It’s easy to see how Cinque Henderson could feel fairly jaunty about being tasked to deliver “the black case for Obama skepticism” here at TNR. The symbology of his essay is ancient; for a century, Americans have endowed minority individuals with talismanic knowledge or abilities that allow them to “represent” for the majority. Integration, we expect, yields a corps of ambassadors who will translate the ethnic or gender or generational divide in public, just by virtue of their difference. And historically, that custom has flowed equally from minority culture, particularly among blacks. Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1944 sonnet, "Gay Chaps at the Bar", makes the “black case” for such racial protocol:
We knew how to order. Just the dash
Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste . . .
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.
Brooks keeps a literate distance from her description of the compromises at play in a black-white America. But Henderson’s essay, and today's er, unpersuasive post on Obama's historic victory, readily participate in that old discourse of spokesmanship that makes a manifesto of a glance—embracing the very simplifications that he believes have “hoodwinked” Barack Obama’s black supporters. And most ironically, that cultural and political tic is proving far less relevant in the age of our nation’s first black major party candidate for president.
A number of Henderson’s comments on black voters presume an eerie authority—augmented by his status as one of the forgotten few marshaled behind Hillary Clinton, “Dragon Lady.” The prime example: his assertion that “Black people (especially black women) are nuts for Michelle. Had Barack married a white woman, his candidacy would've never gotten off the ground with black people.” This begs the obvious: How is he so sure? Of course, family composition is of cultural significance for many voters. But black support for Obama’s candidacy floundered for virtually all of 2007, and took off in Iowa--years after the marriage took place. A mild qualification—“my hunch is”—in the vein of his later disclosure of South Carolinian roots, would have been enough to squash the idea that Henderson spoke for all blacks, not just those who back Clinton.
But the model of communications that drives Henderson’s account has rarely embraced such nuance. And, ironically, much of the authority he deploys in such scattershot fashion was in fact created and energized from within the black American community. From “lining-out,” the practice of reading out hymn lyrics to an analphabetic audience of freed slaves, to the Christian blacks who, Jeremiah Wright rightly argued, “gathered out of the eyesight and the earshot of those who defined them as less than human”—rallying round an elder voice has been an integral part of the community’s political development. In some ways this selective enfranchisement was remarkably efficient—as with Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., who by dint of iconic leadership pushed an agenda addressing black political concerns into rarified, mainstream air.
But in a post-King, post-X black political movement, the trend metamorphosed. The forty years since 1968 have spawned pulpiteers like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, joined by Julian Bond and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—or Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, pontiffs of the right. In each of these cases, a “visible man” has come to be the teller of the black American story, enabled both by their constituencies and a contemporary media eager for pat answers.
As the most recent wearer of this old hat, Henderson made claims that are misleading (“since picking a candidate makes you allies with his other supporters”) and patently inflammatory (“as soon as I heard that Obama had quoted from Malcolm X like this, I knew that Obama would win South Carolina by a massive margin”). Of course, he is wrong to presume Obama voters are wholly untethered from the various policy positions held by their candidate. The long primary season has proved an exceptionally good climate for voters of all races to “kick the tires,” as Obama is fond of saying. His broadly liberal platform is bound to ally an average supporter with anti-war libertarians, ardent good government types, or opponents of the death penalty. To dissect 17 million different personal allegiances by race alone is reductive and damaging.
More relevant, however, is how rapidly such a telling has become old fashioned. As I’ve written, the evolution of the Jena Six case in September of last year marked the death of the “red phone” mentality that asked a select few blacks to take the pulse of African America. Civil rights organizers, given voice mainly by the increasingly vibrant black netroots, started a fireside chat among countless black households in America that culminated in a 10,000 person march in Louisiana—circumventing traditional advocacy groups like Sharpton’s National Action Network, Jackson’s Rainbow/P.U.S.H. coalition, and even the NAACP itself.
At the same time, enfranchisement is coming at the ballot box. Black political representation is nowhere near proportional—Obama is just the third black senator since reconstruction—but black elected executives like Cory Booker, Adrian Fenty or Deval Patrick disprove the notion that there must be a parallel stream of black political discourse, convened by dint of mainstream exclusion. American, rather than black politics, are suddenly possible in the US.
Now, Henderson was right to attack Obama’s slips into similar projection. Obama’s remarks regarding his pastor, which claimed "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community" reverted to the old model of investiture that he had seemed to reject. Likewise, Wright’s assertion that “this most recent attack on the black church is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright; it is an attack on the black church” was an unfounded stretch—though entirely in keeping with the tradition of consolidation that black leadership had enjoyed to date.
But rather than marking a moment of grand hypnotism, I believe Obama’s win in South Carolina shows the democratization of black political thought. Recall that he trailed Clinton by some 20 points in the state as recently as the first week in December. Obama’s campaign was forced underground, in a literal sense—working around the establishment support that Clinton had garnered, especially among black religious leadership. Obama brilliantly convened some 20 “faith forums” during the Carolina campaign, designed to speak directly to the people whose votes their pastors and preachers had already promised away. Identity politics are a strong pull, but showing such respect to moderate southern blacks, I’d wager, is as likely to have made a difference at the polls.
Today is too important to let the old clog up the new. Blacks are increasingly able to relate on their own terms to the political landscape—even one with a black man at its center. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a powerful essay in The Nation, backs away from the old model and restores nuance to the dialogue. “For African-Americans,” he offers, “the blessing of the one-drop rule is blackness as a big tent.” A disunited front is only natural. And as we grow weary of “red phone” monopolies, we grow weary of overstepping on the part of men like Henderson. As participant in this old racket, he manages to play both victim and opportunist (talk about “double-consciousness”). His article not only denigrates the judgment of Obama’s black voters but objectifies the candidate himself. This is all the more unfortunate given Obama’s reluctance to play that game.
Update: Coates hits some of the same themes in this thorough takedown of Sharpton that appeared in the Post in October.