Barack Obama As Ellison’s Invisible Man

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David Samuels, one of America’s finest working nonfiction writers, has a compelling and challenging piece about Barack Obama in the latest New Republic. It is at once a book review, a comparative literature exercise, a rumination on race, a candidate profile, and a magazine feature. Its central idea is that Barack Obama has internalized the thesis of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man, which Samuels summarizes as the notion that “the symbolic and actual baggage of race makes it difficult if not impossible for a black man to ever realize his full humanity in the eyes of anyone.”

To that end, Obama has offered himself to the nation as a blank slate, which is both not who he really is, and exactly who everyone wants him to be. All presidential candidates do this, of course. As the saying goes, they try to be all things to all people. But the Obama phenomenon in this regard has nonetheless been remarkable, and I have never seen it as clearly picked apart as in this piece. Samuels quotes Obama from his latest book, The Audacity of Hope, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” He continues:

Here, Obama seems to agree with Ellison about the effect of the racial baggage that people bring to his public performance as a politician. The black candidate is rendered invisible to his white audience, a fact that would appear to leave him with little choice but to use that blindness in a strategic way if he wishes to lead. It is one of the outstanding ironies of Obama’s story that his political rise has been fueled by a tactical grasp of the same racial logic that condemned Ellison’s invisible man to living in a basement by himself. The blank screen approach that Obama has embraced works well in a moment dominated by the collapse of Wall Street and the Iraq war, issues for which all possible solutions seem unpalatable; what voters want is to feel that things will change, without too much uncomfortable detail about what will actually happen. The fact that the candidate does not make the usual appeal to the authenticity of his personal story makes the usual attacks on him seem nonsensical, regardless of whether or not they are true, a fact that the Clintons lamented during the primary season and John McCain will find equally frustrating during the general election.

One of the challenges of writing about the Obama campaign is that it has always been difficult to separate out the role of race in his campaign’s success. The idea of the first black president is certainly central to his “change” mantra, for instance, but so is the fact that he will bring a new set of policies and priorities to White House. Where does one “change” end, and the other “change” begin? How does the fact that he is named Barack Obama shift the significance of his unmistakable abilities, as a thinker, writer, campaigner and leader? I have never had a way of figuring these questions out, beyond anecdotal conversations with voters.

More after the jump. . .

But the impact is there. The fact of Obama’s personal history seems to have made his endless repetition of consultant driven pablum–change, middle class, politics as usual–more meaningful. (I know people who passionately support gay marriage, for instance, who still see Obama as a sort of savior, even though Obama opposes gay marriage. Along the same lines, others who are against American military intervention overseas are able to overlook Obama’s hawkish views of Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

Some of this enthusiasm can be ascribed to the extraordinary state of the nation, which suffers from significant resentment for the current occupant of the White House. Samuels, for his part, takes a different tack to get at the same stuff. He looks through the lens of race at the idea of authenticity, comparing the Obama of his first book, Dreams From My Father, with the candidate who was sold to the nation in Denver. Though Samuels is clearly an Obama booster, he can also be sharply critical.

The same qualities that make Obama invisible to America make him visible to the rest of the world. He is as much one of them as he is one of us, and they will see themselves in him, and like us better. Yet what kind of president will he be? For all his obvious intellectual superiority over the fitful and impulsive McCain, Obama has impaled himself on the horns of a painful dilemma. While the identity that he constructed for himself in his autobiography has allowed him to blossom as a man and as a politician, it bears little resemblance to the conventional narratives of white men who run for president–and contains elements that are likely to frighten off large portions of the electorate, before or after November 4. The story of a man who identifies with a foreign father, and with people who are not Americans, and who does so on the basis of the color of their skin, flies in the face of the simplistic racial pieties that white Americans have embraced since the end of Jim Crow. The identity that Obama so painstakingly created for himself is not one that he can share with the electorate, and so the price of his political success is that he is forced to sublimate the material he had so painfully excavated and again become invisible. His image-makers create new stories about the candidate, which ring false and drain his marvelous abilities as a writer, a speaker, and a leader.

If you have the time, I suggest you give the full article a read.