From the summer of Faulkner to Oprah's Obama: what we can learn from Joe Christmas and Miss Jane Pittman.
At the time, the most salient emblems of Oprah Winfrey's distinct and multifaceted brand included her popular talk show, the O magazine, and OBC. The role that Oprah has played from the platform of her television talk show in popularizing products, particularly in the context of signature features such as "Oprah's Favorite Things," is well known. Books featured on OBC often literally changed the lives of their authors by bringing them instant fame and unprecedented book sales and resulted in an exponential increase in book sales. The marketing mechanisms linked to Oprah's platform before her global audience and her unique ability to popularize products have been described as "the Oprah effect." (2) That her impact on people has often been quite similar to her impact on products made it fascinating during the Summer of Faulkner orchestrated by her book club to anticipate how her show might potentially expand the audience for a canonical author such as Faulkner. Indeed, the unique spin that in effect yielded a repackaging of this author in the context of her book club resulted in what we might think of and what I have discussed elsewhere as "Oprah's Faulkner." (3)
Oprah's role in launching a range of personas to new heights of fame and fortune through the creation of a multiplicity of new talk shows is also well known. Above and beyond linking popular authors to the Oprah brand over the past decade through her book club, the Oprah Winfrey Show profoundly impacted the nation's political arena by featuring Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, on October 19, 2006, when he was a US Senator from Illinois promoting his book The Audacity of Hope. Oprah described Obama on her website as "her favorite senator" (significantly coding him in the lingo of the "My Favorite Things" shows) and mentioned her hope that he would become a candidate for president of the United States ("Keeping Hope Alive"). Subsequently, the book rocketed to the top spot on the New York Times bestseller's list. This book was not officially featured on OBC, yet the powerful enterprise no doubt helped to establish the marketing context and background for Oprah's introduction of Obama as an author for her global audience.
It is most significant that a reference to a novel in the genres of both African American and Southern literature mediated Oprah's actual endorsement of Obama as a presidential candidate. In offering a rationale for her support of Obama as the Democratic Party's candidate for the presidency, as opposed to New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, Oprah famously invoked Ernest J. Gaines's 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and the related 1974 television movie starring Cicely Tyson. By extension, the dilemma in making a choice between Obama and Clinton recast the notorious "double bind" that black women, including black feminists, have often faced in matters related to race and gender. Given the option of endorsing possibly the first black man or the first woman as president, Oprah drew on the quest in the epic life of Miss Jane Pittman to identify "the One," a messianic black civil rights leader capable of leading and liberating black people as a collective in defeating segregation, a figure we have seen emblematized in African American history in men such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights era. Indeed, Oprah's allusions to this text linked Obama to civil rights discourses as decidedly as later moments, such as the staging of his acceptance speech for the Democratic Party's nomination at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008 on the forty-fifth anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963, have linked Obama to civil rights legacies.
Notably, Oprah had featured Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying as an OBC selection in September 1997. While OBC may be fascinating to consider in fields such as Southern literature and Southern studies in light of Oprah's Southern birth and background in Mississippi, it is all the more important to ponder her sustained engagement with Southern authors like Faulkner and allusions to texts in Southern and African American literary history when reflecting on her endorsement of Obama as a presidential candidate before her international audience. This is a move that tacitly but inevitably promoted him under the auspices of her distinct brand, as "Oprah's Obama." It no doubt contributed to a degree to his successful election as the nation's president in 2008.
Oprah's Harpo Productions produced the film Beloved in 1998, which was directed by Jonathan Demme, stars Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, and is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison that addresses the trauma of slavery. The film curiously failed to generate the box office success anticipated from Oprah's television viewing audience. Oprah shared her response to the disappointment at the box office in a 2011 interview on CNN with Piers Morgan: "It was the only time in my life that I was ever depressed, and I recognized that I was depressed because I've done enough shows on the topic." (4) Furthermore, she confesses in this interview that she binged on thirty pounds of macaroni and cheese. At the time, the lukewarm response to the film, which failed to recoup its $80 million budget given that it made a mere $22 million, seemed symptomatic of the persistent reluctance in the U$ to reflect on topics related to slavery and race. The reluctance had been apparent around that time, even, in the lack of widespread public enthusiasm regarding President Bill Clinton's One America in the 21st Century: The President's Initiative on Race, which was announced on June 14, 1997, and was advised by a group that included the eminent Duke University African American historian, John Hope Franklin. (5)
Of the three novels discussed during the Summer of Faulkner, Light in August offers the most sustained meditation on questions related to race and made this topic more central in Faulkner's literary repertoire when the novel was originally published in 1932, expanding the terrain for his continuing meditation on race. The disappointing and, for Oprah, even depressing public response to the film Beloved makes it all the more significant that a novel such as Faulkner's Light in August, which focuses in part on anxieties related to mixed-race identity in the U3 South through the character Joe Christmas, a man who is ultimately lynched, was spotlighted in OBC's sustained engagement of Faulkner during the summer of 2005. In this essay, I aim to revisit Light in August eighty years after its original publication date to reflect on how it, along with Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (it is notable that Gaines also turned eighty on January 15, 2013), registers Southern literature in the realm of popular culture within the global Oprah enterprise. It seems timely to ponder the profound implications of Light in August, and its character Joe Christmas in particular, for raced, classed, sexed, and gendered ideological constructions of President Barack Obama in the US public sphere of politics.
"The One" for Everybody
The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which opened in January 2007 near Johannesburg, South Africa, is one of the most elaborate philanthropic projects related to education and institution-building that Oprah Winfrey has ever carried out. Given its location in South Africa, the school provides the most compelling and salient example of how her ongoing project of educational outreach has unfolded in transnational contexts within the global South in a most material sense. The school's mission statement, posted on the website, indicates that "We equip students with the intellectual and social skills necessary to assume positions of leadership in South Africa and Abroad." Similarly, of the school's vision, its website states, "We support the development of a new generation of dynamic women leaders. By virtue of their unique education, this generation will lead the enduring transformation of their community and country" ("Mission and Vision"). It is noteworthy that both of these statements align the school's educational goals with cultivating leadership in the girls and frame their potential impact as both national and global.
