A Critical Look at Obama’s March 18, 2008 Speech
by Rhone Fraser
Robert Butler writes that the narrative of the character of Senator Sunraider in Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth reads like a cautionary tale warning against what others have defined as a major problem in modern American culture: an “individualism” which has become “cancerous” because it produces a “socially unsituated self resulting in sterile narcissism and cultural disintegration” (Butler, 309). This problem of American culture will not be solved or even ameliorated with Barack Obama as president if he plans to fulfill his currently stated policies as president. In this essay, I argue that Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison’s posthumous novel published in 2000, edited by his literary executor John F. Callahan, functions as a cautionary tale to its reader in its warning against a cultural disintegration that comes with disavowing and stereotyping the African Americans. I argue this by specifically looking at Obama’s March 18, 2008 speech in the context of what Ellison has presented in Juneteenth and its characters, particularly that of Senator Adam Sunraider. This novel prophesies the ultimate danger of accepting the assumptions of the mainstream American media.
Juneteenth is a novel about the rise and fall of the fictional U.S. Senator Adam Sunraider who is raised by an African American born-again itinerant preacher Alonzo Z. Hickman, also known as Hickman. Sunraider from his birth is named “Bliss” by Hickman. Bliss is born of a black father and a white mother who begs Hickman to care for her son. Hickman raises Bliss and teaches him the art of preaching. With this skill, Bliss grows up, leaves his community without ever keeping in touch, renames himself Adam Sunraider, and becomes a U.S. Senator. However he gains popularity as a Senator by denigrating and stereotyping African Americans, which include the African American community in Alabama that nurtured him. The novel opens with Hickman and members of his congregation trying to see the Senator in person, but they are dismissed by his secretary who later “failed to report [these] strange visitors” to Sunraider (Ellison, 8). In all his writing, Ellison was interested in portraying the moral situation of this nation by its treatment of African Americans. His most popular 1952 novel, Invisible Man, shows the moral situation of a nation in its inability to see African American men outside of popular mainstream stereotypes that issue from white philanthropists, the American Left, and Black nationalists. In Juneteenth, critics have argued that Ellison carries the dilemma of this moral situation further in the experience of Senator Adam Sunraider whose “life is destroyed because of his very modern existence on having everything on his ‘own terms,’ and this gives him momentary outward satisfactions but locks him into a selfishness which separates him from a nourishing past and a vital community” (Butler, 508). Sunraider represents a collective white American identity that cannot survive in a world in which it belittles, denies and denigrates its unavoidable African-American ancestry.
Senator Adam Sunraider is similar to current presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama in his ability to captivate audiences in his oratory. In this manner and many others to be explained, Ellison in creating Sunraider has prophesied the arrival of Barack Obama. Sunraider like Obama is biracial: born of a black or African father and a white mother. However, while prophesying the rise of a popular, biracial Senator, I argue that Ellison also warns the currently popular Senator through Sunraider that he must not engage the mainstream culture so much that he disavows and denigrates the African American community. One of the roles of prophesy is to warn. Ellison warns all his readers of Juneteenth, including Obama, to avoid ill-advised ideological directions that both disavow and denigrate African Americans, particularly males. Ellison does this in presenting the fate of Sunraider, who is assassinated on the Senate floor by his son. The novel’s name Juneteenth was given by Callahan and refers to the celebration of Union troops arriving in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to enforce slavery’s end. Like Juneteenth, many Americans see Obama’s potential presidency as a significant end to institutionalized racial barriers to the U.S. presidency. In the novel, Hickman implores Bliss to “confront more fully and honestly…the long-buried memory of the Juneteenth night that sent him wandering the ends of the earth like a biblical outcast” (Ellison, xxvi-xxvii).
