Saturday, January 3, 2009

Redemptive Blackness

Sneer not at the nigger, for today it is in him we must find our Lord, and in serving him that we are to serve the church of God."

--Orestes Brownson, 1863, after the New York draft riots

Every millennium or so, Western civilization becomes so lost, so desperate, they look to the black man to save them. First, there was Jesus, of course. Then there was Prester John, the mythological Indian or Ethiopian or Malian Christian king who was supposed to save Europe from Mohammedan rage during the second Crusades. And, this past November, we Americans, knowing we needed a radical break from the past, radically broke with almost 400 years of history and voted a black man, Barack Hussein Obama, our Savior-in-Chief.

Despite these examples, whites have historically perceived themselves, despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary, as the messiahs of their darker brethren across the globe. This perception started in the very beginning of the colonial era over 500 years ago and still persists in our own present-day. Even when coming face-to-face with their own New World barbarity, many Europeans believed they were the only ones who could possibly save the natives from barbarism. As Father Bartolome de las Casas (who himself saw Spanish atrocities against the Arawaks on Espanola)stated in the 1500s, "there are no races in the world, however rude, uncultivated, barbarous, gross, or almost brutal they may be, who cannot be persuaded and brought to a good order and way of life, and made domestic, mild, and tractable."

As las Casas's own words intimate ("made domestic," "tractable"), accepting this form of white salvation only opened oneself up to exploitation. Las Casas himself, seeing the Arawak dying under the oppressive Spanish yoke, strongly advocated the abolition of Indian slavery and replacing it with its African cousin. This legendary humanitarian's advocacy (today las Casas is hailed as Spain's first anti-colonialist and anti-racist) did absolutely nothing to stop the extermination of the Arawaks, it brought countless African tribes across the Atlantic to populate the New World.

Ironic, ain't it?

Not really. This European notion of "The White Man's Burden" has always cloaked exploitation with notions of beneficence (no matter how sincere or disingenuous) from las Casas to Kipling to Sir Henry Stanley's ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume") trumpeting the abolition of slavery in Africa to the public while begging the European powers to open up Africa to colonization and the exploitation of African markets (after all, he ended up working for the most brutal colonial regime of all, King Leopold's "Free Congo State").

In the United States, we can find the same sort of duplicity. After all, Andrew Jackson considered himself the Indians' "Great White Father." Yet he was the one who initiated the Trail of Tears. The very notion of the reservation was thought to be a way of saving Native Americans from the brutality of western expansion. And Liberia and the repatriation of American blacks to Africa was thought to be another way to "save" former slaves.

However, here in America, the queer idea arouse that bringing salvation to the downtrodden Negro would, in some way, redeem whites from the very inception of our nation. And, like all things American, the notion was imbued with religious zeal. Benjamin Franklin, in an appeal to abolish slavery, wrote to the first Congress in 1790:

"A just & accurate Conception of the true Principles of liberty, as it spread through the land, produced accessions to their numbers, many friends to their Cause, & a legislative Co-operation with their views, which, by the blessing of Divine Providence, have been successfully directed to the relieving from bondage a large number of their fellow Creatures of the African Race."

As we all know, Congress ignored Franklin and retained slavery. Though there were minor abolitionist victories (by 1804 slavery was "abolished" everywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line though there were still some "permanent apprentices" in the North by 1860), America was too busy fearing invasion by the European powers to give much of a hoot about enslaved Africans. It wasn't until the 1830s with such radicals as William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, and, later, Frederick Douglass did the abolitionist movement and this notion of racial redemption really start taking hold.

Born within the millenarian fire-and-brimstone of the Second Great Awakening, this generation of believed that America as a nation could only be redeemed by expunging from its soul America's Original Sin, slavery. America was God's chosen land and all of its troubles (there was a depression from 1837-43 and another in 1857) were God's punishment for the abomination of slavery. It was a divine mission from the Lord Himself. As John Brown said, "I am as content to die for God’s eternal truth on the scaffold as in any other way."

