight Richard Nixon. I can't think of a President from the last 25 years who wasn't more charismatic than the person he beat (Carter over Ford, Reagan over Carter then Mondale, Bush Sr. over Dukakis, Clinton over Bush Sr. then Dole, Bush Jr. over Gore then Kerry).

Because of this Obama's charisma has many conservatives very worried, and they've been trying hard to discredit him, not by talking about lack of qualifications, which they know does not matter, but by talking about the more incidental and, ironically, provocative things: Obama's religion and skin-color. The election in 2008 will show how low we are willing to go, which base prejudices we will allow to rule us.

In this post-Imus era some, like Limbaugh, probably feel compelled to talk about race. Unfortunately when Limbaugh tries it you wonder if he hasn't suffered some sort of brain damage from all the pills he took. Or, more likely, he's just an ignorant fool. But what he shows us is that, maybe, the only thing more important than charisma is the color of your skin.

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