The experience of Senator Sunraider shows in this novel that the ultimate hope of racial unity, suggested by the Juneteenth celebration is nothing but a gaudy illusion, especially if it means allowing biracial Senators like Sunraider to serve in the U.S. Congress and get recognized “as the man who was considered the most vehement enemy of [black] people” (6). Ellison suggests in this novel that Juneteenth, like the potential Obama presidency, is a gaudy illusion of racial progress. Sunraider’s experience warns today’s Senator Obama against being bought by the mainstream society, represented the most by his March 18, 2008 speech.
There is no question that between 2006 and this speech, Obama’s policies has taken a strong shift to the conservative right on issues such as military spending, healthcare and Iraqi military occupation. Sunraider remembers advice from a friend, Donelson, who said “the colored don’t need rights…they only need rites. You got it? Just give niggers a baptism or a parade or a dance and they’re happy” (266). Unless he drastically reverses his now very conservative policies, the campaign and possible inauguration of Obama will be a mere rite, with no substantial change from the policies of the George W. Bush administration. It will not attain any real, actual rights such as universal healthcare for the millions of children denied coverage by Bush’s veto of S-CHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) which is remarkably absent from the campaign debate. Christopher Hobson writes that Senator Sunraider is a sign of U.S. liberalism’s complicity with race oppression (Hobson, 625). Like Obama, Sunraider uses the American ideals of democracy to betray African Americans and show the corruption of the U.S. political system and specifically Democratic Party liberalism (626). Sunraider’s complicity with race oppression is most significantly seen in his time before he was Senator, planning a film. This film has plenty in common with the Obama campaign in its lacking an original policy or issue stance that he hopes will attract voters. Discussion and engagement of the issues gets lost easily in vigorously constructed “controversies” like those about Jeremiah Wright. This tends to shift discussion away from critical policy issues we should be focusing on and towards “constructed controversies” that deal with America’s social construction of race and gender. These constructions are essentially scapegoats that prevent engagement of the racist, normative white supremacist policies of the U.S presidency. Well after Bliss leaves during the Juneteenth celebration and lands in Oklahoma, he tells his friend Donelson: “we won’t plot it…we’ll make it up as we go along. It depends on how much dough we raise” (85). This helps explain Obama’s support of the oppression of Palestinian people, since his Jewish donors, such as the Pritzker family in Chicago, support his campaign, and with their money to his campaign comes a certain angle or policy stance that is part of this performance or production of a campaign. Like Sunraider’s film, Obama’s campaign is made up as it goes along, becoming more and more conservative according to the interests of those who give him the dough. Obama’s changing healthcare policy tragically ignores the plight of unemployment and advances the individualistic nature of society, implying to all Americans that if you don’t have healthcare, its your fault because only you are the reason you don’t have a job. This conservative policy change is seen in what we get of Ellison from Sunraider’s life who, Hobson notes, learns that “he can have all the United States offers if he enters the palace of this culture ‘alone,’ separate from the community that has nourished him” (Hobson, 631).
Obama’s March 18, 2008 speech in fact confirms a deliberate decision on Obama’s part to separate himself from the community that nourished him in his faith and support for his presidency, and part of that community attended Trinity United Church of Christ. Obama repeatedly separates himself from the supportive African American community by repeatedly appealing to what is known as the white normative gaze. The white normative gaze is the expected set of behaviors that assume stereotypes of African Americans. Obama in this speech defers to this gaze. His high poll numbers prove that. Like Sunraider, he can separate himself from the community that nourished him to ultimately “have all the United States has to offer.” This March 18, 2008 speech served as a proverbial gate for Obama to have all he wants. He begins pandering to this gaze when he exaggerates the comments of his Pastor Jeremiah Wright, who shares some similarities with Hickman. Obama begins by distorting the comments of Wright who said: “God damned America,” not “God damn America.” Of course Obama does not recognize the use of this d-word as a verb as Wright actually uses it. Instead, Obama defers to the white normative gaze by exaggerating Wright’s use of this word as an expletive, since that’s what angry people do. Theologian James Cone says that “black theological speech about God in the authentic prophetic authentic prophetic tradition will always move on the brink of treason and heresy in an oppressive society” (Cone, 56). If we measure the authenticity of a prophecy by how much negative media it attracts, this sermon by Wright might in fact be one of the most authentic in American history. Obama later criticizes Wright’s expressed view that the conflicts in the Middle East are rooted in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel. Here Obama speaks to the aforementioned corporate donors and shows that after passing this gate of avowed alliance with Israel, he will slam the door shut on recognizing Palestine’s right to defend itself. After all, which lobby has more money than AIPAC? This is the same AIPAC who support U.S. armed and funded terrorism against black South Africans and Palestinians. In this specific case, Obama fulfills Ellison’s specific prophesy of a biracial senator who would make up his performance of a campaign while he goes on, taking willing donors along with their policy demands.
