Race, Sex, and the Obamas


You never heard of the O. J. Simpson syndrome? Maybe the literary tradition of the tragic mulatto is familiar? Or Spike Lee’s lexicon, jungle fever? Have you seen the late night or Black History Month reruns of the movie classic, Imitation of Life? Or perhaps you have read Richard Wright’s powerful novel, Native Son?

What all of these ideas, experiences, and creative works have in common is race and sex. They mark the attitudes and norms of different points and plateaus in our national dialogue about the meaning and acceptability, and the failures, when race and sex share a common social ground.

Up until fifty years ago, the thinking and tragedies of race and sex all ran in one direction. Culturally it was assumed the mix of race and sex resulted in toxic failures and always involved white males with black females. From slavery, this tradition produced what was called “the yard child,” a child who lived among the enslaved but who had been parented by a white slaveholder. This tradition enters Presidential politics with Thomas Jefferson, and was later vigorously denied by both the historians and descendants of Jefferson, who concocted all sorts of alternatives to Jefferson parenting children by Sally Hemmings (the DNA virtually proves he did), she herself the daughter born of a relationship between planter and slave.

Thus, the tradition of the tragic mulatto emerged, generally a woman of refinement, grace and manners, thoughtful, caring, light-skinned to the point of easily passing for white, but denied opportunity because she was legally black. The implied loophole was that discrimination and oppression were acceptable to darker-featured blacks, but those whose who resembled whites should be given a pass. A foot in both worlds, today called multiracial, was historically seen as tragic, a source of alienation and rejection—and highlighted and projected unequal treatment for a woman, as a lover, mistress, wife, or worker, albeit slave or free. In the movies, Imitation of Life and later Queen (with Halle Berry) brought tears, with no change or challenge to the norm.

Harlem’s former Congress Representative, the legendary Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. spoke in his autobiography of his grandfather accepting and raising the child of the man who had whipped him in slavery, and marrying the woman who had borne the child. His family history had a deep impact on his faith and politics and his impatience with injustice.

But Richard Wright, the Mississippi-born writer, saw the problem from a profoundly different viewpoint. His socially marginal literary character, Bigger Thomas, unskilled, impulsive, poor, kills and cuts off the head of a young white woman, stuffing her body in a furnace in one of the most provocative and unsentimental scenes in American literature. It foreshadowed the O.J. Simpson syndrome.

The broad idea of the O.J. Simpson syndrome is that interracial love leads to personal destruction and bad societal ends. It is countered by the cult of white womanhood, especially strong in the civil rights era, when a rallying cry against equal opportunity pointedly asked: would you want your daughter to marry one [a black]? White women were not to abandon their own kind. To do so invited peril.

What has this to do with Presidential politics in 2012? Aren’t we past these outmoded considerations? Besides, the Obamas constitute a strong black family unit. I may be overreaching, but I see a cultural embed in Newt’s wife standing next to him. I see a subtext in the ferocity of political attacks which are visceral and invasive against women and their bodies. In very ugly and scatological tweets aimed at Michele Obama and even her children. I see an impotence that is hate. I see it in the way that has made the greatest family unit ever to occupy the White House into a sexless, invisible couple, when all their forms of love, from agape to eros, are so transparent that we watch astounded by this relationship which is as solid as a rock and ridiculously, obviously hot.


Clearly their love is real. Clearly they enjoy its rough and silken edges. They remind me of the way eagles lock talons in free fall, establishing the shared risk of death in establishing their complete trust for life. Michele Obama’s 25 push-ups on Ellen stood alone in the redefinition of women’s roles, especially for the First Lady. Michele doesn’t have even an ounce of history’s tragic character in her fiber. Barack’s single soulful note of Al Green’s tune became an overnight ring tone, and we all know why. This couple has bona fides.

I surmise the GOP is reacting in silent outrage and there is a broad cultural reflex in which even the discussion—never the admission!—of the Obamas’ chemistry is off limits because it pales every other Presidential partnership. I argue this outrage is expressed in part as a gender attack against women at large, whose support of Barack mocks the inadequacies of men beyond sex and race but comes to rest at the nexus of these old taboos. I argue that not only are they blaming Barack but they are taking their collective ire out on women. The recent remarks of Fox’s News Liz Trotta concerning rape in the US military service revealed this when she projected rape as a natural social consequence of men and women working together (asking, “What do they expect?”) and then complained the new roles for women were “coming strictly from the feminists,” thereby negating and dehumanizing every woman who volunteered and trained to serve, even as she (Trotta) went on blame women as victims as she complained about the costs of supporting women in the military services who are “being raped too much.”

