Post-racial America

On election eve, Nov. 4, 2008, as Barack Obama stood before an energized, cheering crowd in Chicago's Grant Park, there was a moment, however brief, when it was possible to believe that the unfulfilled promise of a post-racial America had arrived. America had elected its first black president. As a nation we had cast our lot with hope and change and the words "Yes we can" were those voiced by men and women across history, from the Suffragettes to the Abolitionists to the Civil Rights marchers who walked courageously into Selma, Ala.

So, beginning that night, that crisp early winter night in November, we, as Americans, would, in the words of Martin Luther King, judge men and women not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

But it didn't take long for such sentiment to be disabused. Soon there were the ubiquitous Tea Bag rallies and town hall meetings where citizens railed against Obama and healthcare, and angry protestors carried signs of Obama in white-face, his eyes and lips large and red. And there was that disturbing caricature of Obama in animal skins with a bone through his nose.

It was all but impossible not to see and hear if not overt racism, then a subtext that indicated that there were still countless Americas who resisted, some with a coded vituperation, the fact that a black man was the president of the United States.

And soon there was a soft, hold-your-breath buzz, a thought we dared not fully articulate, that harm might come to our new president. It's chilling, but we know that the crazies are ever with us, many blinded by a distorted and desiccated belief in white supremacy, their views fueled by an abiding hatred that can seem vague and disturbing.

Post-racial? Not likely. Post-Jim Crow, perhaps. But then race is such a profoundly complex issue, woven into the fabric of our nation, it can seem all but impenetrable.

Take, for example, the film "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," released last fall and nominated for six Oscars and praised by most critics. If film can be art, if it challenges our perspective, introduces us to a world that exceeds our assumptions and forces a shift in our judgment, then surely "Precious" is a work of art.

It is the grim and unsettling story of a 16-year-old black girl named Claireece Precious Jones, a name that carries all the irony it can bear. But it's also, essentially, the story of a girl who is extraordinarily resilient as she confronts a family and circumstances that define dysfunctional. That the abyss that she is forced to call home, with a mother that is verbally and physically abusive, is part of the human condition and not the black condition seems self-evident. And that the burdens she must carry — she's pregnant, already the mother of a Down syndrome child living with her grandmother, and has HIV — are the burdens of humanity and not a specific community also seems self-evident.

And yet the characters in "Precious" are black. The community is Harlem. And so the film walks a fine line, so fine that racial stereotypes are ever present.

The film does beg the question: Is the prism through which white people view "Precious" so distorted that we fail to fully grasp the implications of the narrative and its meaning or see the insidious stereotypes that are being perpetuated? Or can it be argued that art can transcend race and to reduce the film to stereotypes is to diminish it?

Ishmael Reed, the noted African-American author of "Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media," writes in the New York Times, "Among black men and women, there is widespread revulsion and anger over the Oscar-nominated film about an illiterate, obese black teenager who has two children by her father." Reed quotes Jill Nelson: "I don't eat at the table of self-hatred, inferiority or victimization. I haven't bought into the notions of rampant black pathology or embraced the over-wrought, dishonest and black-people-hating pseudo-analysis too often passing as post-racial cold hard truths."

Reed goes on to insist that the film wasn't meant for them, meaning blacks. It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that resulted in the nominations, handed up by the 43 governors of the Academy, who are all white. "This use of movies and books to cast collective shame upon an entire community doesn't happen with works about white dysfunctional families," he argues.

I'm not sure I agree. But then, when it comes to matters of race, I'm plagued by uncertainty and the abiding sense that we, meaning blacks and whites, simply can't quite get this right, no matter that we may want to arrive at that moment when we can say, truly, that America is post-racial.

Chris Honoré is a freelance writer who's lived in Ashland since 2003.

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