In his speech, Obama later calls Reverend Wright’s words divisive and says we need instead of “being divisive” to “come together to solve a set of monumental problems…two wars, a terrorist threat, a failing economy, a chronic healthcare crisis, and potentially devastating climate change. While the list of these issues might appease the white normative gaze, his conservative policy shifts in each of the areas appease this gaze even more. Yet, like Sunraider, it betrays African Americans and ultimately represents the corruption of the Democratic Party liberalism. In terms of the chronic healthcare crisis, Obama’s policy aims to prolong such a crisis the instant he stopped calling for universal healthcare like Hillary Clinton did, and he relegated part of it to the unscrupulous private industry. Obama, like Clinton, has supported and appeased the one private company most threatening to our existence as a human race: the nuclear industry. According to the nuclear watchdog, BeyondNuclear.org, Obama claimed in an Iowa speech that he “passed” legislation as a state senator to require the nuclear industry to report when it “emitted anything considered radioactive.” This was found to be false. First, the supposed legislation he passed actually never actually left the committee. Second, according to Democracynow.org on 2/8/08, Obama’s chief political strategist is David Axelrod who worked as a consultant to Exelon Nuclear, the largest nuclear utility in the country, responsible for leaking radioactive tritium into groundwater where it ended up in drinking water wells and is linked to cancer clusters and pediatric brain cancers. This kind of physically manifested “cancer” is symbolic of effects of the individualistic culture that Obama has essentially been bought by, in allowing “experienced and reliable” corporate administrators into his campaign. There is no doubt these kind of policy strategies had some influence on Obama’s deference to the white normative gaze in his March 18, 2008, which caused him to separate himself from Jeremiah Wright and consequently shoot for all that the U.S. has to offer.
Both Obama and Clinton were absent for the 2007 end-of-the-year vote to kill federal loan guarantees to nuclear power, which gave more the $20 billion going to help the nuclear industry potentially spread more cancer. What’s more important to these senators? Being on the campaign trail, making up policy as they go along, waiting for the highest bidder, or allowing nuclear industries to escape more oversight? After he mentions these issues, Obama goes on to provide a shaky defense of Jeremiah Wright when he at least recognizes the stereotypes that the American media has created out of Obama. He provides, unlike Sunraider, a public account of a humanized side of Wright that reveals the essential function of Wright’s ministry, which is obviously effective because of his faithful congregation. In this part of the speech, Obama differs most strongly from Sunraider particularly because he deliberately in this moment strengthens the tie between himself and the preacher who inspired him, whereas Sunraider tries to sever the ties between himself and the preacher, and ends up killing himself because he pursues such a course. Obama’s oratory in this part is closest to Ellison’s stylistic preaching of Hickman. In describing Wright’s church, Obama says:
“people began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters…and in that single note—hope! I heard something else; at the foot of the cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones…”
This rhetorical strategy is what Hickman, the mentor of Bliss does in his oratory: draw inspiration from the company of African Americans by merging their stories with the popular Biblical stories. Ellison’s Hickman goes much farther than Obama in his comparison because of the normative white gaze that Obama is beholden to, but Hickman is speaking in his sermon to an exclusively black audience:
“though they deprived us of our heritage among strange scenes in strange weather; divided and divided and divided us again like a gambler shuffling and cutting a deck of cards; although we were ground down, smashed into little pieces, spat upon, stamped upon, cursed and buried, and out memory of Africa ground down into powder and blown on the winds of foggy forgetfulness. Like the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel’s dream. Hooh! We lay scattered in the ground for a long dry season. And the winds blew and the sun blazed down and the rains came and went and we were dead. Lord we were dead!” (Ellison, 124-5).
