Thursday, December 4, 2008

Color me spiritual

When will the President-elect and Mrs. Obama entertain Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, and Morgan Freeman at the White House? He owes a great deal to all three. His gifts and achievements are his own, and he ought to have won his office without reference to race, but racial prejudice made it necessary for these men to quietly assure fearful whites for years that African-Americans were reasonable and civilized and that your well-spoken black dinner guest would not suddenly cast away his necktie and begin an orgiastic dance on your coffee table. (When I Spy aired, National Review honored Cosby with the label, "Super Spade.") Of course, prejudice lingers still, as Memphis journalist Wendi C. Thomas sardonically noted with her pre-election column in, “Will White People Riot [if McCain loses]?”

When, for that matter, will Obama invite comedian Dick Gregory who, after all, preceded the President-elect's successful campaign with his own White House bid 40 years ago? I remember listening to a recording of a Gregory routine around 1966, in which he described his fantasy of moving to a suburb and "raking the snow" while dressed in a jacket and tie, in order to be accepted by his white neighbors. Talking of his proposed residence in the White House, Gregory imagined himself answering phone calls to the Executive Mansion with a laid-back "Hey, baby!" He never got to move in, but in any case, would probably have avoided the burden about to descend on Obama, yet another subtle manifestation of race prejudice, the black man as wise spirit guide to confused and benighted whites. Bijan C. Bayne describes the phenomenon in another perceptive and provocative piece in TheRoot, "Magical Negro in Chief":

...there is something dizzying about the heights of Obama's other-worldly pedestal. And—if he continues to follow another narrative arc laid out in popular culture—the depths to which he will inevitably fall. Will this character rescue the world in the end? Or will he become consumed by an unseen, dark inner soul?

In the coming years, we will know soon enough. Until then, we can only look at the clues laid out in popular culture.

Negro Spirit Guides, magical helpers who have little interior life of their own, says E. Ethelbert Miller, literary archivist and director of the African-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University. "Their duty is to serve (whites) and to serve well. The hero of the movie often 'embraces' their blackness and comes to grips with the unknown."

Placing a feared "other" on a pedestal is of course a well-known technique for circumscribing his or her role, with a long history: men used it on women, and whites on blacks of both genders. Bayne continues:

There is a colonial tinge to this Negro Spirit Guide phenomena, according to Regina Longo, a University of California Santa Barbara film and media studies professor. Starting in the 19th century Romantic era, the spirit guide became "a way for white colonists to acknowledge a certain type of black power that is safe for the whites, that still keeps the blacks as something other than wholly human even if they are divine," Longo said. "The religion of that era said that we are all God's creatures, no matter our rung on the evolutionary ladder. That helps the whites to assuage their guilt over the institutions of slavery and racism, but rather than letting go of them, they institutionalize them through culture."

To be sure, some reasons for expecting great things of Obama are obvious. He is poised, thoughtful, articulate (and clean, as his Vice-President-to-be observed!), intelligent, prudent, pragmatic, but with principles, though his fortitude and tenacity in maintaining those principles against both Congressional barons and foreign despots have yet to be tested. And yes, we are entitled to expect capability, energy, wisdom, and sound governance, but from a mortal, not a Savior. Anyone too caught up in the current euphoria might do well to remember an example cited by Montaigne:

"The poet Hermodorus had written a poem in honour of Antigonus, wherein he called him the son of the sun: "He who has the emptying of my close-stool," said Antigonus, "knows to the contrary."

Meanwhile, beleaguered GM executives seem desperately bereft of spirit guides of any complexion; the Sun may be setting on Saturn, whose 1990 rollout was also supposed to represent "Change you can believe in." Apparently, some in GM and UAW alike really did believe:

True believers in Saturn insist the concept behind the division, which stressed respect, teamwork and communication from the factory floor to the auto showroom, could have kept G.M. from losing nearly half the market share it held when the first Saturns went on sale 18 years ago.

“I’m absolutely convinced that the Saturn way could have worked,” said Michael Bennett, the original U.A.W. leader at Saturn. “But what we had was never embraced or adopted.”

This year, Saturn sales will fall below 200,000 units for the first time since 1992 (sales have never achieved the half-million-unit annual volume that GM hoped for). Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that "General Motors has promised Congress that it can recreate itself as a different kind of car company — smaller, with a more cooperative relationship with its union, and a lineup of fuel-efficient cars to compete with the best of the foreign brands." But that is what was supposed to happen with Saturn! GM executives are hinting at "looking at alternatives"; Congress needs to do the same.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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