Monday, December 12, 2011

Postmortems on the Herman Cain campaign

Herman Cain's now-ended campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination opened a useful window into the politics of race in today's Republican Party. For many whites who don't much like African-American at all, Cain is a model for what a "good Negro" should be. Above all, he rejects the notion that white racism is a problem for black Americans.

Chauncey DeVega says goodbye to the Herman Cain Presidential campaign in The Final Herman Cain Round-Up: the Race Minstrel Meme; Cain as Affirmative Action Baby; Ishmael and Crouch Go Hard WARN 12/06/2011. Vega has been a pungent critic of what he calls Cain's "race minstrelsy". He provides a handy set of links for Cain campaign round-ups. Or is that wind-ups?

One of them is Mark Anthony Neal, Performing Herman Cain Huffington Post 12/05/2011. Neal writes that "Cain's candidacy has been shrouded in so much absurdity, that it's hard to see him as anything other than a performance artist." And he gives a good description of the minstrel show aspect of Cain's performance:

Both Obama and Cain's vocal performances are reminders of the role that the voice has played in establishing the "authenticity" of Blackness. One hundred years ago when Black "black-faced" minstrels were in open competition with White "black-faced" minstrels over who were the real "darkies," the tipping point occurred with the development of the phonograph and the "talkies" (motion pictures with sound), and the ability of Black artists -- most prominently Bert Williams -- to approximate Blackness in sound (as opposed to the use of black vernacular language) in ways that were more challenging for White "black-faced" minstrels; Al Jolson simply sounded like he was trying to sound Black.

Despite his "sound of Blackness" Cain had been successful reaching a broader audience than expected, in large part of his deft negotiation of racial nostalgia and racial accommodation -- none which makes him any less Black or so-called self-hating, but simply more willing to work within the constraints of a highly racialized society, on that society's terms. It goes without saying, perhaps, that Cain is a racial throwback.

The oft-cited example of Cain's experiences at Morehouse College in the 1960s, where his father insisted that he "stay out of trouble," in an era when Black college students were indeed starting trouble and changing the world for the better -- even at an institution known today for its marked social conservatism. This admission on Cain's part, no doubt strikes a chord for potential voters who still read President Obama as postmodern Black Power radical, as embodied in the frank racial talk of his life partner Michele Obama during the throes of the 2008 primary season.

That bit of autobiographical positioning on Cain's part was easy; more deliberate -- and complicated -- has been his performance of spirituals, at any number on campaign events. His willingness to take on the role of the minstrel -- the American brand of traveling bards who traveled the country, telling stories of far away lands, and not to be mistaken with the "black-faced" variety, who traveled the land embodying "the other" in Blackness -- has in some way been a stroke of performative genius, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the Black rank-and-file feel.
Cain's troubles around sex and sexual harassment also fit nicely into a negative white stereotype of black men, despite the fact that his defenders like Rush Limbaugh accused liberals of being the ones harboring such stereotypes. Psychological projection plays an outsize role for today's Republicans.

From the conservative fundamentalist camp, we have:

Cal Thomas, We're a Bipolar Country When It Comes to Adultery NewsBusters 12/05/2011. Short version: the country is going to hell in a handbasket because some time around 1969, people started committing adultery.

Wade Burleson, Lessons from Herman Cain: The Blood of Christ Cleanses My Conscience to Serve God 12/06/2011. Short version: Republicans sinners who get caught should perform the proper public rituals of repentance.

Brother Al" Mohler, For Christian Men: The Lessons of Herman Cain 12/05/2011. short version: we like Republican minstrel-show African-American types but they shouldn't get caught with their pants down.

Especially knowing what a chronic mealy-mouther Brother Al is, it's hard not to read his column as how-to advice for ministers and church officials to cover up affairs more effectively.

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