The First Black Insult

How Obama might become the first Barack president.

By 1.24.08

In Monday's Democratic debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a moderator asked Senator Barack Obama if he agreed with novelist Toni Morrison's 1998 assertion that Bill Clinton was "the first black President."

Obama chose wit and deadpan for his answer, saying he would have to see the former President dance "before I can accurately judge if he is, in fact, a brother."

Obama blew a tremendous opportunity, what has come to be called a "Sistah Souljah" moment, recalling Bill Clinton's own 1992 upbraiding of the rap artist's anti-white rhetoric.

Nowadays, all anyone remembers is Morrison's writing that Clinton was "the first black President." In fact, she said much more.

"Clinton," she wrote in a 1998 article in the New Yorker, displays "almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."

Taken in context, this is no compliment. It's an insult. In Morrison's formulation, to be black means poverty, helplessness, and victimhood. And if Obama had called the debate moderator on that point, he would have called out and exposed the Clintons' racialist strategy which aims to marginalize his, Obama's, effectiveness in the current election.

OBAMA IS too timid by half. What would it mean to call out the Clintons on this "first black President" nonsense? No mistake, it would take a lot of courage. Obama would first have to say that the term implies no compliment. He might have to imply that Bill Clinton, far from being cool, more resembled a careless, sloppy horndog.

He would have to recall that, when Morrison wrote those words, she went on to sympathize with Clinton as a victim of the white power structure. And why? Because he had gotten caught canoodling with a White House intern. Obama would have to recall the way the Clintons played on the public's sympathy for a scoundrel caught out.

He would need, in short, to recall everything that has been deemed untouchable by the Clintons and by their minions in the mainstream news media. At the same time, he would call into question the perspicacity and competence of Toni Morrison, an icon of black culture, and a woman, to boot.

TOUGH TASK. Obviously the Clintons know exactly what kind of spot they've put Obama in with all this racialist rhetoric. To call out the Clintons properly, Obama would have to be willing to look like a bad guy.

It would take an immense act of courage to carry it off. On Obama's side, he has the verbal facility to be able to do it. Eventually, he may have no choice. The only other choice will be to lose with Hillary's cackle ringing in his ears.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.