This past Sunday, Father's Day, Barack Obama gave a speech at a black church in which he deplored the fact that more than fifty percent of black children in America are growing up in single-family homes. He pointed out that while this is a problem in society in general, the numbers on the black community are particularly bad. He used strong language to go after black men who do not accept parenting responsibilities: "Any fool can have a child, it takes a man to be a father," etc. What was interesting was the discussion of Obama's speech in the media. Some pundits seemed to think that the speech had to be meant either for his black audience or for the white audience. Those pundits often interpreted the speech as a kind of "Sister Souljah moment," an attempt by Obama to reassure white voters that...what, exactly? That on social issues, he wasn't too...what? Libertine? Highly sexed, maybe? Irresponsible? What we see here is not the threat of Barack Obama, a politician with a particular set of priorities and intentions, but rather the way that Obama will inevitably become a screen upon which are projected everyone's thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious, about black men and black people. It is really extraordinary. After all, the rhetoric of fatherhood and responsibility is standard fare in black churches and in speeches by black community leaders, as it has been all these long years. It's nothing Bill Cosby hasn't said a thousand times before, or Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton, or for that matter Louis Farrakhan, Old Scratch himself. Anybody who's actually been around the black community, even a little bit, knows that it is a small-c conservative community in many ways, highly religious, very down on crime and drugs.
What turns out is that a black presidential nominee is in a win-win situation: he can "raise the comfort level" (Jesse Jackson's phrase) with the white voters while simultaneously showing the black voters the vast potential for uplift that a black president will provide. He can show all parties that a black president will be even more substantially positive for society that just being an entry in the history books, and even more than just being a "positive role model." But meanwhile we will be subjected to this unintentionally racist commentary: "He's criticizing the black community, in order to reassure whites" that he's not too...what?
It's even worse with Michelle Obama, who the Republicans apparently confuse with Eryka Badu. What's the difference? She's sitting there in her big wicker chair with her beret and sunglasses, giving us the black power salute. Even more than most candidates' spouses she will have to be careful to criticize no one, but I think that she can also take a lesson from her husband's Father's Day speech. Farrakhan talks about the black leader who is "too black, too strong" (I know about that from listening to my old Public Enemy albums). But telegraph that strength in a message of uplift, and guess what conservatives? The center will be cheering the Obamas on, and the GOP will appear to be...what?