It is telling that Oprah primarily links her rationales for establishing the school for girls in South Africa to the impoverished conditions that she endured herself during her early years as a child in Mississippi. At the school's gala inauguration on January 2, 2007, Oprah commented, "I know what it feels like to grow up poor, to grow up feeling you are not loved. I want to be able to give back to people who were like I was when I was growing up." She goes on to say,
The reason I wanted to build a school for girls is because I know that when you educate a girl you begin to change the face of a nation. Girls become women and they educate their girls and their boys. Girls who are educated are less likely to get diseases like HIV and AIDS--a pandemic in South Africa. (Kelley 371)
This phrasing is revealing and provocative to the extent that it draws on Oprah's history of living in the segregated South as it demonstrates comparative thinking about the material conditions of children in the region and of youth in a nation such as contemporary, post-apartheid South Africa to reflect on the continuities in their experiences. The logic related to this educational project is particularly intriguing in light of the comparative methodologies that have emerged within critical and theoretical discourses on the global South within the "new Southern studies." (6) That is to say, if Oprah's citations of literature by Southern authors from Faulkner to Gaines register a profound cultural fascination with the US South as a landscape, the project of this school demonstrates her increasing relevance to discourses on the global South in light of how her philanthropic projects such as this school draw on her consciousness of poverty in the Jim Crow South, address the economic despair in post-apartheid South Africa, and reflect a commitment to bettering the material conditions for girls in the nation who are able to enroll.
To the students, she is known affectionately as "Mom Oprah." Similarly, when Oprah's production team took a three-week trip to South Africa to raise awareness about poverty and diseases such as AIDS in the nation, and to film a show entitled "Oprah's Christmas Kindness" in 2002, where they distributed dolls to girls, soccer balls to boys, and school supplies to everybody, the 50,000 children symbolically embraced her as a "mother." This is the moment when Oprah first began to emerge as a maternal figure within the national imaginary in South Africa among children, a scripting of her that students at her school have reinforced. Because of her outreach in South Africa, inasmuch as her project fashions female leaders who have the potential to make an impact on the world, Oprah has emerged as a symbolic mother figure for all of the nation's dispossessed children. Just as gifts on her show have been distributed within her assertively democratizing impulse that mandates that "everybody gets one," Oprah's strategies of outreach within her philanthropic projects have been intensely democratic, as has been evident generally in her symbolic adoption of South Africa's children, and more specifically at the school, where she is invoked among the students as a "mother" for all of them. (7)
Certainly, Oprah has also been coded as a consummate nurturer in light of the empathy and understanding that she shares with members of her predominately white and female audience. Indeed, the most pejorative and critical invocations of the maternal motif in relation to Oprah link her to the "mammy" stereotype, whose mythology emerged during antebellum slavery and idealizes the asexual, corpulent black woman servant who selflessly serves as a surrogate mother, nurturer, and wet nurse for her white master and mistress's babies and children while neglecting her own family. (8) Oprah's affectionate title among children in South Africa provides yet another poignant illustration of how she has been regarded as a cultural force and has been universalized through her iconicity in national and global contexts.
Such a stature, indeed, made it all the more significant and visible when she framed Obama as "the One" in assessing the worthiness of his leadership and potential for success as a presidential candidate. Oprah initially publicly endorsed Obama by invoking this phrasing of Miss Jane Pittman rhetorically when she introduced him at a campaign rally that drew a predominately African American crowd of almost 30,000 people at Williams-Brice stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, on December 9, 2007. As Oprah commented:
Everybody knows I love books. And 1 do. I didn't come here to tell you about no books, though. Just one book. There was a book, they made a movie out of it it was such a good book. Do you all remember The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman? Oh I love that movie. I saw that movie many, many, many many many many years ago. But it made such a profound impression on me. I remember Miss Pittman, her body all worn and withered, bent over, as she would approach the children, she would say to each one, are you the One? Are you the One? Remember how she stood in that doorway and she held that baby in her arms and she said, are you the One, Jimmy? Are you the One? Well I watched that movie many years ago but I do believe today I have the answer to Miss Pittman's question. It's a question that the entire nation is asking. Is he the One? Is he the One? South Carolina, I do believe he's the One, to bring us the audacity of hope--Barack Obama! (9)
Through Oprah's appearances with Obama as a fledgling presidential candidate at campaign events in the fall of 2007 in states such as South Carolina and Iowa, the "Oprah effect" was in full view and was crucial in helping him to gain more widespread support in the national mainstream. It is most significant that Oprah's endorsement and salient citation of Gaines's novel occurred in a Southern state such as South Carolina. Oprah primarily relies on the television movie in citing Miss Jane Pittman's notion of "the One." The specific scene that she references highlights the birth of the character Jimmy and the question that Miss Jane Pittman raises to him about whether he is the One. It is important to note, however, that the film substantially revises this scene, which the novel presents in more detail, by making Miss Jane's recognition of Jimmy's specialness immediate, whereas it comes a few years later in the novel. Before I continue to unpack the implications of Oprah's rhetoric, I want to review some of the passages that describe "the One" invoked in Gaines's novel.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, narrated in a first-person voice, is set in Louisiana and tells the story of a 110-year-old black woman from her childhood as a slave named "Ticey" to the civil rights era during the 1960s. Gaines bases the title character on his maternal aunt, Augusteen Jefferson (see Alim L7). Just as Faulkner focused on Jefferson and the fictive Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi as a setting for his fiction, Gaines, who studied Faulkner when he was growing up, has recurrently highlighted his home in the Pointe Coupee Parish area of Louisiana, more specifically the area around River Lake Plantation, as a setting for his fiction.
