Obama Was Invisible to White America

Elizabeth Catlett, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man


I suggested in Monday’s blog that some of white supremacism’s resurgence can be traced to hysteria over having had a black president for eight years. Birtherism played no small role in Donald Trump’s success. David Masciotra of Salon turns to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to make such a case.

Masciotra observes that Obama was a perfect example of Ellison’s invisible man:

Barack Obama was the invisible president. He was invisible simply because people refused to see him. Just as Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator explained about his curious existence of permanent placement in the optical shadows, paranoiacs see him as a “figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.” 

Obama proved indeed to be a nightmare for a certain segment of white America:

The election of Barack Obama — a black man with an Arabic-rooted name after slavery and segregation, and at the height of cultural anxiety over Islam — collided with the consciousness of many white Americans. Among the wreckage and in the casualty count, was the vision of the American public, and the capacity to rationally observe, absorb and interpret the president…

The blindfold over the inner eyes is much too thick for the outer eyes to function properly. For millions of voluntarily blind Americans, the act of witnessing Barack Obama deliver his victory speech on November 4, 2008, shortly after the concession of an elderly, white war hero, caused post-traumatic stress disorder. They could no longer function as adults with clear eyes and clear thoughts. They would spend the next eight years speaking and acting as if they were habitual users of hallucinatory drugs — seeing the ominous signs of conspiracy, destruction, and subversion in every wink, grin, and gesture of the alien occupying the Oval Office. They believed and propagated the idea that Obama was an agent acting to undermine America…

The article notes how, time and again, the right tried to fit Obama into its stereotype of black people, regardless of the facts:

An interesting and revealing criticism of President Obama grew increasingly popular among conservative commentators at around the midway point of the presidency. National Review, Fox News, and other familiar sources of right wing reportage began to brand and bash Obama as “lazy” and “absentee” for his reportedly “unprecedented” and “excessive” vacation and golf getaways. Those same outlets soon issued a similar indictment of Obama’s “refusal” to host press conferences. Eventually, the mainstream media channeled the same story through their own, much louder amplifier, and the idea of Obama as a reclusive president has shaped public perception of his performance, with many Americans often commenting how they “never saw him.”

It turns out that Obama had taken fewer vacation days than any president since Jimmy Carter, and that he averaged two press conferences a month — more than Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon, the same as Clinton, and slightly less than both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The attack on Obama’s absenteeism read like much more than mere partisan insult. In addition to playing on old stereotypes against black men, it also demonstrated the blindness of those who say it and believe it. They actually could not see Barack Obama. He was in the White House — not on vacation — and he was speaking to the press, but millions of Americans believed otherwise. They do not see him, because they cannot see him. They see only what their imaginations allow them to see, and from the vantage point of that odd and obstructed view, a postmodern mystery of politics emerges to haunt America in the 21st century: Does President Barack Obama exist?

Against white supremacism’s version of America, Masciotra counterpoises that of Walt Whitman, which Obama knew and consciously invoked:

One of the few things that is certain is that the election of a living and breathing monument of multiculturalism, and a man who makes cheap puffery about diversity into magnificent reality — a black, white, African, American — is a triumph of the American story Walt Whitman put to poetry long before many others could develop the maturity and imagination to understand its wisdom. 

Masciotra notes that, at times, Obama deliberately echoed Whitman, especially Song of Myself. Note, for instance, this Whitmanian passage in Dreams of My Father:

We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ In those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life. I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. I hear the voices of the people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country’s borders, the weary, hungry bands crossing the Rio Grande. I hear all of these voices clamoring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life… In the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.

Walt Whitman, Masciotra says, proved to be prescient in his essay “Democratic Vistas,” where the poet worried that “genuine belief” in America was giving way to a materialist vision. Masciotra observes,

Over a century later, America has transitioned from Barack Obama — a learned, aspirational leader — to a man who presents America as nothing more than career advancement and material advantage. It is important, now more than ever, to consider the possibility that the idea of America is too radical even for most Americans.

The article concludes with a return to Invisible Man, observing that America is bigger and more confusing than any of us can figure out—and that Obama forced the issue:

President Obama, not always politically, but culturally, more thoroughly captured the idea of America than any other modern president. Of all the unanswerable and intractable questions that surround the Obama presidency and legacy, one conclusion is unavoidable for anyone with the intellectual honesty to look into the dark corridors of a personal and political belonging to a nation with an identity in constant flux and turmoil. It is the same conclusion Ellison’s narrator reached when he wrote, “Our fate is to become one, and yet many – This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going.”

Masciotra concludes that we must move beyond projection and see what is actually there:

Barack Obama is invisible, because to see him would require that we all see ourselves. It would demand that we finally unmask the face we wear that is at once full of breathtaking beauty, but also irredeemably ugly.

Grown-ups balance their ideals with practical wisdom, following their dreams but also finding ways to compromise with a reality that has its own imperatives. As readers of this blog are well aware, I believe that literature provides one of the best pathways to attaining the necessary wisdom.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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