Monday, November 17, 2008

The "Magical Negro in Chief"?

Bijan Bayne, over at The Root, asks whether Barack Obama is the "magical Negro in Chief." A "magical Negro" is a character in a novel or film, who is possessed of an inner wisdom and who ultimately helps the white lead character get out of trouble. Back in 2003, Rita Kempley wrote an article for Black Commentator on this subject. Here are a few oft-cited examples of "Magical Negroes":

• Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) in the film The Defiant Ones (1958)
• Dick Haloran (Scatman Crothers) in the Stephen King novel The Shining (1977), later a 1980 film
• Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) in the film Crossroads (1986)
• John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) in the serialized Stephen King novel The Green Mile (1996), later a 1999 film
• Albert Lewis (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in the film What Dreams May Come (1998)
• Cash (Don Cheadle) in the film The Family Man (2000)
• Bagger Vance (Will Smith) in the film The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
• An angel (Gabriel Casseus) in Bedazzled (2000)
• God (Morgan Freeman) in the film Bruce Almighty (2003)
• The blind handcar-pumper (Lee Weaver) in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
• The old woman seer in the Stephen King novel The Stand
• The barkeeper Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation
• The Oracle in The Matrix Reloaded
• Gabriel (voice of Delroy Lindo) in The Simpsons episode "Brawl in the Family" (DABF01, 2002) (a deliberate parody of the archetype)

Almost as soon as Obama began to have success in the presidential primary, debate about his status as a "magical Negro" took off. Steven Rosenfeld, over at Alternet, explored the "Magic" behind Obama's success as did Anne Applebaum, at The Washington Post, who posted a column suggesting Obama's blackness provided some advantagous "magic" in the election. Even conservative blow-hard Rush Limbaugh got into the act with a racially derisive song he played on his show. On the flip side, Gary Kamiya, over at Salon, saw Obama's magical status in a more positive light, raving that "the fact that it is a black man who is serving as America's philosopher's stone, turning the base metal of bitterness into the gold of forgiveness, is extraordinarily moving." But, as recently as March, a writer for the L.A. Times argued that Obama was, in fact, a "magical Negro."

The underlying question is: What does the Obama victory win mean for white liberal/progressive voters? Is the meaning confined to this "magical" paternalistic realm? Does Obama's win liberate white liberals from their racial guilt? If so, is that a bad thing? Or, is there something more substantive and concrete there? Does this view of Obama as "magical Negro" diminish his accomplishment and dismiss the very real and positive inter-racial work being done in this campaign?

Check it out. What do you think?

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