In describing her confidence in Obama's leadership abilities and suitability as a presidential candidate, Oprah draws on the film screenplay's version of the language that begins section four of Gaines's novel, "The Quarters." The passage unfolds in the voice of the character Miss Jane Pittman and merits quoting at length:
People's always looking for somebody to come lead them. Go to the Old Testament; go to the New. They did it in slavery; after the war they did it; they did it in the hard times that people want call Reconstruction; they did it in the Depression--another hard times; and they doing it now. They have always done it--and the Lord has always obliged in some way or another. Anytime a child is born, the old people look in his face and ask him if he's the One. No, they don't say it out loud like I'm saying it to you now. Maybe they don't say it at all; maybe they just feel it--but feel it they do. "You the One?" I'm sure Lena asked Jimmy that when she first held him in her arms. "You the One, Jimmy? You the One?" (199)
Miss Jane Pittman had served as one of the midwives during this baby's birth. When she hands the baby to his aunt Lena, who is crying, she senses that Lena has asked him if he is indeed "the One" and is the first person to sense his special mission and destiny "long before he had any idea what we wanted out of him" (200). Elders who witness the birth of a child and raise the question of whether he is "the One" recall the Biblical Simeon mentioned in Luke 2:21-41, who had been promised that he would not see death until he had laid eyes upon the messiah for his people, and who holds the baby Jesus in the days after His birth when He is taken to the temple to be circumcised. Such questions about Jimmy as "the One" evoke this scripture, aligning him with notions of the messianic.
The novel portrays Lena and Miss Jane Pittman as the elder witnesses of Jimmy's special birth and as his primary advocates. Yet Miss Jane Pittman indicates that her personal awareness of Jimmy's specialness came a few years later:
Because, you see, we started wondering about him when he was five or six. I ought to say everybody except Lena. Lena started wondering about him soon as she saw him that first morning. I probably would 'a' done so myself, but I didn't have time then, I was too busy looking after his mom on that bed. But I did later. We all did later. When he was five or six we all did. Why did we pick him? Well, why do you pick anybody? We picked him because we needed somebody. We could 'a' picked one of Strut Hawkins's boys or one of Joe Simon's boys....--but we picked him. It was back there in the thirties. Joe had just tanned S'mellin'. We all knowed Joe was from Alabama, and we said if Alabama could give One that good, Samson, Luzana could do the same.... We felt it more. In here, in there. People never say things like that. They feel it in the heart. (200-01)
During the era of the Great Depression, Miss Jane Pittman frames the birth of Jimmy as an event that renewed the hopes of the Samson, Louisiana, sharecropping community as a collective. (The name "Samson," of course, is also associated with notions of leadership and prophetic traditions given the story of the Biblical Samson). Her reflections here refer to the African American heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. Louis, who was nicknamed "the Brown Bomber," was originally from Alabama but spent much of his youth in Detroit. He first fought the German-born heavyweight world champion Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in New York on June 19, 1936, and lost the fight through a knockout in the twelfth round of a match that had originally been scheduled for fifteen. Schmeling's triumph in the match disappointed many African Americans and was celebrated as evidence of his racial superiority by the Nazi Party, notwithstanding his resistance to being appropriated for their propaganda. Joe Louis had been the first major heavyweight black boxing champion to emerge since Jack Johnson. On June 22, 1938, in a rematch, Louis defeated Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. Against the backdrop of a growing fascist movement in Germany, Louis's historic win made him a national hero and celebrity in the US as it inspired many African Americans in the struggle against racism. His face-off with a white man and victory over him in the boxing ring had profound implications within a racially polarized nation and empowered many blacks as much as it infuriated many whites, especially in the segregated South (see Roberts 113-20, 144-45, and 156-72).
Miss Jane Pittman underscores Joe Louis's significance as the dialogue continues, framing his emergence as a boxer as a gift from God to provide hope for African Americans during the difficult Depression era:
When times get really hard, really tough, He always send you somebody. In the Depression it was tough on everybody, but twice as hard on the colored, and He sent us Joe. Joe was to lift the colored people's heart. Of course S'mellin' beat him the first time. But that was just to teach us a lesson. To show us Joe was just a man, not a superman. And to show us we could take just a little bit more hardship than we thought we could take at first. Now the second fight was different. We prayed and prayed, and He heard our prayers, and at the same time He wanted to punish them for thinking they was something super. I heard every lick of that fight on the radio, and what Joe didn't put on S'mellin' that night just couldn't go on a man. You could look a week and you could still see the niggers grinning about that fight. (203-04)
As Miss Jane Pittman describes the identification of Jimmy as "the One," the boxer Joe Louis and the baseball player Jackie Robinson are the primary examples that she offers of men who inspire hope and pride in black communities and embody leadership in keeping with this masculine ideal. In her community, "the One" is raced and gendered to the extent that people anticipate that he will be both black and male, linked to a range of heroic qualities, and imagined as an ideal leader.
The character Jimmy is raised primarily by his aunt in the community of the "quarters," as his mother serves as a migrant worker in New Orleans. Pittman and others in the quarters provide him with nurturance and support as he grows up in their community, where he is urged to defend other children and assigned tasks such as reading for the group, including the newspaper and the Bible, and writing their letters. By the time that he is twelve, Pittman underscores that they knew that he was "definitely the One" (208), and that it became a priority within the group to urge him to "get religion" (211). Just as she midwifes at his birth, she plays a primary role in supporting him through his various stages of development into adulthood. Jimmy becomes a civil rights activist and is tragically shot as he attempts to catalyze a march on the courthouse in the wake of organized resistance against the "whites only" injunction at its water fountain in Bayonne, an incident in which a mixed-race girl, imagined as "their Miss Rosa Parks" (232), drinks from the fountain.
In Gaines's novel, Ned, the small son of the revolutionary and insurgent slave woman "Big Laura," is the primary prior figure framed as a heroic leader in the novel. Ned accompanies Pittman on her journey to Ohio after Big Laura is killed, along with her baby girl and others, in a raid while courageously fighting her attackers. After being away for twenty years, a more mature Ned returns to the region from Kansas with his family around the turn of the century with the goal of teaching children on the river. He buys a home in which he holds lessons and begins to build a school adjacent to it. Nicknamed "Professor Douglass" after the great black abolitionist orator and leader of the nineteenth century, he discusses black history with them and underscores their equality with whites by teaching them that "all of America is for all of us." Ned's view of the nation is fundamentally democratic and the "us" represents its racially diverse populace, which he describes as "red, white, and black men" (109). In spite of the heavy scrutiny that he faces and awareness that his life is in danger, Ned is fearless in continuing his mission, and is ultimately assassinated by the Cajun Albert Cluveau. The novel links Ned to the messianic through Jane's description of his death, which invokes images associated with the Crucifixion: "He shed his precious blood for them" (113). The view of the figure of "the One" is ultimately optimistic, notwithstanding its fatalistic and tragic dimensions.
