"I'm Going to Be a Negro Tonight": Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, and the "Postracial" Paradox

By Rieder, Jonathan | Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

"I'm Going to Be a Negro Tonight": Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, and the "Postracial" Paradox


Rieder, Jonathan, Michigan Quarterly Review


Is it just serendipity that Martin Luther King's eightieth birthday was celebrated one day before Barack Obama was sworn in as president? To many ebullient Americans, Obama's triumph marked the fulfillment of King's so-called color-blind dream. The new president has long positioned himself in the King lineage, whether paying homage to the iconic leader with coy indirection ("forty-five years ago today" Americans heard "a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream") or citing phrases from King like "the fierce urgency of now." Most vividly on election night, he channeled King's words from the night before he was assassinated, "We as a people will get there."

If we are truly to grasp the full significance of Barack Obama's victory, at least for what it tells us about the emerging nature of belonging and identity in the United States, we need to be wary of glib invocations of the "postracial" endeavor that is said to conjoin Obama and King. The key problem with the term is not that it mystifies the state of race relations in the United States; despite the hand-wringing over Hillary Democrats and riled-up hillbillies, election results did not vindicate all the foreboding about covert racism. The problem with the postracial verdict is more fundamental. It misreads both King and Obama, misconstrues the meaning of the movement beyond race, and misses the true significance of the election of Barack Obama.

One could just as well point to the differences that separate King and Obama. The most obvious involves the circumstances of their heritage and their relationship to blackness. Simply put, Obama came late to his blackness. This delay lies at the heart of Obama's narrative of self-fashioning in Dreams from My Father. In contrast to the imagery of Kenya-Kansas fusion that defines his most celebrated speeches, the paean to mixed bloodlines that often accompanies them, or his self-depiction as "a mutt" at his November 5 press conference, his autobiography pivots on the burgeoning force of racial (and religious) self-discovery.

As most of us know, Obama's early years were a testimony to polyglot possibility. Typically, his secular humanist mother gave him a book of creation stories that ranged across cultures - Genesis, Prometheus and the gift of fire, the Vedic legend of the tortoise. After the departure of his African father, she married an Indonesian Muslim whose faith was tinged with Hindu and animist elements. Plunked down in Djakarta, the small boy Obama entered a world of evil spirits, Hanuman the monkey god, and beggars with leprosy.

Given his mixed-up beginnings and the role of his Kansas kin in raising him, one could imagine the biracial Obama embracing a mixed identity. Yet the departure of his father left a "gash in my heart" that helped drive his resolve to become black, although he describes that choice as a destiny ("I was too young to know that I needed a race"). But the content of that need remained obscure: "I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant."1

Obama tried out the lingo of his black friends in Honolulu "that's just how white folks will do you" - but it sounded awkward. "I felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase." And his mother's smile kept flashing in his mind. He glimpsed another version of blackness in the elegant cool and swagger of the basketball court, but looking back, he rejects that as a posture, "living out a caricature of black male adolescence." He scanned Ellison and DuBois for answers; taken with Malcolm X's desire to expunge his white blood, Obama knows "my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction." At one point, his friend Ray lands a blistering jab, "I don't need no books to tell me how to be black."2

Obama's determined efforts to define himself as black prompted Marie Arana, the Washington Post writer and longtime Book World editor, to rejoin, "Obama's not black. …

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