The abolitionists believed that freeing the slaves would not only rescue blacks from their physical chains but would also loosen whites' spiritual ones. "... no one who has not been an integral part of a slaveholding community, can have any idea of its abominations.... even were slavery no curse to its victims, the exercise of arbitrary power works such fearful ruin upon the hearts of slaveholders, that I should feel impelled to labor and pray for its overthrow with my last energies and latest breath," stated Angelina Grimke.

It was a belief and a fervor that brought us the Civil War (despite what many revisionists like to state, the Civil War was fought strictly over slavery), Reconstruction, the demise of Andrew Johnson, and women's suffrage.

Though this fervor eventually died out with the rise of Jim Crow and America's own colonial aspirations, it did reappear in the 1960s Civil Rights movement, with whites volunteering in the South to combat desegregation (some, like Viola Liuzzo, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who actually sacrificed their lives for the cause). That, too, eventually petered out, but the notion of black salvation/white redemption still holds today in, what I like to call, the "White Messiah" film.

You know the plot: well-meaning white person finds some oppressed, dark masses, and, through their own self-actualization, delivers the darkies from their own oppression, ignorance, etc., to the promised land, thereby, you guessed it, finding their own redemption.

This deliverer can be a teacher (like Jon Voigt in Conrack or the Dylan-spewing Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds). S/he can go native like in Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai. Or the savior can simply feel guilty and temporarily "risk everything" like in The Long Walk Home. The White Messiah rarely dies, but when he does, he gives reaalllly long soliloquys like Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamonds. He can actually be two people simultaneously--as the ahistorical mindfuck Mississippi Burning (the FBI as the hero of the Civil Rights movement?!) proved with Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman. And Bruce Willis has proven that the White Messiah can, time and time again, resurrect a career (Pulp Fiction, Die Hard 3, and Tears of the Sun.

Now, all things being ... whatever they are in our "post-racial" world, the black man has emerged to save the white man's day in the form of the "magical Negro." You may have heard of him or at least have seen him. Hell, you may have one of your own (Will Smith played one in The Legend of Bagger Vance, but I hear he can be a bit pricey). This supernatural African generally "appears out of nowhere" and, with his "Oh, Lawdy" folksy wisdom and his undying, self-sacrificing love of all things Caucazoid, will often sacrifice himself to rescue the white man from imminent disaster like our good friend, Gunga Din.

This past year many have speculated in the press and blogosphere whether Barack Obama could indeed be said Negro. I'd have to say no. It's mostly a class thing. The magical Negro is most definitely a social inferior. His help is seldom wanted, and he is mostly condescended to throughout his existence. It is only out of his love and sacrifice for the white man that he gains begrudging respect. He is never (even in death) looked upon as an equal and most definitely not a superior. At best, he's a curious oddity and will never be looked upon as more than the belittled exception to the rule. Even if the magical Negro saves the day, he will never be invited to sit at the big table, won't be dating your daughter, and most definitely would never be elected to the White House.

Obama's not viewed as Gunga, Will Smith, or Morgan Freeman. He is more in line with Prester John--the African Christian king who was supposed to save all of Christendom. This bi-racial brother is neither a "magical Negro" nor a "White Messiah." He is more, to borrow from the late, great Isaac Hayes, a "Black Moses." He is not supposed to rescue our asses. He is supposed to deliver America and the world from the hell we have wrought these past eight years. He is supposed to redeem us.

You could see this hope all throughout the 2008 campaign (in the talk surrounding his candidacy and even videos). Obama became an empty vessel of hope into which we poured all our despair, all our dreams. A lot of these expectations were definitely because of Obama's apparent talents. But his race was also a major factor. We wanted a major break from the past, and electing a black man president would definitely be that.

Blacks and whites alike found hope in his black flesh. Muslims found hope in his very name. Some Asian-Americans speculated on whether or not he could be America's first Asian president. Some pro-life, fundamentalist Christians supported him. Even white supremacists celebrated his possible presidency.

