In New Republic, David Samuels uses Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as a touchstone to penetrate beyond the “blank canvas” onto which the American electorate has been invited to project its fantasies and desires to capture glimpses of the real personality of Barack Obama.
Samuels is as ravished by the idea of so good a writer, so fine a speaker, such an intriguing literary creation as Obama ascending to the presidency as many of us are alarmed and horrified by the same portrait of a calculating and angry half-breed in love with power and eager to wreak vengeance for his own birth.
What a subject for Joseph Conrad Obama would have made.
It is one of the outstanding ironies of Obama’s story that his political rise has been fueled by a tactical grasp of the same racial logic that condemned Ellison’s invisible man to living in a basement by himself. The blank screen approach that Obama has embraced works well in a moment dominated by the collapse of Wall Street and the Iraq war, issues for which all possible solutions seem unpalatable; what voters want is to feel that things will change, without too much uncomfortable detail about what will actually happen. The fact that the candidate does not make the usual appeal to the authenticity of his personal story makes the usual attacks on him seem nonsensical, regardless of whether or not they are true, a fact that the Clintons lamented during the primary season and John McCain will find equally frustrating during the general election. Crazy right-wing charges that Obama shares the loonier opinions of Dr. Wright or that he is a secret Muslim blend seamlessly into reports of his calls for immediately beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq or his promise to sit down with the leaders of Iran and North Korea without preconditions, or the fact that he began his political career at Bill Ayers’s house in Chicago, or that his financial backer Tony Rezko was a scummy slumlord who paid for the Obamas to have a new backyard. None of it sticks, because Obama is not that kind of candidate. The campaign uses the Ellisonian condition of invisibility to its advantage while also exerting a powerful form of mental jujitsu on guilty white liberals, a species that Obama knows well: Attacks on the candidate are simply projections of the (racist) mentality of his accusers. As they erase the weirder and more specific points of his sensibility in a blizzard of superlatives, whites create an image of a black superman as a kind of photo-negative image of liberal guilt. …
In a scene (in Dreams of My Father) that owes an obvious debt to Ellison’s famous Battle Royal, in which two black boys are made to fight each other in a boxing ring, the narrator is taken out into the backyard of his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro’s small house in Jakarta and is made to put on gloves and fight. “The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable, and often cruel,” he saw. “My grandparents knew nothing about such a world, I decided; there was no point in disturbing them.” Emboldened, Obama asks his stepfather if he ever saw anyone killed, and Lolo says yes.
“Why was the man killed? The one you saw?” the young Obama asks.
“Because he was weak,” Lolo answers, instructing his half-American, half-Kenyan stepson in the age-old logic of the world outside sunny Hawaii. Obama’s version of the scene ends with a searing recognition that the white part of his family lives in a fantasy world in which the need to learn such ugly lessons simply does not exist. While Obama’s Third World-ism carries with it a certain assumption of American historical guilt, it should not be confused with the cult of victimization that is still popular on college campuses. Obama identifies with his father, Lolo, and other post-colonial men because they are strong. Dark-skinned men can understand power in a way that white men like his grandfather can’t. If you are not strong, Lolo continues, “be clever and make peace with someone who is strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always.”
The most outstanding characteristic of the portrait that Obama draws of his white mother, who also serves as a stand-in for white liberal readers of his book, is her hatred for power–a characteristic that her son finds naive and contemptible. “Power. The word fixed in my mother’s mind like a curse,” Obama wrote, of his mother’s response to the inequities of Indonesian society. “Guilt is a luxury that only foreigners can afford,” her husband Lolo responds. “Like saying whatever pops into your head.” What is notable about this and other passages in Dreams from My Father is the extent to which Obama’s identifies with the verbal slap and with its speaker, rather than with his mother, a girlish and naive white American liberal. White Americans like his mother and his grandfather are unsuitable sources for the author’s evolving subjectivity because they are blinded by the privileges of their race to the realities of power.
Obama understands the white liberal American distaste for power as a symptom of white privilege, and he is certainly right. Yet it is hard not to be haunted by the feeling that Obama’s admiration for dark-skinned strength is the mirror image of his personal feelings of weakness and inauthenticity, and that the personality that he has cobbled together out of the historical experience of other men in other time. …
Obama has impaled himself on the horns of a painful dilemma. While the identity that he constructed for himself in his autobiography has allowed him to blossom as a man and as a politician, it bears little resemblance to the conventional narratives of white men who run for president–and contains elements that are likely to frighten off large portions of the electorate, before or after November 4. The story of a man who identifies with a foreign father, and with people who are not Americans, and who does so on the basis of the color of their skin, flies in the face of the simplistic racial pieties that white Americans have embraced since the end of Jim Crow. The identity that Obama so painstakingly created for himself is not one that he can share with the electorate, and so the price of his political success is that he is forced to sublimate the material he had so painfully excavated and again become invisible. His image-makers create new stories about the candidate, which ring false and drain his marvelous abilities as a writer, a speaker, and a leader.
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