March 21, 2007
-- by Dave Johnson
On the March 19 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, host Rush Limbaugh highlighted a March 19 Los Angeles Times op-ed that described Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) as "running for an equally important unelected office, in the province of the popular imagination -- the 'Magic Negro'" -- a term used by critics of pop culture to describe certain benevolent African-American characters. Limbaugh stated: "The term 'Magic Negro' has been thrown into the political presidential race in the mix for 2008.It was based on an offensive column in the LA Times. So now the LA Times is offensive enough to provide content for the Limbaugh show?
... Limbaugh continued to refer to Obama as the "Magic Negro" throughout the broadcast -- 27 times, to be exact -- and at one point sang "Barack, the Magic Negro" to the tune of "Puff, the Magic Dragon." Limbaugh defended his use of the song, stating, "Well, that's what we always do here. We do parodies and satires on the idiocy and phoniness of the left."
Update Am I reading the LA Times column wrong?
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Read the original column in the LATimes, which is here.
I don't think most of us would find the column by David Ehrenstein offensive, regardless of what Rush choses to do with the term.
The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. "He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist," reads the description on Wikipedia http://en.-wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro .
He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.
As might be expected, this figure is chiefly cinematic — embodied by such noted performers as Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Scatman Crothers, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Smith and, most recently, Don Cheadle. And that's not to mention a certain basketball player whose very nickname is "Magic."
No sense in throwing away an insightful analysis of why some whites find Obama appealing, just because Rush hijscks the naughty name.
Are you reading the LA Times column wrong? I guess it depends on what you think is offensive, whether it is the term "Magical Negro" or the notion that White America has a not-so-subtle fondness for that fictional trope.
It is very clear to me that Limbaugh is misreading the column, and using it as an excuse to vent his own not-so-subtle racism while gleefully accusing leftists of being racist. While the column does criticize the tendency to worship the "Magical Negro" as a function of white guilt, Limbaugh dumbs down the point of the article, fixating on the term and also on the writer's name. It seems he missed this sentence:
"Speaking as an African American whose last name has led to his racial 'credentials' being challenged — often several times a day — I know how pesky this sort of thing can be."
On the other hand, this could be a variant of the "they call each other that so why can't we" defense, usually applied to "the n-word." Whether Rush thinks the writer is white or black, he is focused on the idea that the politically correct left could bandy about a phrase like "Magical Negro" and get away with it. The way he touts it as proof of how paternalistic and racist the Left is (evoking a "plantation mentality") suggests he thinks the writer is white. (It is worth mentioning that the phrase is cited in the wikipedia entry as being popularized by Spike Lee.) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_negro)
Readers of STF will see a familiar pattern here: Rush is doing what he accuses "The Left" of doing, repeating an incendiary phrase in a taunting and name-calling fashion, exposing his own racism. It is, in fact, a concise and efficient example of that behavior -- his accusation is his offense.
Whether it is politically correct or pleasant to consider, there is and has been an ongoing discussion about Barak's racial identity within the African American community. It is, I think, a necessary and valuable public discussion, if only that we as a nation can deal with these issues openly and honestly. Unfortunately the discussion gets poisoned when someone like Rush (whose track record should automatically disqualify him from being taken seriously, especially about race) steps in and distorts it.
However, the discussion is equally ill-served when white progressives collapse on their fainting couches because someone is discussing openly and frankly their impressions of race and racial identity in this country. This is not to say that Ehrenstein is completely on target (or impervious to criticism because of his racial identity) -- his editorial is completely focused on surface impression and image versus substance (appropriate, perhaps, for a Hollywood-based critic).
Further, Ehrenstein suggests that Obama is consciously capitalizing on the Magical Negro trope, when in fact it was inevitable that he'd be drafted for that role by running his campaign. Was his recent Geffen-sponsored fundraiser more successful because Hollywood money people thought they were supporting Bagger Vance?
What also underlies Ehrenstein's piece is an unsubtle attempt to criticize, or perhaps puncture, the image and narrative that is growing around Obama. Whether that image is being projected on him (which I think is the case with the Magical Negro phenomenon) or being created by Barack himself (positing himself as the man from A New Hope (insert Episode IV joke here)), this is a necessary step in the process of evaluating his candidacy. Ultimately, I think that Obama can withstand and overcome this puncturing and criticism, and in fact analyses like Ehrenstein's could (ideally) have the effect of relieving Barack Obama of that baggage.
(The notion of figuring out which movie characters a candidate most resembles is as self-parodic as Rush Limbaugh's accusations of racism. Is Barack more like Mace Windu or Noah Cullen? Do we really have time for this?)
Unless, of course, White America is determined to hold on to that baggage. I suspect they'll be less than eager to do so when they realize they'll have to carry it. Payback's a bitch, ain't it?
(I apologize for the length of this comment; to paraphrase Rick James, caffeine is a hell of a drug.)
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