Obama, Chaucer, and the Politics of Representation

In a picture, when a child touches a black president’s hair, representational politics changes the world.

In the 90s when academics and television pundits were busily engaged in the culture wars, I believed mastering the politics of representation was revolutionary. Surely, transformative images would en/gender transformative politics, and that social change could come from studying and politicizing media, popular culture, language, and discourse. There had to be some momentous connection between representation in images and representative democracy.

In those days, young Turks in English departments fought old white guys about the canon, which entailed fierce battles over ethnic/area studies, women’s studies, and the relative merits of Madonna replacing Old Brit Lit.  As it turns out, no one cares about Madonna either, much less Chaucer. In the mean time, the right wing came along and stole the university from under our noses while we were busy infighting.

Eventually, I grew jaded about how little the politics of representation actually means. In the realm of popular culture, one video is just like any other, one movie like the next. McLuhan had it right: The medium really is the message. And, with Baudrillard, I agreed that nothing sticks around long enough to make much of a difference. Pop culture and representational politics are too ephemeral for substantive change. Transformation comes through institutional change, policy making, and other kinds of politics.

But then, Obama got elected and the right amped up the culture war to feverish heights.

Obama operates at the intersection of representation and representative politics. This is the point of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic (Sept. 2012). The title is Fear of a Black President. The title itself is multi-layered and beautifully written; just go read it yourself. We used it in a “Special Topic Dialogue” on the presidential election for Dialogue on Race Louisiana. In the article, the author refers to the striking picture from the New York Times of a small black boy touching Obama’s hair.

There are a lot of problems with venerating the “first” of something; it’s identity politics of the very worst sort. Celebrating “firsts” normalize everything that exists before the firsts, and make the firsts themselves the exceptions. Exceptions aren’t necessarily good. In Obama’s case, an exception could be construed as exceptional, as in he has to be exceptional to be good enough; or as in “we are going to make an exception for him,” i.e., we will act with reasonable decorum to all presidents except for him; or as in he is president except that he’s not a citizen, because he’s actually a Kenyan.

All presidents stand before us as a screen upon which we project our ideals, sentiments, and desires. And here I have come full circle regarding the politics of representation. We shouldn’t want the gallery of presidential pictures to look like “The United Colors of Benetton” (so 90s-style), comprised of a fictional, airbrushed diversity. We shouldn’t want to “spotlight” the current White House and First Couple as a “Black Camelot,” although the camera does love them more than it ever loved Jack and Jackie. The First Family is more legitimately a fifties two-kids-dog-picket-fence couple in the flesh than probably any white couple from that era, but we shouldn’t want to burden the Obamas with the task of being an exceptional black family. Is being exceptional a compliment or an insult to them and their children? See, the politics of representation are unavoidable, because they do mean something. Fortunately, Obama never seems to stagger publicly under the weight of projections we heap on him.

The best line from the Atlantic article is that Obama’s election meant that black parents no longer had to lie to their children when they said you can grow up to be President. Seeing difference even in a presidential portrait is a powerful.

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