Both speeches recall the Biblical story of the Ezekiel and the dry bones, where Ezekiel prophesies to the bones that eventually connect. Ellison’s Hickman proves that these bones in fact represent African American people in order to prove to his congregation the power of the word of God:
“the voice of God spoke down the Word…And we heard and rose up. Because in all their blasting they could not blast away one solitary vibration of God’s true word… We heard it down among the roots and among the rocks. We heard it in the sand in and in the clay. We heard it in the falling rain and in the gullies. We heard it lying and moldering and corrupted in the Earth. We heard it sounding like a bugle call to wake up the dead…Ah, we sprang together and walked around. All clacking together and clicking into place…Oh, Reverend Bliss, we stamped our feet at the trumpet’s sound and we clapped our hands, ah in joy! And we moved, yes together in a dance, anew! Because we had received a new song in a new land and had been resurrected by the Word and Will of God” (126-7).
This kind of sermon influenced Hickman’s protégé Bliss to become a U.S. Senator in Juneteenth. Ellison shows the effect of the Word and the Will of God in the lives of his characters Senator Sunraider and Hickman. In fact, after taking an assassin’s bullet many years later, Sunraider begs Hickman on his death bed, after remembering this sermon, to say the word in order to live: “Hurry, Daddy Hickman, he thought, Hurry and say the Word. Please, let me rise up. Let me come up and out into the light and air” (144).
Obama proceeds to mention his grandmother and how he could not disown her for her believing in “ethnic stereotypes” any more than he could disown Reverend Wright. He later says in the media firestorm about “controversy,” that we need to come together and solve challenges like healthcare. In reality, Obama’s conservative healthcare betrays his supposed commitment to “solve” this problem. Early in 2006, he talked about implementing universal healthcare through a single payer system. However over the past year, his policy has changed to relegate more and more healthcare to the private industry, which shows more of his ability to change and capitulate to corporate interest than it does to actually compromise or “solve challenges to healthcare.” Obama in this speech pays lip service to the “lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame that came from not being able to provide for one’s family” and the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods—parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement—all helped to create a cycle of violence, blight, and neglect that continue to haunt us.” However Obama’s current stances on foreign policy betray his supposed commitment to address these aforementioned issues.
The first was his stated commitment to increase military spending in a 2007 speech given in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (www.democracynow.org/2007/2/13/headlines). Overindulgent military spending is one of the root causes of the advancing race inequality in this country. Such indulgence is exactly why the lack of opportunity is endemic in the black community. Senator Obama cannot vow to increase military spending and at the same time address the lack of economic opportunity. In a recent Thursday, March, 28th impromptu talk with journalist Amy Goodman, Obama said he would keep troops in Iraq in order to protect civilian contractors. These are the same contractors on which millions of dollars have been wasted on services that are maintaining the military occupation and oppression of the Iraqi people. We get important insight into this oppression from a Mahdi Army member who said: “If there were no Americans, there would be no fighting” (www.democracynow.org/2008/3/28/headlines). Apparently Obama’s commitment to a military presence in Iraq would continue some level of the fighting and this stance truly speaks to the violent, invading nature of the United States foreign policy that Obama vows to continue as U.S. president.