Billboard in Accra, Ghana for the President’s Visit, 2009. (Wayan Vota.)

A strong global push back is occurring on women’s rights, especially on women experiencing sexual violence in regions in conflict, in villages, refugee camps, and, yes, as citizens of their states and members of military service. Women are organizing to meet these challenges, and raising their voices to push ahead on safety, health, and education. US women, of whatever party, must speak and act forcibly to protect their freedoms. Otherwise, the sentimental role of tragic victim will return. If women are forcibly subdued, and relabeled victims, then the old roles for men (power) and blacks (marginal, scapegoats) that so many secretly desire to return will return. Those who harbor the old desire of sentimental acceptance and marginality ignore the powerful challenge America’s legacy of freedom brought about when the Obamas entered the White House. A challenge not only in assigning power but in breaking boundaries of race and sex; reinforcing and reinventing love and family in a richer, rejoicing celebration we can all see, share, and cheer.

7 thoughts on “Race, Sex, and the Obamas

  1. You’re a brilliant writer. I enjoyed reading this, and I enjoy reading your insightful posts on the NYT comment board. You ought to include gay people in this scapegoat category, not to be politically correct, but because there could not be a more visible hatred and pushback than what we have seen in the last year. Mormons and evangelicals are spending big bucks to defeat gay marriage propositions everywhere. They just ousted a very honorable judge with a stellar military record. The list goes on. I know it is not popular or welcome to make any comparisons between the historic struggles of blacks with the contemporary struggles of gays, and I know that many black people consider homosexuality immoral and perhaps deserving of the social whipping they are getting. But in the context of your blog post — yes, the GOP is really digging down deep against the Obamas, against black people, against women — and against gays (separate category).

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    • Thanks. I fully agree with you. I have written about Peter Gomes and other gay figures in the black community. As a writer, because so much of my voice is built on a strong knowledge of history and its contexts, I confess to not knowing as much as I should about the early history of the gay experience (black or white), other than the legacy of Walt Whitman and a few others who were still closeted. I do push strongly on my twitter stream about the progress and roadblocks of lgbt rights, esp. the stupid flailings of state legislators who think it’s open season on the lgbt community. Virginia was wrong in not appointing a prosecutor judge solely based on his gender orientation and open relationship.

      But honestly, I feel more confident working and explaining the cultural lines of African-American experience. I would not want to misinterpret or cross over cultural issues I’m still learning and am naive about. On lgbt issues, I am an eager, active student!

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      • Why do you get to post three times on the NYT online comment board in a column written by a gay journalist, and I who am gay and could provide the insight of another gay American, will not see my two-sentence comment posted until tomorrow, if it all? Are you paying much more for your online subscription than me? What a great system. Sorry, your weighty prose will be ignored after this. I think that absolutely, positively, fucking sucks.

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      • Tom, thank you for letting me know your point of view. I will gladly post something for you, if you wish. None of my comments make reference to my own orientation or the columnist’s; I don’t think that should be a criteria.

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  2. You shouldn’t have to post something for me. They should not have an asinine caste system for its users. So the next time you start griping about inequality in America, remember, you’re in the higher caste of liberals at the NYT.

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    • Inequality is overcome by people working together to solve inequities. My posts today are about the specific use of a term found and referenced in a campaign document in a city where related issues were in play 5 years ago. The Times “caste system” doesn’t not affect income [we or me are not paid], health care, women’s rights or lgbt rights. Isn’t it fair to use the platform–after all we are talking about 300 words–1500 electronic spaces!–to create public discourse that defends the expansion of truth and rights for all “castes.”? I’m thankful for the opportunity, but the comparison of privilege to post comments to the vast tax breaks, credits, and concentration of wealth that represents real inequality falls short. My posts don’t knock out any other posts, costs only my time. Incidentally, most of my posts have humor and/or focus on falsehoods, lies, or culturally embedded ideas. I don’t gripe..

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