In the LA Times, a pundit expands on a point I made in "Obama's Identity Crisis" about the Presidential candidate as the new Sidney Poitier.
Obama the 'Magic Negro'
By David Ehrenstein
But it's clear that Obama also is running for an equally important unelected office, in the province of the popular imagination — the "Magic Negro."
The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. "He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist," reads the description on Wikipedia http://en.-wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro .
He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest. …
[Sidney] Poitier really poured on the "magic" in "Lilies of the Field" (for which he won a best actor Oscar) and "To Sir, With Love" (which, along with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," made him a No. 1 box-office attraction). In these films, Poitier triumphs through yeoman service to his white benefactors. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is particularly striking in this regard, as it posits miscegenation without evoking sex. (Talk about magic!)
And what does the white man get out of the bargain? That's a question asked by John Guare in "Six Degrees of Separation," his brilliant retelling of the true saga of David Hampton — a young, personable gay con man who in the 1980s passed himself off as the son of none other than the real Sidney Poitier. Though he started small, using the ruse to get into Studio 54, Hampton discovered that countless gullible, well-heeled New Yorkers, vulnerable to the Magic Negro myth, were only too eager to believe in his baroque fantasy. …
That's where Obama comes in: as Poitier's "real" fake son. …
Obama's fame right now has little to do with his political record or what he's written in his two (count 'em) books [that's for sure!], or even what he's actually said in those stem-winders. It's the way he's said it that counts the most. It's his manner, which, as presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden ham-fistedly reminded us, is "articulate." His tone is always genial, his voice warm and unthreatening, and he hasn't called his opponents names (despite being baited by the media).
Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn't project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.
Ehrenstein, who says he's black, obviously hasn't read Obama's 1995 autobiography, which depicts his passionate ethnocentrism at vast length. But, Ehrenstein's point about how whites think about Obama is valid. It explains a lot of the mindless rage directed at me for pointing out that Obama's autobiography doesn't say what they hope it says.
Ehrenstein is just not cynical enough about white motivations. First, I don't know any whites under 55 who personally feel guilty for the status of blacks. Instead of white guilt, there is white vs. white status competition, in which publicly-expressed attitudes toward blacks can function as a trump card.
Second, as I wrote:
My late mom was also a big fan of Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier back in the 1960s. To her, they embodied an admirable combination of black masculine charm and white gentlemanliness. (In contrast, she thought Muhammad Ali, who is now the more popular representative of 1960s black manhood, an uncultured blowhard.)
It sorely disappointed her when blacks burned down Watts in 1965. They were not following the fine example for their race set by Harry and Sidney. She would have liked Barack Obama, too, and for the same reasons.
Nobody uses the term “example for his race” anymore. Today, we say “role model.” Even so, what many whites hope, deep down, to accomplish by electing the well-mannered Obama as president is to make him the supreme role model for all African Americans, eclipsing such deplorable bad examples as Al Sharpton, Snoop Dogg, and 50 Cent. Stuart Taylor Jr., a white critic of affirmative action, exulted in The Atlantic: “The ascent of Obama is the best hope for focusing the attention of black Americans on the opportunities that await them instead of on the oppression of their ancestors.”
The message much of white America hopes to send to black America by electing Obama is: Don’t Be So Black. Act More Barack.
Perhaps this explains why blacks haven’t been all that enthusiastic.
In assessing what an Obama Administration might be like, it's important to note that, not surprisingly, blacks who become beloved by whites tend to espouse more politically radical, ethnocentric views in order to compensate, to prove to other blacks that they are keepin' it real. (Harry Belafonte in a classic case.)
For example, at the 1972 Republican convention, two black celebrities appeared on stage with Richard Nixon: Sammy Davis Jr. and Wilt Chamberlain. Poor little Sammy, a favorite of whites since the 1940s, was psychologically tortured by all the hate mail and death threats he received from blacks in response, and for the rest of his life regretted endorsing Nixon. In contrast, Wilt, the epitome of the big scary black man, never seemed to give a damn. He went on being politically independent from the black mainstream.
Which one is more like Obama?
This tendency of blacks popular with whites to try to act super-black in private was parodied in Dave Chappelle's famous Wayne Brady skit. (Here's the video. NSFW.) First, Chappelle made fun of the brilliant nice guy mimic who may be more popular with whites than blacks, having a character say, "White people love Wayne Brady, because he makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X." (Bryant Gumbel, of course, is another example of this psychological dynamic: he's notoriously anti-white man, although he didn't have a problem trading in his black first wife of 26 years for a blonde trophy wife.)
In a later episode, Brady shows up and Chappelle apologizes, so they go out for a drive, in which Brady turns out to be a psychopathic pimp, killing a cop, shooting rival drug dealers, and roughing up his streetwalkers, declaring "Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a bitch?"
So, whites who think that Obama, the preppie from Honolulu who always strove with all his might to be accepted as black by other blacks, will upbraid African-Americans and persuade them to act more like him just might turn out disappointed.