Saturday, October 11, 2008

New Book on Barack's Journey--and an addendum to my essay in it

The editors at LIFE Magazine have just published a beautiful new book of intimate photographs depicting Barack Obama's life story, LIFE: The American Journey of Barack Obama (Little, Brown). The book, officially released today, includes a foreword by Senator Edward Kennedy and original essays penned by Melissa Fay Greene, Gay Talese, Charles Johnson, and Brainstorm blogger Regina Barreca, among others.

I also have a piece in the volume, an essay that examines what I call Barack Obama's "racial optimism," and I just want to take a second to provide an alternative ending for it.

The LIFE editors did a great job with my piece (authors can be so sensitive about how they get edited, and that definitely includes me), but they reworked the ending in a way that recasts my final point in a way that changes its political valence a bit. To read the entire essay (and the others), you can pick up the book, but I just wanted to offer up (for what it's worth) the version of my final paragraph that they published in the volume along with the draft of the final paragraph that I submitted.

The published paragraph reads as follows:

"Obama may well believe all that he says, but to some black Americans it sounds as if, to satisfy a white audience, he is 'talking out of both sides of his neck,' as it is colloquially labeled. This skepticism makes honest racial dialogue impossible."

My submitted paragraph (some of which is in the penultimate paragraph of the published version) reads like this:

"There is something healthy and productive about Obama's recalcitrant racial optimism, about the utter audacity of his hope, but it might only make some blacks all the more skeptical about America's contradictory commitments to racial equality. Why else would we celebrate the first black presidential nominee from a major party but demand that he be post-racial? It is the same tension that has haunted race relations since the birth of our republic, and even before. It is colloquially called 'talking out of both sides of your neck,' and it makes honest racial dialogue impossible."

I don't really disagree with the published version, but I do think that it places the onus on black Americans to get over their racial skepticisms before honest racial conversations can begin. What I wanted to argue, however, was that America writ large (not Obama) sometimes engages in forms of double-speak when it comes to race -- and that such conflicted commitments to race fuel the fires of race-based skepticism in the African-American community. My point was that America needs to address its racial doublespeak/doublethink before honest racial conversations can take place, before blacks' racial skepticisms subside. The rewording replaces that emphasis with a critique of black American obstinancy. I might be splitting hairs a bit (and getting into an unproductive version of the chicken-or-egg debate), but I just thought I'd clarify.

I can also say that I have read the other essays in the stunning book, and I learned a great deal about Obama through the authors' provocative interpretations of his meteoric rise.


MsBlake said...

You are everywhere Dr. Jackson! I just saw your statement in the new issue of Essence Magazine.

Hope all is well. MsBlake

jamlin said...

Dear Anthroman,
Caught your blog through the Chronicle of H.Ed and enjoy it thoroughly, especially since I am also an "anthro" (Penn undergrad from the olden days-AFC Wallace & W.H. Goodenough plus Harvard doc). Have you noticed the number of serious articles analyzing the Prez-elect as having an anthropological take on life? Harpers, New Yorker--maternal influence, Dreams from his Mom? Maybe we will have to add Obamanthro to Irish O'Bama to understand his complex persona.

Jim Ito-Adler

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