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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Our "First Black President?"

Time on-line has an article in which ten questions are submitted to author Toni Morrison, one of which caught my attention because I remember so well the New Yorker article in which she stated that Bill Clinton is “our first black president.” This was meant as a high compliment and she was dead serious, as can be seen in the extended quote below. Emphasis mine.

African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear "No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and--who knows?--maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us."
(New Yorker, October 1998)

But in answer to the question “Do you regret referring to Bill Clinton as the first black President?” Morrison dissembles and “clarifies” her previous remark, thus:

People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.
(Time on-line)

It seems as though the prospect of a genuine black American (well, half is more than none) becoming the President of the United States demands some re-defining of terms. It would not do to allow the epithet to stand when the genuine article awaits the title.


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