THE BANALITY OF RACE
One should congratulate Michael Eric Dyson for exposing once again the banality of race in the recently published The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). In an election year, it is a useful nonfiction companion for Colson Whitehead's novel The Underground Railroad (New York: Doubleday, 2016). It is necessary to be reminded that much in our nation never changes. The 346 pages of Dyson's book can be casually read in one sitting, because his prose flows as smoothly as a duet by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. "Obama's presidency represents, " Dyson reminds his readers, "the paradox of American representation" (xi). His observation about representing representation gives one pause. It articulates at once the limits of human reason and the acute pathology of American political discourses before and after 2016. How tempting to entertain in a sunlit region of imagination a comparison of what the Statue of Liberty is supposed to represent with what the brief display of a nude statue of Donald Trump in New York's Union Square actually represented. Race in America is incapable of shame.
Some years from now, people who will write trenchant critiques of Obama's two-term presidency may thank Dyson for depicting the thin line between instant, emotional reactions to race (which occupy the territory of nonsense) and sustained critical race theory (which searches for the land of wisdom). They will perhaps thank Dyson for making the inspired mistake of urging readers to believe the American presidency is capable of having a complexion.
In the language of classical rhetoric, The Black Presidency is an example of deliberative oratory. It is a powerful magnet for 360 degrees of disagreement. Casual reading of the book does suggest that Dyson's uncovering the pathetic operations of "race" in American thought simultaneously pulls a veil over the need to have panoptical disclosures about American presidents and their presidencies. However desirable such disclosures might be, they are difficult to construct. They are predicated on some ability to account for the knotty, intertwined domestic and international factors that define a modern presidency. That accounting requires more than a year or two of interdisciplinary research and qualitative/quantitative analyses. Be assured the disclosures shall not appear in the lifetimes of people who are now reading Dyson's book.
The probability that a future will identify Obama's presidency with the death of American democracy --an identification Dyson has good reason not to make ---should not be attributed to Obama's frustrated audacity of hope. Obama could recommend hope as a political virtue or as a pathway to sanity. He could not force the American people to embrace a vision that lacked Machiavellian properties. The death of democracy will have to be attributed, in part, to the banality of race, to its remarkable success in moving American citizens to the Omega point they have purchased with freedom of choice. Indeed, casual readings of The Black Presidency ought to be supplemented with cautious readings of Teilhard de Cardin's The Phenomenon of Man (1955), or better yet, Revelation 22: 12-16.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. August 20, 2016