Obama’s Election: In Search of Uncle Tom

I celebrate the election of Barack Obama, but I temper my celebration. I am teaching a course that considers America’s multi-ethnic society through the prism of our nation’s long history of race. In a Wednesday blog post (not in public view), one of my students seemed thrilled to assert that with the election the United States has stepped into a post-racial society. In my response to the student’s blog post, I offered the following caution:

[C]ould Obama be “symbolic” of racial progress while the reality of racial difference remains much the same that it was on Monday?

I was thinking of a way that we might be able to tell. I am concerned, within the next four or five months, that a prominent magazine or newspaper will run a feature whose hook is that it explores the the opinions of the permanent White House civil servant staff on the novelty of a black president and first lady? Why would this be important, you ask. The unstated but important reason–I would answer–is that the permanent White House staff is predominantly African American.

In my lifetime, I have never noticed such a story–it has never been newsworthy what the permanent civil servant staff thought of the president or first lady–because one characteristic of the civil servant staff is that it never, ever airs White House dirty laundry. Historians study that part of history decades later.

While I fully believe that the lives of electricians and plumbers and farm workers and janitorial staff and nurses and chambermaids is a vital part of a shared human experience and I truly believe that having the voices of such people in the public eye is a useful service, the speed with which the Washington Post jumped on the story is amazing.

See Wil Hagood, “A Butler Well Served by this Election.”

Score one for a professor’s gift of prophecy. The story has considerable pathos. While I can only extend my sympathy in the abstract–because I know of the man and his wife only in the outline offered by the story–I can note that my outrage at the timing of the story is undiminished. Editors and a reporter at the Washington Post are unaware of their own impulse to understand the 2008 presidential election from the perspective of Uncle Tomism. That is, one of the paper’s FIRST ways to understand Barack Obama’s election is to get the impressions of African American servants at the White House.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe within three days of the last five presidential election the reactions of the butlers and chambermaids and secretaries at the White House were thought newsworthy. Prove me wrong by searching Lexis-Nexis or another such database. I so despair that I can’t even bring myself to bother. Maybe this is public history in the making, the beginning of a public airing of White House dirty laundry from the inside. But from my perspective this story reeks of Uncle Tomism in its most egregious and enduring forms, the celebration of the loyal Black man, who willing sacrifices himself for the sake of his Mas’r.

My concern is that this first impulse of the mainstream media means that a society which considers itself post-racial will replay its forgotten racial myths with unconscious abandon. If those who are unaware of the past are doomed to repeat it, welcome to another long nightmare of minstrelsy. Now that we plan to view the presidency from the inside, what’s next? Domesticity under the microscope. How long before the New York Times reports from an anonymous White House source that Michelle Obama prefers an unreasonable thread count on sheets?

I do not diminish the symbolism of Obama’s election. It is an extraordinary achievement. But it may be made possible precisely because we have forgotten how racial myths have shaped the United States’s conception of its meaning. Perhaps the election will be salutary to understanding America’s history of race relations in another way. After such stereotypes are exposed to the light, educators and journalists will have a responsibility to inform students and the public why their idea of a post-racial society is a pernicious myth. That is, if they can recognize those stereotypes when they appear.

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