Like Jimmy, Ned is murdered in the novel before he can fully actualize his vision and complete his mission. The film version of the novel is poignant for its penultimate scene, which highlights Miss Jane Pittman, in the aftermath of the tragic loss of Jimmy and years after the death of Ned, making the courageous walk at age 110 to drink out of the public "whites only" fountain. That she engages in this bold act of civil disobedience as a senior black woman suggests that agency and the potential for change rest among the people in segregated black communities. It thereby suggests that charismatic masculine leaders, even if they function as catalysts for community mobilization, cannot be envisioned as the exclusive agents in the struggle for black liberation. (10)
Oprah's invocation of "the One" accords with this conventional masculinist ideal of charismatic leadership, which has often been romanticized in the African American context. Her rhetoric must be understood in the context of what Wilson Jeremiah Moses, for example, has theorized as the black "Jeremiad" (see Moses 29-32). It is noteworthy and provocative that Oprah appropriates and revises the ideal of "the One" in describing the promise and potential success of Obama's presidential candidacy. It is a concept that complements primary slogans of the Obama presidential campaign such as "Hope," "Change," and "Yes We Can." In invoking this scene from the film, it is significant that Oprah aligns her own point of view about Obama with the voice and persona of a black octogenarian and later centenarian such as Miss Jane Pittman, given this character's association with profound wisdom and with a panoramic perspective on the African American experience that extends back to slavery. The rhetorical move recalls the discourses of performativity whereby Oprah anoints Obama as "the One" and authorizes him to take center stage and speak to a vast audience in South Carolina, at the biggest gathering on the Obama campaign trail up to that point.
"The One," of course, is also a familiar expression evoking the idea of deep commitment when used to describe the "right" marriage companion or--for some--even the right debutante gown or wedding dress. A closer review of Oprah's source for the metaphor that juxtaposes a reading of the novel with her references to the film clarifies the extent to which, in invoking the concept of "the One," Oprah in effect coded Obama as an ideal leader not only for all black Americans but for all Americans. The strategy is subversive and provocative to the extent that it abstracts and centralizes the metaphor of "the One" in relation to the national body in scripting Obama as an ideal leader, making the metaphor all-inclusive. At the same time, by positing Obama as "the One" for "the nation," Oprah alludes to Ned's reading of the national body in his assertion that "all of America is for all of us." Obama's landmark trip to Kenya to meet his extended family in August of 2006 included a large public reception and led both to his lionization as a national hero and to the naming of a school in his honor, paralleling and mirroring aspects of Oprah's prior Christmas journey to Africa and in some ways setting the stage for her educational institution-building on the continent.
On one of the most memorable episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show, aired at the premier of the nineteenth season, Oprah's audience included teachers who were all given brand-new Pontiac G6 cars, as Oprah pointed to various members of the audience in a groundbreaking and unprecedented television moment and repeatedly exclaimed, "You get a car!" before finally saying, "Everybody gets a car!" Oprah and her team had placed keys in small white gift-wrapped boxes that were distributed to all members of the audience. Prior to the big and historic giveaway on the show, Oprah had asked, "Does everybody have a box?" The sound bite "everybody" was established and then taken to the extreme once the audience members began to open their boxes and Oprah began to point to the shocked and excited audience members to drive home to them that they were each receiving a new car. Indeed, prior to that moment, receiving the prize of a "new car," in the world of daytime television, had primarily been associated with winning the showcase or an individual game on the long-running game show The Price Is Right. Moreover, Oprah's diverse verbal and vocal strategies, such as distinct verbal inflections and cadences that she uses to engage and titillate her audience--often highlighted in previews for her shows--seemed to peak on this episode. During the audience's euphoria, performative effects such as Oprah leaning her head back with her arms stretched forward and screaming out invoked the thrill and joy of an amusement park roller-coaster ride and added to the atmosphere of excitement and euphoria in the studio. If we draw on the commercial logic of Oprah's show in reading her 2007 speech, then at a symbolic level, Barack Obama emerges as the ultimate Oprah prize for the American public, in which everybody literally gets the opportunity to share along with her in endorsing him, voting for him, and, ideally, ultimately electing him as the nation's leader. The logical extension of "the One" as a concept espoused in both the film and novel, and modeled textually in characters such as Ned and Jimmy, is indeed the black presidential candidate that Obama embodied at the time, though to a character such as Miss Jane Pittman, whose primary temporal points of reference were the slavery and Jim Crow eras, the presidency itself would have been unthinkable for "the One."
In reflecting on the South Carolina rally, a December 10,2007, article in the New York Times acknowledges Oprah's powerful public influence and describes the event as a "gigantic political spectacle" (Seelye). The article goes on to say that
Ms. Winfrey's show and persona generally transcend race (the vast majority of her 8.6 million daytime viewers are white). Mr. Obama has tried to do the same with his campaign. But Sunday, Ms. Winfrey referred both directly and indirectly to what she called a "seminal moment" in the nation's history. It was clear she was talking about the chance to elect the first black president.
I want to underscore that the discourses related to Oprah, including OBC, are important interpretive contexts for thinking about the 2008 presidential election when considering the role that her talk show played in promoting The Audacity of Hope before a national audience in 2006 and her high-profile public endorsement of Obama as a presidential candidate in 2007.
Yet I am equally intrigued by the role that Oprah's Summer of Faulkner played in highlighting a novel such as Light in Augustin 2005. If The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is indispensable for thinking about Oprah's endorsement of Obama, then Faulkner's Light in August is useful for interpreting some of Obama's constructions in the contemporary political climate. I will be arguing that the specter of Faulkner's Joe Christmas holds equally important implications for the reactionary scripts directed against Obama in the US public sphere of politics. OBC's salient spotlighting of Light in August in the national arena and within the production enterprises of Oprah Winfrey was significant in part, I suggest, because of the novel's heavy emphasis on race, including anxieties related to mixed-race identity in the characterization of Joe Christmas. For me, given Oprah's prominent use of narratives in literature and film in introducing Obama in South Carolina, the status of Light in August within the OBC archives and the foregrounding of thematics related to mixed-race subjectivity make it all the more inviting to probe as a work of literature with profound implications for understanding the political discourses on Obama.
