For more than three decades, Kerry James Marshall has been making ravishing paintings about the lives of black Americans, working out of a studio in Chicago's South Side. The settings of his paintings are humble – housing-project gardens, kitchens, barbershops – but their scale, and the vision that informs them, is grand, even epic.
Marshall is now the subject of a major retrospective at the Met Breuer, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The title of the show, “Mastry,” nicely captures the audacity of the artist's hopes, his ambition to establish himself in a field dominated not only by white artists, but by an aesthetic regime whose notions of beauty, universality and, above all, mastery owe more than a little to a history of racial oppression. The black figures in Marshall's paintings announce the exhilarating, almost shocking presence of something that, in most museums, has been felt mainly as an absence.
Walking through the exhibition last week, I found myself thinking of another black Chicagoan who has demonstrated “mastry” in an even more punishing, and racially exclusionary line of work: the Presidency. The pride, style and almost miraculous composure of Marshall's canvases all find echoes in Obama's leadership. “When they go low, we go high,” Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention. In the face of a horrifying racist backlash to his verypresence in the White House, he has gone as high as an elected official could go.
Obama's Swahili first name, which is derived from the Arabic baraka, or spiritual wisdom, means “he who is blessed”. Many of us felt, or hoped, that he was endowed with baraka when he was first elected. He had inherited the catastrophic wars that his predecessor had launched in the Middle East, and just before he entered office came the financial crisis, which continues to darken the horizons of many Americans. But the hope that Obama's presidency would be (as he himself put it) “transformative” also reflected an older longing that he might help the country to overcome its racial divide. Hand in hand, we would follow him to the “post-racial” Promised Land, as if he were some black Moses, or one of those “magical Negro” characters in Hollywood films who devote their lives to solving their white friends' problems. There was always something a bit kitsch about this dream, which was mainly expressed by whites: for obvious reasons, black Americans tend to have a far more sober view of the country's ability to address, much less transcend, its racial divisions.
As it turned out, the Obama era would supply only one racial miracle: his election. For all his magic as an orator, he proved to be a realist who preferred incremental deeds to prophetic words. In his first term, he quietly pursued the kind of reforms (particularly appointments on the lower federal courts) that will help to combat discrimination long after his departure from the White House. Determined not to be seen as the “president of black America,” he studiously avoided the subject of race; when forced to address it, he succumbed to banalities about the need for a “national conversation.” Faced with the deepening crisis in black America – police killings of unarmed civilians, including children; the epidemic of mass incarceration; economic and political disenfranchisement – Obama seemed unwilling, or unable, to respond with the sense of urgency that had once led him to become a housing organizer in Chicago. As late as July 2014, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy wrote that for many black Americans, “the thrill is gone”.
In the last two years, however, Obama has assumed his historic role with admirable eloquence and moral seriousness, in part, one suspects, because he accepted the fact that his presidency would not be transformative, and that he could, at best, be a bulwark against the racist furies that it unleashed; a civilized counterpoint to the vengeful white noise of the red states. As Régis Debray famously argued, “revolution revolutionizes the counter-revolution,” and so it has been with the racial counter-revolution in America, a ferocious, know-nothing white nativism that has found its führer in Donald Trump.
As many have noted, this movement, which has attracted the support of a sizeable minority of white Americans, targets not only black people, but immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims and, most recently, shadowy bankers reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But anti-black animus is the lava at its incendiary core. What leads many white Americans to believe the canard that Obama was not born in America – a claim Trump has done more than anyone to promote – is not merely the fact that his father was Kenyan. It is the notion, as old as slavery itself, that black people will always be inassimilable outsiders, and that if they don't “know their place,” whether as slaves or subalterns, they ought to “go back to where they came from.” Abraham Lincoln himself flirted with the idea that, once freed, blacks should be resettled in Africa and the Caribbean.
Of course, not only is Obama an American, but black Americans have deeper roots in this country than anyone aside from Native Americans: the White House itself was built by slave labor, as Michelle Obama reminded Americans, much to the fury of right-wing bloggers. The black contribution to American culture and civilisation has been staggering – from music and food to athletics, humor, literature, speech, even the idea of freedom itself – yet this fact encounters as much resistance in certain quarters as the vast Jewish contribution to German culture did early in the previous century. For Trump's followers, “making America great again” means making it white again. Amid the financial crisis, it has become more and more difficult for financially strapped whites to acknowledge what they owe to blacks, because to do so would leave them feeling spiritually bereft. “They made us into a race,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his memoir Between the World and Me. “But we made ourselves into a people.” But whites are not “a people,” and as their numbers have declined and their lives have increasingly come to resemble those of blacks, they have insisted on their racial privilege all the more stubbornly: hence the appeal of Trump, with his undisguised appeal to ressentiment.
In black America, the Obama presidency and the backlash it provoked have rekindled a spirit of resistance not seen since the era of Black Power, both in politics, with the rise of Black Lives Matter, and in culture, with the emergence of such figures as Coates, the poet Claudia Rankine, the rapper Kendrick Lamar, and the filmmakers Ava Duvernay and Barry Jenkins. This renaissance is steeped in a sense of history, something the Trump movement pointedly disavows. It is also alive to the overlapping nature of oppression, or “inter-sectionality”: many of the leaders of Black Lives Matter are from the LGBT community. That this culture of protest has arisen during the Obama era is no accident, and to see it flourish is to savour the sweetness of his triumphs, however thwarted they have been. Only one other American president – Thomas Jefferson – had a black family, and he was a slaveholder, so let us not underestimate the distance travelled. Yet Obama is also, in the best sense, Jefferson's heir: a cosmopolitan intellectual, a profoundly introspective man who has lived by his command, his “mastry,” of the word. Language, alas, is not power, but Barack Obama has not lacked for baraka.
Adam Shatz's website can be found here.
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