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.”
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.