Ellison illustrates this kind of violent tendency, to invade one’s private space and fight, in the character of Bliss. This belligerent invading nature of Bliss then Adam Sunraider, is seen when he goes up to an older person and, for no apparent reason, hits him:
“I hit him real quick and it glanced off his check and I could see the blackness smear away and the white coming through and then I hit him again…Then something snatched me up into the air and I was trying to hit and kicking at him until Daddy Hickman shook me hard, saying, Boy, what’s come over you! Don’t you know that’s a grown man you’re trying to fight? You trying to start a riot? And saying to the little clown, I’m sorry, I’m very sorry; I sent him to get an ice cream cone…Who are you? The little one said. You work for his folks? No, Daddy Hickman said, but I know him; he’s with me. Then you better get him the hell out of here before I forget he’s just a kid. In fact, I should get you instead. What the hell do you mean letting a wild kid like that run around loose? Don’t worry, Daddy Hickman said, we’re leaving and I meant to take care of him. He won’t do it again…and then he was running with me under his arm, puffing around the tent and across the lot into an alley and someone behind us screaming, “Hey Rube! Hey Rube!” and the blackness was all over the black of my hands” (253-254).
Bliss’s behavior here is very much like U.S. foreign policy in its tendency to invade and fight, like an aggressive, immature child. Bliss apparently punches in order to try and get a thrill from rubbing the blackness off of a nonwhite person. Bliss also deceived himself into thinking that if he could only keep hitting this stranger, more “black” skin color will be removed, and more “white” skin color will be revealed. Bliss associated black skin color as a target deserving of physical abuse. In another context, abuse by white-led U.S. soldiers and oppressors can eventually make the victim of the abuse white, as the United States is trying to do in their attempt to “govern” or exploit Iraq. This attempt implies that these Iraqis needed governing. This kind hostility towards nonwhite peoples throughout the West that Europeans and, by extension U.S. foreign policy, is apparent today in the occupation of Iraq and Iran. In a sense, this is how the racism of U.S. foreign policy operates in its treatment of people of Arab and African descent: they are penalized or abused for essentially not having white skin especially if they obstruct the invader’s access to exploitation of natural resources like oil. This belligerent, invading nature of Bliss thus serves, considering how Sunraider died, as a cautionary tale to Obama about the costs of doing absolutely anything as a person of African descent within American mainstream to be U.S. president. It shows the dangers of invading one’s space and attacking them, which is what the U.S. foreign policy has done in Iraq and what it is planning in Iran.
Later in this speech, Obama makes a mighty stretch to please the white normative gaze by essentially attacking his own pastor for his nonwhite identity, by Wright. He does this by focusing on Wright’s anger, which is in a fundamental way, spending way too much time on white perceptions of Wright, rather than on pressing issues he claims he cares about. Obama went to very unnecessary lengths to justify his pastor in front of a deranged media who will make and sustain their racist conclusions about Wright and his “rant” regardless of Obama’s words.
In his critique of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son and its main character Bigger Thomas, James Baldwin (who once called Ralph Ellison the angriest man he knew) writes that in Bigger Thomas, Wright shows a man who is wholly “defined by his hatred and his fear.” Obama in appeasing the white normative gaze gets close to analyzing his pastor in this way, as a stereotype. Baldwin suggests that in showing this kind of character, Wright supports stereotypes and undermines the humanity of black people: “our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult—that is, accept it” (Baldwin, 18).
