Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Representation beyond the Brand

On Tuesday Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Across the country and around the world, millions watched the “People’s” Pomp and Circumstance. In Philly, the streets were eerily without the usual noontime bustle, cafes received no customers for that half an hour, and the internet nearly collapsed under the weight of the impatient and cable-less who kept trying the refresh button in order to watch the proceedings streaming live on

I actually walked with my 10th graders down to the tallest Center City sky scraper, the Comcast Center. Inside this colossal building made from slick glass and a sizable tax abatement (wherein the city doesn’t receive $4.6 million a year in property tax from the developers, while the Branch library system is under assault due to “budget restraints” – but I digress) there were 4 jumbo high definition screens broadcasting the Inaugural program. Beneath these screens, in this private corporate space, the public gathered. There were over 1000 Philadelphians there – little kids sitting on their classroom pads, ladies on their lunchbreaks, tall men who didn’t seem to notice the space they were taking up, older women swaying to Aretha with tears in their eyes, and my students giving their full attention over to the moment.

Walking back, after the babbling hypocrisy of homophobe Rick Warren, the rousing words of the war-ready President, and the unfortunately scheduled anti-climatic poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, I spoke with my students about their reflections. Many were pumped that they were old enough to witness this moment and actually understand what was going on in the speeches and proceedings, as well as how the day fit into the larger context of U.S. history.

Others were explaining that they felt a personal victory in Obama in that the historical inequity of racism would no longer be thrust upon them to try to cause them shame about their identities. My brain would normally rush to explain the countless pieces of analysis on how Obama’s ascendancy into the Presidency does not mean that racism is over, but that his role serves to insidiously cover the fundamental institutional racism of this country by allowing the white American imaginary to believe that racism is over. But in that moment, I wanted to really take in the power of what these teenagers were telling me they were feeling. And I was not about to take away their personal experience just because I somehow “understood” the interworkings of racism in this country more than they did. My study of the structural analyses of macro-sociological questions does not trump their lived experience. An important lesson for those of us who tend towards intellectualizing beyond our own lives.

And then I overheard something that I had overheard many times before – and decided to intellectualize beyond my own life. It was the familiar chorus of “Call me Sasha!” and “No! He’s my husband!” that has echoed in the classroom or has been posted as someone’s ichat headline. A bunch of the African American girls I work with engage in this fantasy where they actually become members of the First Family.

I find this interesting because I wonder if it typifies the magnitude of how Obama’s campaign and presidential win has caused an unprecedented level of enfranchisement among people who have not felt included and/or haven’t wanted to be included in the political system of the United States – mired as it is in racism, elitism, and carefully orchestrated disenfranchisement.

I wonder if this level of identifying with a man who is now the president could even be possible if this man were just another old white man? If the family were just another WASPy portrait of the burbs?

I mean, I don’t remember in my midwestern teenage years of the 90’s any of my friends ever saying, “Isn’t my fiancĂ©, Bill, just a stud?” Or “I will only respond to Chelsea from now on.” Or “No! Hilary’s my mom.” No one fantasized about living in the White House as that first family, even if somewhere, some of us dreamed of walking a presidential pup across the lawn, or making elaborate speeches to the American public, or holding the ultimate decision-making power as the country’s leader. For us white kids, we may have been able to see ourselves within the power, but I don’t think it was ever so specifically embodied in wanting to take the place of the actual people.

So what is this?

I could just chalk it up to the Barack Obama Rockstar/Celebrity Presidency, but I think that it is a deeper phenomenon than that. This is about looking at someone who is now the president and seeing one’s self, or at least being able to locate one’s self somewhere within him.

My hope for my students who see themselves in their new president is for them to then see themselves in themselves. See their power in their power. Don’t allow Obama to be the finish line. And, if they feel represented by him, that they force him to actually represent them as their elected official, working on behalf of their futures with real progressive change. Not just branding.

My students don’t need any more branding. None of us do.

1 comment:

  1. I really like this. It makes me think about how Obama is a hero for people - I've heard people compare him to Jesus - and how we don't really have heroes anymore. Obama might be the first one of my generation. And I wonder if that's part of what being a hero is: being able to reflect back to those you are a hero to some element of their selves that seems elusive, or seems more attractive in you.

    I also know that all of us do this all the time with celebrities, or have done this. Where we pretend(ed) to be some TV star's wife or pretended we were that rock star. I wonder if that is that same hero complex...