I, too, sing America.
So wrote Langston Hughes, the unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes, whose 65 years spanned the lynch mobs of the early 20th century and the race riots of the mid-1960s, intended a defiant reminder to a nation too often content to include him out, a nation quick to regard him as the eternal Other, separate from and threatening to, what they saw as the “real” America, i.e., the white America.
“I, too, sing America.”
It was his way of letting them know that he, too, belonged to America. And America, to him.
Hughes died 45 years ago this week, but the need for the reminder survives. Consider two headlines from last week about the revitalization of racially-provocative smears against President Obama. One story, originating in the New York Times, concerned a plan floated to — and wisely shot down by — a GOP Super PAC. It sought $10 million for ads tying Obama to incendiary statements by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If that leaves you feeling deja vu all over again, it’s because that controversy was already litigated — and dismissed — four years ago.
This goofy plan to revive it envisioned the hiring of “an extremely literate, conservative African-American” spokesman (“How can you accuse us of racism? We’ve got us an extremely literate African-American spokesman!”) to argue that Obama lied when he presented himself as, ahem, a “black metrosexual Abe Lincoln.”
The second story was nearly as bizarre. It seems Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett told a radio interviewer it is “possible” he’ll hold the president off that state’s ballot unless he gets proof Obama was born in the U.S.A. Perhaps that makes you think Bennett, who has gubernatorial aspirations, is pandering to the lunatic fringe. Perish the thought. “I’m not a birther,” he said, presumably with a straight face. “I believe that the president was born in Hawaii — or at least, I hope he was.”
So it appears the fall campaign will turn, at least in part, upon a renewed effort to convince people that the president — a man they’ve seen daily for three years now, a man who, the polls suggest, voters find personally likable even when they disagree with his politics — is a scary and mysterious Other: “Hide the children, Martha — Obama is comin’!”