Obama speaks way too much to the stereotype of the angry black man that mainstream America is more preoccupied with. Instead he should assume Reverend Wright’s humanity and his right to express his criticism of a belligerent foreign policy by altogether taking this opportunity to focus on some sort of action such as a march for children’s insurance or a march to withdraw the contractors that Obama instead wants to pamper. Obama later provides the perspective of the diligent immigrant much more forcefully than he does his defense of Wright. He concurs with the narrative that these working and middle class narratives have not been particularly privileged by their race. He says: “their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch.” Here Obama seems to be reversing the roles of the African American and the immigrant in the country. In reality, it was the labor of the African American, as we’ve learned in The Debt by Randall Robinson, that has built this country from scratch, not the immigrants that came later and have profited off the labor of generations of African Americans. In this part of the speech, Obama establishes an assumed hierarchy of industriousness, where he ranks immigrants above African Americans who are “too angry” to advance themselves. This is the part of the speech where Obama is perhaps closest to Senator Adam Sunraider in his oratory. He speaks to the narrative of the hardworking immigrant whose place in society was supposedly earned directly and entirely by their hard work, and this kind of narrative implicitly denigrates African Americans whose enterprising attempts have historically been vicious and successfully quelled for several decades after slavery and the Civil War in what is popularly known as the “nadir” of the black experience. This nadir became the white European immigrant’s apex; their opportunity and entry to ride the wave of people who helped build the economic wealth of this country, but who would never share it. In Sunraider’s memorable speech at the beginning of the novel, the Senator provides backhanded insults to African Americans and inspires European immigrants:
“let us seek brightness in darkness and hope in despair. Let us remind ourselves that we were not designated the supine role of passive slave to the past. Ours is the freedom and obligation to be ever the fearless creators of ourselves, the reconstructors of the world. We were created to be Adamic definers, namers and shapers of yet undiscovered secrets of the universe! We move toward the fulfillment of our nation’s demand for citizen-individualists possessing the courage to forge a multiplicity of creative selves and styles” (21-22).
Senator Sunraider calls on his listeners to think of themselves as hard workers, as Gods who will forge their own destiny. This was the mentality that Europeans had when they invaded the “New World” and annihilated indigenous peoples, so they could “move toward the fulfillment of their nation’s demand.” Sunraider’s mention of “forging a multiplicity of creative selves and styles” speaks to what Obama says later about continuing on a “path of a more perfect union.” While Obama does not go as far as Sunraider in naming immigrants, and all Americans, he speaks to the concerns of white Americans and paints them in a hard working, well-meaning light; a much different light than that of Reverend Wright, whom Obama is referring to more often than not when he says “anger.” Despite the black and white resentments, Obama calls on the entire country to move beyond racial wounds and continue on “the path of a more perfect union.” This is exactly what Senator Sunraider when he repeats “E PLURIBUS UNUM!” throughout his senatorial speech:
“Let us unite like the flexing feathers that lift it aloft. Let us forge ahead in faith and in confidence—E PLURIBUS UNUM…My friends, in such a nation as ours, in a nation blessed with so much good fortune, with so much brightness, it is sometimes instructive when we are so compelled to look on the dark side…Hear me out: I say that even the wildest black man rampaging the streets of our cities in a Fleetwood knows that it is not our fate to be mere victims of history but to be courageous and insightful before its assaults and riddles” (21-22).
Here Sunraider stereotypes black men in a manner comparable to Obama’s stereotyping Wright into “anger.” When Obama says “for the African American, that path [towards a more perfect union], means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past,” he suggests that Wright is a “victim of his past.” He does this especially when he refers to Wright earlier as angry. He gets more flagrant in stereotyping him when he says that: “what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self help requires a belief that society can change.” What evidence does Obama have that Wright believes that society cannot change? In which exact ways is Wright against a program of self-help? What is more potentially helpful than constructive criticism? Like Sunraider, Obama speaks directly to a normative white gaze, ensuring his white audience that he does in fact consider Reverend Wright to be a victim of history, while refusing to engage the evidence or reasons for this point of view, and in the process still trying “form a more perfect union.” The effort for this “more perfect union” that Obama speaks about contravenes the peaceful coexistence with other nations of nonwhite peoples. So essentially Obama’s words stereotype not only Jeremiah Wright, they also stereotype those victims that this union oppresses in its foreign policy such as black South Africans (who along with some Kenyans have provided a legitimate critique of Obama’s American arrogance: Listen to a roundtable discussion on News & Notes on 8/31/06, at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5743184).
