Wednesday, February 17, 2016

That Chameleon Obama

Michael Eric Dyson, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America

It always bothers me when I essentially agree with a book, but must nevertheless recommend against it. This usually happens, as here, because a book has a solid social conscience, bolstered with well-researched evidence, but essentially lacks a through-line. At no point does the author say anything outright wrong. But the overall product feels like several op-ed articles, written separately and loosely strung together sometime later.

Georgetown University sociologist Michael Eric Dyson has written extensively on Black American culture in conflict with the putative mainstream. In this volume, Dyson addresses what Barack Obama means, both personally and in his office, to America overall, and African Americans in particular. This isn’t easy. As Dyson reveals, President Obama has uncovered some ugly scars lingering beneath a national consensus that would like to move beyond race.

Dyson acknowledges early something his fellow social scientists have recognized for a generation, that “race” is a social status, not a genetic inheritance. But that doesn’t make it any less real. Especially for someone of mixed racial heritage, like President Obama, racial issues can be deeply fraught, as they’re urged to identify, according to situation, with either the higher- or lower-status halves of their heritage.

This creates an important question surrounding the President: is he really “black”? This question may seem meaningless to many white Americans, but Dyson helpfully walks readers through its implications. As son of an African immigrant, and not descendant of slaves, Obama inherits a different history than most African Americans. Perhaps this partly explains his easy admission into competitive schools, from Punahou to Harvard Law, often beyond Black applicants’ reach.

Michael Eric Dyson
Yet even here, Dyson reveals his own blinders. He claims African immigrants are often treated preferentially over African Americans in the US market. Maybe that’s true in large coastal cities where Dyson lives; in flyover country, where I live, African immigrants, primarily Somali and Sudanese refugees, are a despised underclass, shuffled off to work graveyard shifts in meat-packing plants. One suspects Dyson doesn’t acknowledge this simply because he doesn’t know.

Therein lies one of Dyson’s recurrent problems. Some pages are so heavily documented that every sentence ends with a source citation; other pages involve paragraph after paragraph of unsourced generalizations which depend upon avoiding further scrutiny. He lumps entire populations—white and Black, Republican and Democratic, American and international—into sweeping abstractions that might make sense in some settings, but may contradict readers’ experience.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not calling Dyson wrong; rather, his rightness depends on one’s perspective. What’s true in Dyson’s Detroit upbringing or his DC career isn’t necessarily portable everywhere. When Dyson uses broad generalizations, like unsourced descriptions of Obama’s frequent chastisement of Black family structures, reinforced with high-handed terms like “Obama’s moral rampaging,” I wonder, who does Dyson speak for? Or is he editorializing?

Personal experience is a legitimate source of criticism. Dyson’s best chapter, on Obama’s rhetorical usage, derives from Dyson’s personal experience as an academic and sometime Christian minister. President Obama won white support partly by using what white audiences consider “correct” grammar and pronunciation. But Dyson demonstrates Obama also uses distinctly Black rhetorical flourishes, learned from the two places many African Americans feel freest to speak: hip-hop lyrics and the pulpit.

This overlap with Black religious tradition interests me, as I’ve read recently from Black Liberation Theology, particularly Obery M. Hendricks and James H. Cone. Obama’s public rhetoric derives directly from an African American prophetic tradition which white audiences often won’t recognize, because it’s outside the scope of our experience. Dyson demonstrates that this tradition is not only present in Obama’s speeches, it partly explains Black America’s fervent support.

I love this chapter. Dyson melds his personal experience with thorough-going scholarship to demonstrate why Obama’s verbal appeal crosses often-hardened racial boundaries, which politicians like Bernie Sanders have never crossed. I’d read a book-length disquisition on this topic. Yet here, like on so many topics, Dyson basically acknowledges his point, then caroms off again, already eager to address the next question. It feels less like a chapter, more like an orphaned article.

In addressing the entire “Black Presidency,” Dyson has chosen himself a huge topic. Maybe that’s his problem. Maybe this book feels like it lacks a unifying thesis because he’s chosen a massive umbrella topic lacking a unifying message. Perhaps this book could’ve been longer, or perhaps it could’ve been narrower, addressing just the conflicting racial narratives or something. I like Dyson’s idea, but it feels like a laundry list of praise and grievance, lacking unity.

1 comment:

  1. I've read it. Dyson is an annoying blowhard, and his point is basically that Obama is the political version of Hendrix, who was weaned on the chitlin' circuit, which grew from the efforts of such people as Robert Johnson.
    He has a point, but it's buried under all of the I'm-so-clever social rhapsodizing.

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