The Magical Negro, in Context
Chip Saltsman, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, wanted to become the chairman of the Republican National Committee. In December, he circulated a CD of parodies which included a song entitled, “Barack the Magic Negro.” When first I read this, I was mortified. Who could be so callous?
Saltsman claimed that the media judged him by a double standard. He was vilified for distributing Paul Shanklin’s parody, which Saltsman says, “should be easily recognized as satire directed at the [Los Angeles] Times.” The Times in March 2007 ran an op-ed piece with the headline, “Obama the ‘Magic Negro’.” According to Saltsman, no one was outraged at the Times, and thus the double standard. But as the saying goes, context is everything.
Part of the context, as pointed out in a LA Times blog , is that the piece is “op-ed.”
An op-ed, abbreviated from opposite the editorial page (though often believed to be abbreviated from opinion-editorial), is a newspaper article that expresses the opinions of a named writer who is usually unaffiliated with the newspaper’s editorial board. These are different from editorials, which are usually unsigned and written by editorial board members. Op-eds are so named because they are generally printed on the page opposite the editorial.
In another LA Times op-ed piece, this one responding to Saltsman’s distribution of Shanklin’s parody, Tim Rutten makes an important point about the context of national politics:
The point is, when it comes to discussions of race in America — and particularly racial or ethnic humor — context is everything. In fact, racial and ethnic humor are probably the most contextually sensitive of all forms of satire. They work only when everyone is clear that the person making the joke regards the differences and foibles of another group affectionately and as something that makes everybody’s life more interesting. Lots of traditional Jewish and Irish humor falls into that category, though even there, it depends on who is telling the joke, and to whom.
The right contextual conditions, however, never exist in politics, which is why ethnic or racial references in that venue nearly always offend — or, at best, fall flat.
It is entirely possible for ethnically different people to get along, poking fun at themselves and each other. Yet, as Rutten points out, there must be a context assuring the good-will — maybe even compassion and care — of every member of the community. Most importantly, politics are a combined context in which this can never be assured. As a communication context, politics always imply ambition and what Nietzsche called the “will to power.” Not exactly the heights of good-will, not to speak of care or compassion.
So, when a white man sings in a faux Al Sharpton voice, “Barack the Magic Negro, lives in D.C. / The L.A. Times, they called him that / â€˜Cause heâ€™s black, but not authentically. / Some say Barackâ€™s â€œarticulateâ€ / And bright and new and â€œclean.â€ / The media sure loves this guy, / A white interloperâ€™s dream!” , it is entirely different from black director Spike Lee labelling the stock characters typically played by Morgan Freeman the “super duper magical negro.” Why? Because context is everything.
(As an aside, when a white man imitating Al Sharpton discourages voting for a black man because he’s too white, it is the height of dramatic irony on so many levels.)
Which brings us back to the original op-ed article by David Ehrenstein.
The only mud that momentarily stuck was criticism (white and black alike) concerning Obama’s alleged “inauthenticty,” as compared to such sterling examples of “genuine” blackness as Al Sharpton and Snoop Dogg. Speaking as an African American whose last name has led to his racial “credentials” being challenged â€” often several times a day â€” I know how pesky this sort of thing can be.
A week ago, former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele was selected as the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Saltsman withdrew his name at the eleventh hour without explanation. Steele becomes the first African-American GOP chairman. Perhaps Republicans selected Steele as a response to President Barack Obama’s victory in November. Or maybe, Republicans were responding to Saltsman’s tasteless self-advertising. Context, as they say, is everything.