When Obama speaks about solving the healthcare crisis yet talks about increasing military spending, he insults the millions of American children ignored by Bush’s S-CHIP veto. He stereotypes these nonwhite peoples as some sort of barrier to a “more perfect union.” Like Sunraider, Obama’s belief for a more perfect union is rooted in his faith: “I have asserted a firm conviction…rooted in my God and my faith in the American people—that working together we can…continue on the path of a more perfect union.” Sunraider says: “great nations reach perfection, the final static state only when they pass their peak-promise and exhaust their grandest potentialities. We seek not perfection but coordination”(20). Upon listening to Senator Sunraider, Hickman thinks: “its mainly knowing how to manipulate and use words, he thought”(35). Both Obama and Senator Hickman obviously have a penchant for manipulating words in order to appease the normative white gaze and either maintain one’s powerful position, or become president of the United States. In either case, either role is destined not only to create stereotypes, but to become one itself. Journalist Robert Scheer writes:
“The fundamental hazards are in the process [of becoming president] itself: that numbing effect of a modern mass media-observed campaign that requires such an incredible high-wire act—balancing fundraising with integrity, superficial sloganeering with profound commitment, and homogenizing the entire unwieldy package into a marketable commodity—that in the end, the candidate is transformed into a caricature who has difficulty remembering from whence he came” (Scheer, 16-17).
This is obviously the tragic flaw of Senator Sunraider that Ellison president; it is arguably the ultimate cause of his death. This issue of losing memory of where one came from could be a flaw of Obama. If Obama wants to provide this kind of appealing rugged individualist rhetoric, he risks becoming a stereotype like the one he created of Jeremiah Wright. However, in Juneteenth, Ellison suggests a much more threatening possibility to the danger of aiming for a “more perfect union” at the expense of stereotyping others. Ellison shows the danger of this abuse most clearly in the character of Severin, who is not only Sunraider’s assassin but his son. John Callahan tells Christopher De Santis that in Ellison’s notes to Juneteenth¸ we get more about Severin and Sunraider’s abuse of him: “Sunraider cuts himself off from her [Lavatrice, Severin’s mother] and cuts himself off from the child [Severin] that comes from their union. In the offshoot draft, Ellison makes it clear that Sunraider, once he makes his fortune, sends a lawyer to come and take the child away from Janie, the black woman who’s raising him in Oklahoma. But he does not reveal himself to Severin” (De Santis, 618). This kind of separation of Senator Sunraider from his child, then the separation of his child from a mother figure, is a kind of separation that the American media is trying to accomplish between Obama and his nurturing community, in its pejorative coverage of Jeremiah Wright and has sadly been successful at it. Reverend Wright has been undoubtedly been separated from Obama and certain people who have invited him to speak. He has recently had to cancel certain speaking engagements because of the negative, insulting attention from the news media, triggered by Obama’s deference to the normative white gaze, instead of assuming Wright’s humanity, ignoring the negative media attention, and placing more focus on his damaged policy. However, Reverend Hickman clarifies Obama’s role in American history when he observed that speaking is “mainly knowing how to manipulate and use words” (Ellison, 35). Obama is probably aware of the drastically conservative shifts he has made, however, he thought he could “raise more dough” by lending his oratorical skills to manipulate words and ultimately appease the white normative gaze by criticizing Wright. However in what Callahan has edited and presented us of Ellison in Juneteenth, the message is clear: there is a serious cost to stereotyping. It is through the character of Reverend Hickman that we, the readers, get a suggestion for dealing with stereotyping and overall white racism. Ellison writes Hickman’s thoughts:
“Out of all the pomp and power seeking—there’s old Bliss [in a hospital bed, after the assassination]. It makes you wonder all over again just what kind of being man really is; makes you puzzle over the difference between who he is and what he does…Now look at him, all ravaged by his denials, sapped by his running, drained an twitching like a coke-fiend from all the twistings and turnings that brought him here. All damaged in his substance by trying to make everything appear to be the truth and nothing really truthful, playing all the old, lying obscene games of denial and rejection of the poor and beaten down. And even at the very last moment, refusing to recognize us, refusing even to see us who could never forget the promise and who for years haven’t asked for any thing except that he remember and honor the days of our youth” (270-271).