From Joe the Plumber to Joe Christmas
It should truly be a taboo nowadays in the popular media or political arena even to utter a phrase as mystifying as "playing the race card," yet this curious phrase is used often with both ease and immunity in these very contexts to describe the efforts of blacks or other minorities who are engaging or simply acknowledging the politics of race and racism. Despite its outrageousness, "playing the race card" seems nevertheless to have entered the national lexicon as a catch phrase, and indeed as a preferred sound bite, in contexts such as the media to dismiss attempts to discuss or even simply to acknowledge forms of black suffering, abuse, or victimization. The very phrase evokes the act of doing something unsavory, underhanded, unfair, or even unconscionable by using some kind of "dirty" card stowed away up one's sleeve that one can handily pull out like a magician's rabbit out of a hat when one is desperate and all other avenues of recourse have been exhausted. It can be laid down as the piece de resistance whenever it is needed to assail the well-meaning, and typically white, targets at its mercy, in a fashion akin to striking a blow below the belt in a boxing match, or kicking someone already down in a fight.
The singularity resonant in the "the" of the phrase gives it ubiquity, suggesting this mighty card to be something that everyone knows about and understands the meaning of offhandedly precisely because it functions as a kind of ruse used by blacks so much that it has become all too familiar, predictable, and tiring, to the point of making one say, and with a deep sigh, "here we go again." Its use functions as theater, as performance, and is suggested, really, in order to be performative. In racial debates, in the best scenarios, the so-called "race card" seems to be imagined as an ace of sorts, or even as a trump card with the character of the joker--or in the worst, most racist imaginaries, as the exclusive weapon of the "spades." It is a card as manipulative and deceitful as loaded dice. The connotation of the phrase suggests that one plays this eponymous card as a con artist might run a game or hustle, like picking a pocket. It is a game that any and all blacks might be expected to try to run sometime or other as a last-ditch effort to win or outwit their less well-equipped or -positioned opponents in dialogues on race, which is all the more reason for the opponents to hastily recognize and take the higher road by condemning the dirty deed and maintaining a sense of fair play.
In July 2008, for instance, the phrase was invoked saliently by Senator John McCain's campaign representatives. McCain upbraided Obama for arguing that a McCain television ad was attempting to scare voters by emphasizing Obama's "funny name" and lack of resemblance to the presidents (all white men) whose images have been featured on US currency. (The same ad also cast Obama as a "celebrity" in a continuum with singers such as Britney Spears and the reality television star Paris Hilton.) The accusation that Obama was trying to play the notorious "race card" was all the more unsettling because the wording of McCain's team, in castigating him, repeated verbatim the sentences of defense attorney Robert Shapiro, who helped to give the phrase such resonance and currency in the national arena in the first place in the aftermath of O. J. Simpson's acquittal for the 1994 murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. Shapiro bitterly and famously enshrined this vocabulary by suggesting that other Simpson attorneys such as F. Lee Bailey and Johnny Cochran (but presumably not himself) had "played the race card from the bottom of the deck" in suggesting that their defendant was the victim of framing by the Los Angeles Police Department (Shoales 2). (11) McCain's accusation that Obama played the race card also seems ironic when considering not only the television ad in question but also some of McCain's other notorious and highly racialized campaign gimmicks. For example, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, also known by the name "Joe the Plumber," was invoked by McCain as a metaphor for the middle class and to link Obama to socialism for commenting, when asked at an Ohio campaign gathering about his view of small businesses, on the need to "spread the wealth around." Joe the Plumber's whiteness and masculinity pandered to the populist conservatives at the Republican base at the same time that it reinforced a racially exclusive view of American subjectivity and reinscribed the emerging ideological scripts of Obama in the nation's media, which only escalated and intensified in the wake of his election as president.
While the phenomenon of "playing the race card" is typically associated with blacks who bring race into a conversation from which it has been absent as a topic, I find it intriguing that Faulkner's novel Light in August stages moments when white characters "out" Joe Christmas by revealing his black ancestry and might therefore be thought of as playing the fabled "race card" in reverse. These moments occur most dramatically in the novel when the dietitian at the orphanage reveals Joe's blackness to the matron (132-33), when the white waitress and prostitute named Bobbie with whom he has his first love affair screams out his racial background that he had confided in her (217-18), and when Brown exposes Christmas's identity to the sheriff (97). The irony, here, of course, is that if Christmas has been engaged in de facto racial "passing" because the details of his racial background as an orphan are unclear to him, Brown, whose name is Lucas Burch, has also assumed a false identity in attempting to evade Lena Grove, the young woman he has impregnated and abandoned. Significantly, once he leaves his adopted parents and migrates to a range of cities, Christmas uses the revelation of black racial ancestry as a ruse to avoid paying white prostitutes after sexual encounters with them (224-25). The novel's narrative economy reveals that Christmas himself is obsessed with the "nigger blood in me" (196).
While Light in August includes the three primary characters Lena Grove, Reverend Gail Hightower, and Joe Christmas, the narratives related to Christmas reside at its core and energize and ground its other sections. The multiple stories and narrative perspectives that Faulkner's novels typically overlay are mirrored in OBC's logic of highlighting three novels that are nevertheless bound together through a primary setting in Mississippi. In Light in August, Joe Christmas emerges as a lens for thinking about the intense anxieties that have surrounded blackness in general and mixed-race subjects with black ancestry in particular from the antebellum era of slavery into the twentieth century, especially in the US South. That the Joe Christmas story has profound implications for the discourses on race in the US in the contemporary era makes it particularly significant that the novel was highlighted in 2005 as the final selection during the Summer of Faulkner, appropriately scheduled for reading and discussion by a national and global audience (whose interplay was facilitated by the use of the internet as the primary medium for interlocution) during the month of August.