If elected, Obama would get us out of both wars, fix the economy and the environment and our disastrous medical industry; he would grant gay rights, provide government transparency, erase 400 years of racial oppression, restore America's primacy in the world, bring peace to the Middle East, fix our nation's school system, end the partisan bickering in Washington, end political corruption. I could go on for days. Basically, as Monica Crowley put it, Obama was going to be "Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Jesus combined." As the abolitionists believed that ending slavery would redeem our country, so today many believe that electing Barack Obama would ultimately do the same.

Oddly enough, in some ways, it already has. With his election, nobody will look at America quite the same again. After all, while India has a Sikh prime minister, what other country would elect a minority as despised as we African-Americans have been to its prime leadership position? Ayman Zawahiri tried to castigate Obama as an Uncle Tom, Limbaugh and Hannity and the like try to paint him as the anti-Christ commissar who'll install Communism across the land, Fred Armisen tries to spoof him, Don Rickles bombed trying to lampoon him; but all these things fall on deaf ears. There is so much hope wrapped up in Obama's epidermis that we've become humorless and way too protective of the man. Who has the right to criticize or even poke fun at our last, greatest hope?

That hope was expressed on election night in Chicago's Grant Park, with people dancing in the streets of DC, Baltimore, all across America's cities, in Kenyan villages, all across the globe. Allies who've been icy during the Bush years have suddenly warmed up to us. Even belligerents like Russia and Iran have congratulated Obama on his victory. It's as though the entire world is once again viewing America with hope.

Ultimately, though, Barack Obama is not a magical, messianic Moses. He's simply a human being--and a Democrat to boot. He cannot possibly do all the things we want him to accomplish. That would require a revolution--not an election. He is going to disappoint. You can see some of that disappointment already in some of the criticism. So many can't stand all the Clintonians he's selected (though they were the last Dems to run anything and are, unfortunately, logical choices). There was the hubbub over Rick Warren (though, what did people think "reach across the aisle" actually meant?). However, W. has not simply lowered the bar. He's utterly obliterated it. Any sign of progress will be greeted with cheering and flowers in the street (you know, like the Iraqis greeted us when we invaded). It seems that, no matter what Obama does, he will ultimately be seen as a deliverer. Let's hope that his presidency is so spectacular that we rid ourselves of the White Messiah and the magical Negro and become the post-racial world all these liberals, with not just a little self-congratulation, say we're already in. Perhaps, we can finally say goodbye to at least those racial stereotypes and create a whole new one.


deepa said...

Amazing, historically thorough post. And even as I am nodding my head up and down at your portentious words--that Obama will ultimately disappoint--I find myself firmly in the camp that still sees the guy as the personification of hope. While I now find myself a little embarrassed to be a part of the culture of "the magical Negro," I defend myself by saying that I (along with much of the country it seems) got caught up in the magic part without being fully engaged with the race part. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate...

Sue Jacquette said...

What a wonderful and thought provoking post. I have to say, though, I think the very election of Obama said quite a bit about this country. Like so many, I have been full on embarrassed by my president for 8 years, and now... You touched on it a bit: with all of America's warts, America is the only place, as Obama likes to say, where his story is possible. A minority has not become president of another industrialized country. Not France, not Canada, not England, nowhere. We elected the candidate that DIDN'T go negative, which goes against everything we knew to be true in politics. And, this candidate was the first to be funded by over 3million contributors. I think it's more than being Democrat, more than being black, more than his intellectualism, I think he's more than the sum of his parts. I think he inspires that hope because he just is. Isn't that a good thing?

boukman70 said...


I agree. This past election night was the most amazing thing I think I've ever witnessed before in my life. I cried with my 14-month-old daughter in my arms. She probably wondered (not for the first time) why her father's so weird. And I agree that Obama is about much more than that. I also agree with Deepa that most people probably didn't get all caught up in the race bit--though I think it was definitely a factor--pro and con.

For me, I was just hearing all this "magical Negro" talk and got to thinking. "Redemptive Blackness" is what I came up with. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

micah_animals said...

Ha that is a laugh! First of all Jesus isn't back. He is a Jew, by blood, which were not black.
Second, Obama is no savior.