Sunraider as Senator could not remember the cherished days with Hickman and dies because of his denial not only of those days, but also because of the denial of the poor and broken down. Obama denies the existence of the poor and beaten down when denies considering universal healthcare. He denies the real existence of the poor and beaten down when he disengages any serious foreign policy towards Cuba and Haiti and the rest Western Hemisphere. He denies the beaten down when he supports without question the presence of military contractors in Iraq and the continued occupation of Palestine, and the corporate oppression of Central and South America in his call to “modify” NAFTA. Hickman is an inextricable part of a larger African American community that serves as a moral guide to the United States. Christopher Hobson writes that “being African American means belonging to a community shaped over time with a defined redemptive role toward the nation” (Hobson, 623). There are two distinct yet unnamed black female characters that appear to essentially forewarn other characters and the reader about the danger of Sunraider. These women, who appear at the beginning and at the end of the novel, can literally discern his ultimately unfortunate intentions. The first is in Oklahoma sitting on a rocking chair who is looking at Bliss when she says: “That’s him all right. He’s just the devil hisself and he’s going to take those chillen off to Torment one of these days. You just mark my words” (89). While she may not prophesy Sunraider’s death, Ellison shows us a character who she obviously discerns something dangerous in young Bliss. She represents one of many voices in the African American community; one in particular that critiques and presumably has some moral standard that Bliss misses. In the very last chapter of this novel, Sunraider hallucinates and sees another unnamed “bent little black skinned woman moving toward him” who insults him profusely by telling him:
“you a coward and a thief and a snake in the grass! You do the dirty bo-bo and eats bad meat! Oh, Ah knows you yas Ah does, and I means to get you! I means to tell everybody who you is and put yo’ nasty business in these white folks’ street” (342).
Sunraider perhaps felt embarrassed because of his knowledge of Severin and his affair with Severin’s mother. This conviction within Sunraider’s hallucination speaks to Hickman’s observation of Sunraider being “ravaged by his denials” (270-271).
And it serves as an instructive lesson to Obama about the role that the African American community, including people like myself have, about the potential ability to discern deception and serve as some sort of moral compass for the greater nation. This is essentially why for instance, the Congressional Black Caucus has been called the “conscience of Congress.” John Callahan says, for Sunraider, “in rejecting Hickman, he rejects himself. Without his blackness, he cannot be a whole person” (613). Sunraider was punished for this rejection by his own son who was presumably rejecting the stereotype of a black man who rampages streets in a Cadillac. It is this same haunting image that recurs in his hallucination and threatens to run Sunraider over. For Obama, in rejecting Wright by stereotyping him or reducing him to “anger” or a “victim of history,” and making up his campaign policy stances as he goes along, Obama threatens himself, and needs to make sure he does not distort his own self to a point beyond recognition. Ellison teaches us that what saves a person is their respect for their ancestry.
Hickman’s question to the Lord about what Juneteenth really means also speaks to what a potential Obama presidency means. Hickman says his reply from the Lord was “to rise upon the Word and rise,” recalling the dry bones analogy (137). On his death bed, Bliss begs Hickman to say the Word. That is, the word of the Lord. Obama said that he has “asserted a firm conviction rooted in his faith. According to the Holy Bible that Hickman lives by, God and His Word are the same. Ellison suggests that true freedom for African Americans does not come from faith in any one person in the Democratic or Republican party, but from faith in the Word of God. Members of the African American community, such as myself, can in their own right see Obama for themselves as a candidate who genuinely tries to fulfill or deny the Word of the Lord. In doing so, one must make sure a white supremacist agenda, which includes a normative white gaze does not fall anywhere in between one and one’s God. Ellison shows the peril of rejecting one’s home community. Those hoping to avoid the fate of Sunraider must not reject one’s community to appease the normative white gaze. As James Baldwin said, the price is too high. For Obama, time will tell. –RF.
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