I want to suggest that the novel's epistemology about race has profound implications for thinking about the profusion of racialist scripts that have proliferated about the Obama presidency in the US public sphere. The nation's election of Barack Obama as its first black president has fed new national narratives and fantasies of the US as a "post-racial" society. On the other hand, President Obama has since his election been the target of a barrage of ideological racial scripts that have circulated verbally and visually from contexts such as the public sphere and the national media and that are grounded in xenophobia and racism. The energies with which Faulkner's character Joe Christmas is scripted across the Southern contexts that he encounters, including Jefferson, through racial stereotypes and epithets in light of his rumored mixed-race ancestry are a valuable interpretive lens for thinking about the construction of this racialist discourse about the president at the national level. To be sure, this hostile reaction and backlash in the public sphere seems tied in no small measure to reactionary disquietude and indignation over Obama's election to an office that has conventionally been the exclusive preserve of white masculine subjects who have primarily defined presidentialism in the nation's historical imaginary, a concept also linked to purist notions of national identity that are perceived as being incongruent with the president's mixed-race racial background. (12) His birth and upbringing in Hawaii, childhood in Indonesia, and father's African identity have also been the basis for many of the questions about the president's American citizenship. The character Joe Christmas and President Obama certainly have nothing in common in the sense that Faulkner scripts the former's flawed persona. Yet Christmas's background, which includes an unknown black father (first rumored to be Mexican), a young, unwed white mother, and white grandparents (the Hineses), makes him a compelling figure to think about in relation to President Obama in light both of the latter's mixed-race parentage, which includes an African father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, and of his upbringing in Hawaii in an extended family that included his white grandparents. However, more to the point, I contend that the levels on which Christmas is weighted with the descriptor "foreign" and repeatedly referred to with racial epithets because of his mixed-race ancestry make him a provocative figure to think about in relation to the president--as an interracial man who identifies as black--in light of the ideological scripts about the latter, including ostensibly racist ones, that have repeatedly unfolded in the US public sphere of politics.
Such charged public reactions to the president on the basis of race, I want to suggest, shockingly mirror some of the most prominent narrative threads of Light in August, which focus on Joe Christmas. In the novel, Christmas is the object of intense scrutiny in private, clandestine, and secret social contexts as a racial subject before his race becomes a public obsession and spectacle. As a child who was abandoned and grew up in an orphanage on the one hand, and as a young man who became a drifter and bootlegging outlaw rumored to have murdered his older white female lover, Miss Burden, on the other, Christmas is a complicated and mysterious character within the novel's detailed and multilayered strategies of characterization. As a character, Christmas is coded as a "foreigner" (33) from the time that he arrives in Jefferson and is continually subjected to racial epithets, the most ubiquitous of which is "nigger." Through his rumored mixed-race ancestry and through his interracial sexual relationship with Miss Burden, he is a character who throws into relief conventional Southern anxieties about miscegenation and interracial sex that were established within the context of antebellum slavery, notwithstanding the sexual accessibility of black women's bodies to their white masters and the routine use of forced breeding to reproduce offspring (including mixed-race babies sired by slaveholders) for sale and profit within the slave system.
On the surface, Christmas looks like and is read as a white man. The anxieties about his character that emerge in instances when he is outed rehearse the conventional logic about hypo-descent, including the notorious "one-drop" rule in the US that legally classifies anyone with any measurable degree of black ancestry higher than 1/32 as being wholly black. (13) His personal anxieties about his racial identity not only lead him to pass as white in keeping with the identification established during his childhood, but also catalyze his forays into black contexts, including his common-law marriage with a black woman. In having suspicions about his black ancestry yet passing for white and engaging in the clandestine affair in Jefferson with Miss Burden, and in the earlier relationship with Bobbie, Christmas engages in the ultimate and most extreme forms of racial subversion by both crossing the color line and transgressing against taboos regarding interracial sex, acts which are all the more incendiary in the US South.
Ultimately, such choices shape his image as an "outlaw" figure in Jefferson as much as engaging in illegal activities and being an accused murderer do. His status as a passing subject with ostensibly white skin unsettles purist notions of whiteness and makes him all the more threatening once his racial identity is revealed. The public revelation of his racial background leads to association with the myth of the black rapist and socially sanctions his lynching. (14) Living in the space of the black cabin and performing mill duties that Brown likens to "the work of a nigger slave" (96) further position Christmas in relation to blackness and otherness in the novel's narrative economy, even when he is presumed "white." Miss Burden's connections with black educational institutions through philanthropic work and the supervision of her estate by a black lawyer in Memphis, coupled with Hightower's connection with his black servants and delivery of a black baby, reinforce Christmas's racial significations as "black" as his identity unfolds at the end of the novel through his connections to them.
Gavin Stevens's language that evokes bloodlines associates the violent tendencies in Christmas with blackness and frames Christmas's consciousness as the site of a metaphysical struggle between his "black" and "white" blood: "Because the black blood drove him first to the negro cabin. And then the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it" (449). Similarly, Stevens muses that "the black blood failed [Christmas] again, as it must have in crises all his life. He did not kill the minister. He merely struck him with the pistol and ran on and crouched behind that table and defied the black blood for the last time, as he had been defying it for thirty years" (449). At this level, the novel scripts Christmas in keeping with the "tragic mulatto" as a classic racial type. Furthermore, his characterization evokes conventional assessments of blackness within discourses of heredity and eugenics by associating him, even as a passing subject with white skin, with all of the baser human elements ascribed to a black lineage. (15)
Yet at the same time the novel lends irony to such passages by linking Christmas temperamentally to his white grandfather, Eupheus Hines, through eerily parallel scenes in which they wield chairs in fights in public contexts. Furthermore, Christmas emerges as a scapegoat to cloak the sexual indiscretions and abuses of characters such as Brown. As a character, Joe Christmas is a site on which Southern social anxieties about race are repeatedly dramatized. His subjection to racial taunting at the orphanage because of suspicions that he has black ancestry begins a pattern of othering that culminates in his gruesome and violent death, which registers as a lynching through his mob pursuit and castration. Notably, Philip Weinstein continued the conversation about Light in August months after the Summer of Faulkner in a piece posted on the OBC website entitled "Faulkner 101: Toni Morrison and William Faulkner: Meditating on Race in America." Weinstein explains Faulkner's profuse uses of "racist language" in the novel by observing that Faulkner "is quoting, accurately, his white culture's most vicious terms for thinking and talking about (and to) blacks.... Light in August is not racist, but rather focuses on a murderously racist social dynamic that no one in that culture is prepared to understand, let alone prevent." He goes on to observe that the novel engages race in spite of the absence of major black characters by emphasizing how "white racism operates essentially among whites, as white pathology." Faulkner also provocatively links the nation's futurity to black subjectivity through the mixed-race character Jim Bond in Absalom, Absalom!(1936), where the character Shreve muses "that in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere" and that "it will still be Jim Bond; and so in a few thousand years, I who regard you will also have sprung from the loins of African kings" (302). These lines seem to anticipate the rise of a black subject with more power and agency in the Western world without viewing the possibility apocalyptically. It is as if by taking a long imaginative view into the future, Faulkner was indeed capable of imagining the election of someone like Obama as president someday. (16)
In the late nineteenth century, the emergence of white supremacist ideologies resistant to Reconstruction policies actively undermined opportunities for black social inclusion or advancement, as illustrated, for instance, by the retrenchments that emerged among reactionary Southerners through rioting, lynching, the development of systems of convict leasing (which served as a key foundation for the development of the contemporary prison-industrial complex), and other efforts at black social control. These ideological attitudes shaped a range of literary works as well as D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. Faulkner mirrors and thematizes residual elements of this post-Civil War racial climate in the US South in the early twentieth century in Light in Augustin a voice that seems relatively uninflected by the propaganda of the cultural and literary texts that most typically addressed these Southern racial dynamics.
