Many of us know that actor and Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman was recently quoted as saying that Barack Obama is not the first black President, but rather the first mixed-race President. An interesting discussion went on in our comments over the nature of race and how we understand (and misunderstand) it in America. Oscar-nominated Director Spike Lee has now come out (in an interview unrelated to the conversation with Morgan Freeman) and declared that, should Obama lose, it will be the last time this country sees a black President for quite some time. I thought his statements worked in an interesting way alongside Freeman‘s. Check out bits of his interview with Vulture inside.
Spike Lee on Obama (Past and Future):
How do you think President Obama is doing?
I support him; my wife and I gave a benefit for him at our house. But I think this election is going to be close. Bottom line, there are many people in America who look at themselves and say, “Am I better now than I was before?” It is going to be tooth and nail, and I think it is going to get nasty. But, in my opinion, if they are trying to bring up Reverend Jeremiah Wright again, they are really reaching. I hope and pray that people are not going to go for the Willie Horton okeydoke.
Do you think people will?
I got faith that they won’t. Honestly, though, the big question is, I think there will be a block of people saying, “I cannot vote for a Mormon.”
Are those people voting for Obama instead? That seems unlikely.
They got a tough decision: Obama or a Mormon. Their beliefs got them between a rock and a hard place.
One of the things that helped Obama win last time was the enthusiasm and turn-out-the-vote efforts among African-Americans.
Wait a minute, wait a minute. It wasn’t just African-Americans.
I think really people forgot about this; it was a coalition of many different groups of people that got President Barack Hussein Obama elected. It was not just—that’s the whole thing, it didn’t just go on the black vote; it was a coalition. But many people, black and white, went for the okeydoke and believed that racism was eradicated from America the moment he got elected. Like it was presto-chango, abracadabra, whiz-bam, or whatever you want to say. Poof, and it is gone. And I think that was naïve.
On Election Night, I was at a party in which this group of cynical New Yorkers literally started singing the national anthem unironically.
I am not going to hate on that—it was a great moment. It was one of the greatest moments in American history, and people really felt that moment. I think all those emotions were honest—black, white, and brown. People would cry, and some in disbelief, some in joy, some in euphoria. America had reached a point that many people, black and white, thought would never, ever, ever, ever happen. And this was the epitome of how great we are as a country, and the world saw that….
Where were you?
I was there. I was not going to miss that. I was right there in Grant Park, my brother and I. We would have walked to Chicago if we had to.
Do you think that sense of historical moment would diminish if Obama lost?
Maybe. Not to me. But to some.
Do you think if he does lose we will see a black president again anytime soon?
I will be dead before it happens.
This moment in the interview struck me because I hadn’t decided where I stood yet on the Morgan Freeman thing. At first I thought that his comments made sense– not because Obama is not black– but because the black community is always questioning the validity of everyone’s blackness! Any light-skinned black person has experienced this and can attest to this. Quite simply, they are often not considered to be black enough. And I might even say “we” because although neither of my parents are white, one of my grandparents is and I’ve got another grandparent from Cape Verde, all of which makes me fairly light-skinned. My “blackness” gets questioned based on that and also based on how I talk and the predominantly white schools I attended. That is to say, dark-skinned black people have their blackness questioned too, depending on where they went to school and what race their friends are, and a host of other things! And so we see that PITNBr Erika was right to point to race as a social construction, however this does not make the question of race unimportant or silly or something that can be easily done away with.
Whether he is 100% black (whatever that is) or 50% black, Barack Obama is perceived to be a black man. But because the question of race is complicated by other things (like gender, class, social experience, etc.) Obama is considered by many blacks to be sort of the first black president. He didn’t have a black mother; that makes a difference to many people. I remember comedian Katt Williams joking that– if it weren’t for Michelle Obama, blacks would have been a lot more skeptical about Barack. As in, it was a good thing he married a black woman because had he married a white woman our perception of him as a “black man” would have been further complicated. It was funny… because it was true! Whether or not it’s ethical or morally upright is up for debate.
But what Spike Lee points to– without even trying– is the fact that Obama is and always will be perceived to be a black man, especially by non-blacks. People will always remember his time in office as the time we had a black President and because of that, if he doesn’t get re-elected we will not see another black President in Spike Lee‘s lifetime. This period of economic depression in America will be remembered as ‘that one time we let a black man take power,’ lol. And it won’t be allowed to happen again.
Whether Morgan Freeman or I or any other black person wants to challenge Obama‘s full claim to blackness, it doesn’t really matter. His blackness (like anybody else’s) is primarily assigned to him. And many years ago the people of this country decided that if one person in 8 generations of your family was black — if you had a *drop* of so-called black blood– then you were black. I think it’s important for people to remember that this is how we began to understand blackness; that it was a means of keeping as many people in slavery as possible. In another world, somebody could have decided the opposite; that having a drop of so-called white blood made you white and then we’d be having a completely different conversation. So I don’t think Morgan Freeman‘s comments should be written off– he and Spike Lee are both pointing to the fact that race is more about how we choose to see it, and where we choose to see it.
But as of right now, we do not have the option of not seeing it or pretending it’s a non-issue or even a non-complicated issue.
On a related note, Will Leitch at Vulture also asked Lee about his thoughts on gay marriage:
There is a lot of talk these days about the parallels between gay marriage and civil rights. Do you think that’s valid?
All I can say is, I support gay marriage. They want to marry each other, I support it. That is their choice. And they are going to write a book about the vice-president.
Is the parallel with the civil-rights movement valid?
It is the same thing—I guess it is the same thing. But here is the thing, though: All these movements and groups of people who have benefited from the civil-rights movement, I think they should have to take a pledge. Okay, you want to get married to each other, but then you cannot go around and act this way against other groups of people, because some of those groups made it possible—laid down the foundation.
I’d love to continue this discussion on race (as an idea and as a fact) and how it will– and will not– affect the vote.
*Completed unrelated fun fact that I like to mention as often as possible: Spike Lee‘s wife, Tonya Lewis, went to Sarah Lawrence. Holla!