Our Opaque President’s Virtuoso Performance

President Obama’s dramatic monologue on the Trayvon Martin case in the context of the experiences of black people under suspicion and surveillance, including himself, reminded me of some words written decades ago–before Barack Obama lived in Hyde Park–by Charles H. Long while he was a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. Long wrote in his book of articles and essays, Significations, of the need of oppressed peoples to come to terms with their opacity in a world where the deity is white and transparent and darkness is an index of sinfulness. Commenting on both Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic and DuBois’ double-consciousness, Long points out that “the slaves had to come to terms with the opaqueness of their condition and at the same time oppose it. They had to experience the truth of their negativity and at the same time transform and create an-other reality. Given the limitations imposed upon them, they created on the level of the religious consciousness.” Long goes on to evaluate the “theologies opaque” of black American and native American writers as part and parcel of the “new liberation theologies…that carry a familiar Enlightenment ring.”

Barack Obama has (setting aside for the moment the startling unfolding saga of actual public debate over the surveillance state) presented himself consistently in nonracial or transracial terms, as a man who transcends any supposed antithesis between Enlightenment and faith, in short as a normally transparent person, at least compared to his mad dog opposition. But in order to respond authentically to the verdict of not guilty in Trayvon Martin’s killing, Obama did something we had not seen before: present himself not as a President who happens to be African-American but as a black man in America who happens to President, with the opacity–to white Americans–that comes with such a self-presentation. I hope I can say without being picayune that as important as it may be for white Americans to try to “wring bias” out of ourselves, it could be at least as important to just let the strange feeling of opacity come over us simply by imagining Barack Obama as a 35- or 40-year old being followed while shopping at Marshall Field’s in the Loop.

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