In the 2008 presidential election, Democratic electoral victories in such conventionally Republican states as North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida were said by some political scientists to have ruptured the historically conservative voting patterns in the "Solid South." This "Southern strategy" ideology, which has dominated the region's political culture for the past forty years, emerged in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, which heralded major economic and social transformations in a region that had long been invested in the ethos of Jim Crow. For some Southerners, this ideology reflected a longing for the way the South used to be before the civil rights era, perhaps as much as the resistance to Reconstruction in the years following the Civil War and Emancipation revealed nostalgia among some white Southerners for the way of life in the Old South.
In spite of the promise of the election moment in 2008 and the remarkable political breakthroughs in conventional "Solid South" strongholds, residual traces of more reactionary Southern ideologies seemed apparent in the political arena during the first one hundred days of the Obama presidency. Consider, for example, the concerted partisan opposition of governors in the US South to the stimulus plan and other policies that were vital to the resurgence of the suffering economy. The standoff pitting a set of mainly white and male Republican governors in the US South against the stimulus package designed by the Obama administration to revive the current economy and relieve unemployment was to some extent partisan and also reflected reservations about the resurgence of "big government." Since his election, some of the most intense resistance to President Obama has been linked to Southern politicians such as South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, who in September 2009 interrupted the president during an address about health-care reform and said, "You lie." Similarly, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell famously commented on making Obama a "one-term president" in October 2010. The vast economy of racialized propaganda that has unfolded in the nation's public sphere, including posters at Tea Party demonstrations portraying President Obama as Hitler and as a monkey, has been salient in scripting him as other, notwithstanding his status as the nation's commander in chief. Moreover, the persistent efforts of the Birther movement to cast Obama as "foreign," a non-citizen, and "un-American" have fed raced ideological scripts about the president. Similarly, the recurrent lynching effigies featuring President Obama that have circulated have shaped this racial climate. Some of these scripts about the president are traceable to the reactionary milieu in the US South and its broader historical discourses on race. That Barack Obama is the first African American to be elected president of the United States in a political arena historically dominated by white males has made the US South's reactions to the policies of his administration all the more complicated and promises as time goes on to help expand the understanding of the prominent role of region in shaping political dynamics at the national level.
While President Obama's administration has fallen short of the vision embodied in a figure such as "the One," the sound bite epitomizes the rhetorical ideals that surrounded his campaign and points to the profound if typically unacknowledged impact that Oprah Winfrey made on his campaign from her platform as a talk show host and as a woman journalist in the popular medium of talk television. The highly influential OBC provides one key illustration of how her groundbreaking work in the talk-show genre might be categorized as a form of vernacular intellectualism, in the sense that the scholar Grant Farred elaborates in his study, What's My Name: Black Vernacular Intellectuals. Indeed, I would say that the moment in which she cites her love of books, implying the book club as an enterprise, and goes on to reference the novel and film versions of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman before a predominantly black audience in South Carolina inscribes her solidly within the discourses of black vernacular intellectualism, which have historically been linked to male subjectivity, like the Gramscian concept of the organic intellectual. That Oprah invokes a novel and film whose language economies are literally saturated with black dialect forms, to which she alludes in her speech in South Carolina by invoking and attempting to embody the voice and persona of Miss Jane Pittman, underscores these linkages to black vernacular discourses all the more.
I had an extraordinary experience teaching a course that I developed entitled "The Oprah Book Club and African American Literature," which was designed to explore fictions in African, African American, and African diasporan literature that have been engaged within the context of OBC over the years. While we read Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying in this course based on its status as an OBC selection, I began to meditate on the profundity with which Oprah has engaged Gaines's fiction elsewhere in her discourse, most notably in endorsing the Obama campaign, a moment that beckoned me back to Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. At the same time, I have found it compelling to think about texts by Gaines and Faulkner in juxtaposition here in part because they both invested and do invest so heavily in the Southern region in their writing and yet, through different strategies and within very different time periods, have produced literature with profound and continuing implications for the nation's discourses on race. Just as OBC chose a comparative strategy for engaging Faulkner's three novels in 2005, I opted to make use of a comparative strategy in this essay by foregrounding both Gaines and Faulkner within discourses on Oprah, including those related to her book club. Moreover, the salient engagement of Light in August during the Summer of Faulkner was a watershed moment that also led me to take a closer look at Faulkner and the discourses on race. The moment served as the springboard for my development of a seminar on the topic, which will also draw on the discourses of OBC and the Summer of Faulkner, which I hope to offer within the next several years within my department's graduate curriculum in Cornell's Africana Studies and Research Center, and which will also be available for cross-listing in English.
