American Studies and the elephant in the room when it comes to race in contemporary America.
The early 2008 Reverend Wright controversy and Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech in response, as well as the responses on the right that Obama had “thrown his grandmother under the bus” in part of that speech. The competing visions of the election itself: as a triumph of a “post-racial America,” as the culmination of the Civil Rights movement, or as an election stolen by ACORN. The literally untold numbers of racist images, jokes, slurs, and narratives created by Obama’s opponents. The books, whether attacking Obama’s identity (such as one on his “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview”), highlighting its symbolic power, or simply analyzing its racial and ethnic contexts. It’s no stretch to say that race has been the single most consistently defining aspect of Obama’s national presence over the last four years, and no long-shot to say that it will be just as defining in the upcoming election as well.
Yet aside from the more complex, scholarly engagements provided by books like the last two linked in that sentence above—and possibly by other books by up-and-coming young American Studiers—it’s also fair to say that we haven’t, in our collective conversations about the issue, analyzed race and Obama so much as deployed narratives in that general direction. Perhaps that’s a given—certainly much (all?) of our politics these days consists of deploying narratives rather than analyzing—but us American Studiers can and should work to push those conversations in more analytical and meaningful directions. Take, for example, the 2010 moment when Obama self-identified on the census as “black/African Am”: it might be impossible for our current racial narratives to deal with that moment with any real complexity; whereas an American Studies perspective could connect that complex choice to the long histories of mixed race Americans’ self-images and identities, to literary and cultural representations of those identities, to questions of passing and racial definitions and community in America, to David Hollinger’s emphases on “voluntary affiliations” as a new defining 21st century category of identity, to the evolution of the census itself (which had in 2000 for the first time included a separate category for “mixed race,” one checked by 6.8 million Americans; yet which had cut that category for the 2010 census), and more.
That’s one example; it will come as a significant shock to you all, I’m sure, that I could go into another half-dozen or –million more. But as I have tried to do in the past, and will of course keep trying to do, I’d rather turn the American Studying over to you guys instead. So tell me: to what American histories, questions, issues, images, ideas, debates, figures, or stories would you turn to develop American Studies analyses of President Obama? Obviously that can and should go well beyond race, and wherever your American Studies perspectives take you and us will be very welcome; although I’d certainly be interested to hear your connections through this specific lens of race as well. In any case, I’d much, much rather end this week’s series by adding some more voices and perspectives into the mix than by continuing to simply feature my own. So have at it! If you don’t want to log in to post a comment, email ‘em to me (firstname.lastname@example.org)! Or Tweet ‘em (@AmericanStudier)!
More next week,
PS. You know what to do!
3/31 Memory Day nominee: César Chávez, the Mexican American activist and labor leader whose efforts on behalf of farm workers and migrant laborers changed the face of American politics, society, and community in the 20th century and beyond.
4/1 Memory Day nominee: Scott Joplin, the son of a slave and sharecropper who helped create a new genre of distinctly American music and profoundly influenced both his own era and the next century of national and world culture.