Obama's (and our) Burden of Articulation
Despite or because of the fact that Joe Biden's recent remarks about Barack Obama represented a racist gaffe of the most embarrassing variety, such remarks nevertheless underscore the extent to which questions about "articulateness" are embedded in the national consciousness. Biden is but the unwitting mouthpiece of unconscious assumptions that have a history and a meaning. That much is obvious. But what I am arguing here is that the history and meaning of this preoccupation do not have their roots in 'race,' but rather in a more general, national fear about the unrepresented, unarticulated, inarticulate and unheard voices-inside and around us all. 'Race' is by no means the origin of this fear and doubt, but it is all too often the destination. This fear asks: Do we have a voice? Can we speak? Can we represent ourselves? And if so, can we articulate who we are, what makes us ourselves and what we want?
These questions are particularly haunting in an "age of terrorism," when we are worried about the barbarians at the gate and harbor grave and somewhat secret misgivings that the barbarians may after all be us.
In the US, the obsession of representation, of articulation, takes the particular form of displacement; feelings of insecurity, inferiority, fears about voicelessness and incompetence are displaced onto minority groups, especially onto African Americans, but also, more recently, onto Hispanics and Asians as well. This displacement plays itself out in debates about a national language. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the criticisms of such second-language movements as Ebonics and the more recent one for Spanish have often been voiced in the most inarticulate strains of provincialism, not to mention the kind of suspicious vehemence that usually accompanies retrograde movements. That is, those who are most apt to denounce the 'Other' as inarticulate and to rail against any attempts at redefining literacy in terms of lingual and vernacular varieties are often the very same ones who feel most insecure about being articulate and articulated themselves.
As Stanley Crouch remarked in The All American Skin Game, the US has always been involved a national struggle-"between high and low, refined and rough, industrious and lazy, articulate and ignorant, moral and criminal, sincere and hypocritical." To the extent that he seemed to suggest that African Americans are not doubly weighed down with a burden of proof, and not doubly conscious of this burden, Crouch was unfortunately wrong. For proof, consider the irony of recent history. Despite the fact that after this Bush 'presidency' no one can hold that "articulate" and "White rich guy" are necessarily linked, Obama is still the one with the burden to be "articulate." The difference is precisely the margin of racial prejudice. But whatever one may think of Crouch's racial politics, or rather his opposition to racial politics, he was right in squarely placing the "A" word in the center of an American identity crisis.
Obama's burden of articulation and representation is thus a displaced, double burden of a public fearful of its own inability to express itself, both in language and in politics, and the added 'burden of proof' levied on Black Americans. For a presidential candidate, being thus laden with overcharged symbolic significance is par for the course. But the Obama burden is not Obama's alone-it is ours; and it is the representation not primarily of 'racial' but rather of national identity. It is the burden of representing a (now alternative) democratic republic whose identity is not primarily one of barbarism, chaos, destruction, world-wide domination, and oppression. But no one can represent this for us if we do not, first and foremost, articulate it for ourselves.
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