In light of the "Oprah effect," the Summer of Faulkner provided an opportunity to expand the audience for Faulker's literature and to promote his popularity for new generations of readers. The remaining internet archives from the Summer are still available at this point to do that important work, and are also available for teaching purposes. While the link to OBC was formal for one figure and informal for the other, that both Faulkner and Obama were introduced to Oprah's audience within a relatively brief time period (in 2005 and 2006, respectively) is another reason that the former for me is a fecund interpretive lens for the latter. Put another way, I believe that Oprah's "turns South" (17) and engagements with race as a problematic through novels such as Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying in 1997 and Faulkner's Light in August in 2005 paved the way and served as a crucial portal for her later immersions in Southern literature in public contexts such as the Obama campaign gathering where she so powerfully invoked the concept of "the One" from Gaines's novel. Both of these writers, for different reasons, provide a wealth of indispensable interpretive contexts for thinking about the intersection of blackness and presidentialism in the US.
Alim, Fahizah. "Stories from Back Home." Sacramento Bee 8 Sept. 2002: L1, L7.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/ Re-Reading Booker T. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. New York: Continuum, 1990.
Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black A wakening of the 1960s. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race & Class. New York: Vintage, 1983.
Farr, Cecilia Konchar. Reading Oprah: How the Oprah Book Club Changed the Way America Reads. Albany: SUNY P, 2005.
Farred, Grant. What's My Name: Black Vernacular Intellectuals.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
--. Light in August. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.
Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.
"Keeping Hope Alive." Oprah.com. Harpo Productions, 18 Oct. 2006. Web. 19 Oct. 2012.
Kelley, Kitty. Oprah: A Biography. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.
Lee, Chana Kai. For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Urbana-Champaign: U of Illinois P, 2000.
Lee, Taeku. Mobilizing Public Opinion: Black Insurgency and Racial Attitudes in the Civil Rights Era. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002.
Manring, M. M. Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1998.
McKee, Kathryn, and Annette Trefzer, eds. "Global Contexts, Local Literatures: The New Southern Studies." American Literature 78.4 (2006): 677-90.
"Mission and Vision." Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. Oprah Winfrey Leadership Foundation, 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.
Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1982.
Nelson, Dana D. National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.
"Obama and Oprah in South Carolina and Iowa." BarackObamadotcom. YouTube.com, 10 Dec. 2007. Web. 19 Oct. 2012.
Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. New York: Three Rivers P, 2006.
Payne, Charles. I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2003.
Richardson, Riche. "Southern Turns." Mississippi Quarterly 56.4 (2003): 555-79.
Roberts, Randy. foe Louis: Hard Time Man. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012.
Seelye, Katharine Q. "Obama Pins Hopes on Oprah Factor in South Carolina." New York Times. New York Times, 10 Dec. 2007. Web. 14 Dec. 2012.
Shaw, Todd. Now Is the Time!: Detroit Black Politics and Grassroots Activism. Durham: Duke UP, 2009.
Shoales, Ian. "And the Message Is ..." McCook Daily Gazette [McCook, NE] 23 Oct. 1995: 2.
Trefzer, Annette, and Ann J. Abadie, eds. Global Faulkner: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 2006. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009.
Turner, Patricia A. Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Tyson, Timothy. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001.
Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly. Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008.
Weinstein, Philip. "Faulkner 101: Toni Morrison and William Faulkner: Meditating on Race in America." Oprah.com. Harpo Productions, 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.
(1) For more perspectives on "global Faulkner," see Trefzer and Abadie.
(2) See Farr 14 and 19 for a discussion of the "Oprah effect." Terms such as "Oprah phenomenon," "the Oprah affect," and "Oprahfication" have also been used to describe the distinct and transformative impact of Oprah's marketing enterprises.
(3) I delivered a keynote address entitled "Oprah's Faulkner," in which I discuss her impact on the author in more detail, at the 37th annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference in 2010 in Oxford, Mississippi, which focused on the theme "Faulkner and Film."
(4) Oprah made these comments as the first guest interviewed on the Piers Morgan show on CNN, which aired January 17, 2011.
(5) The monumental report can be downloaded from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service at the following URL: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/173431.pdf.
(6) For an overview of these perspectives, see, for example, McKee and Trefzer.
(7) It is notable that on her Christmas trip, Oprah literally adopted and has since provided for ten parentless children in South Africa because they had no other people available to care for them. See Kelley 361.
(8) For more on the mythology of mammy see Wallace-Sanders; Bogle 9-10; Harris; Manring; and Turner.
(9) For a video featuring Oprah's introduction of Obama and an excerpt from his speech, see "Obama and Oprah."
(10) Some selected sources on the black grassroots freedom struggle include Carson, C. Lee, T. Lee, Payne, Shaw, Ransby, and Tyson.
(11) If anything, if any such card exists, Shapiro himself was the main one playing it; his public statements, made the very night that the verdict was rendered, seemed like a quick, selfish, and calculated attempt to distance himself from the defense camp, to disavow his history as its first high-powered attorney, to preempt any attempts to mark him as a race traitor, to redeem himself in the eyes of white America for having served in Simpson's defense in the first place, and to save himself from its fury over a verdict that was disappointing for many whites in the nation. His "too little too late" pontificating along these lines, after months of supporting Simpson, elided the concern of those beyond the white racial category about Simpson's acquittal.
(12) For more discussion of the problematic of racializing the president as white, see Nelson 204-37.
(13) The anxieties about Christmas's white skin and alleged black ancestry are steeped in logic related to bloodlines, a topic that Ernest J. Gaines also engaged compellingly in his 1968 story collection, Bloodlines, just as he explored lynching in novels such as A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and A Lesson Before Dying (1993).
(14) Davis provides a groundbreaking theorization of the myth of the black rapist. See 173-201.
(15) Such logic is reminiscent, for example, of the delineation of the passing character Tom Driscoll in Mark Twain's 1894 novel, Pudd'nhead Wilson.
(16) I would even argue that Absalom's narrative dimensions have profound implications for the discourse of Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism was first introduced by Mark Dery in 1993 and has been developed critically by scholars such as Alondra Nelson, who founded the internet site "Afrofuturism" in 1998. Afrofuturism is a critical and cultural discourse in areas such as literature and art that draws on genres such as fantasy, magical realism, and science fiction to engage the past and present in relation to the lives of minorities, including people of African descent, while decentering Western-centered frames of reference.
(17) This term I borrow from Baker. I explore the concept myself in a section of my essay, "Southern Turns." See Richardson 557-58.
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|Title Annotation:||William Faulkner, Oprah Wnifrey and Barack Obama|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2013|
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