Darryl Pinckney & President Obama

interview by Andrea Hiott, 2008

Pulse: You called Barack Obama a ruthless politician in your New York Review article that everyone is reading. You clearly acknowledge that he knows the game, but you also seem to be suggesting that he knows another reality too.

Darryl Pinckney: He knows that there is something else. And I think this is a knowledge he gets from his mother.

What knowledge? And why from his mother?

His mother’s social vision is also his, the vision of an integrated America, a civil rights America. That’s not a legacy that he got from his African father but rather from his white American mother. It’s not only an idea of America that she gave him; she also gave him an idea of being black. It’s very moving when you think about it, how imaginative and fierce she was about that.

So much so that Obama was even embarrassed by it as a child. Still, wasn’t it the father who created this situation in the first place?

The father was completely absent – he was hardly there for a moment of Obama’s life – and yet his mother wasn’t bitter. This is a remarkable woman. She didn’t denounce his father, or Africa, or social justice. Obama’s absence of bitterness as a black guy isn’t just because he had these white grandparents and this white mother who loved him, it’s also because he had a mother who wasn’t bitter that she’d been left. He would not be the same man he is today had he not seen this example of it as a child, this guy who’s like Nelson Mandela, coming out of prison, but not angry about it at all.

Interesting you bring up Mandela. I wanted to ask if there was another moment in history that you can compare to this.

Well, there are two. On the personal note, yes, it’s Mandela. Obama is still a young man compared to Mandela, but this young man and this great elder have one thing in common and that’s that when you look at them you have the feeling that what you see is real; you don’t have the impression that you’re looking at a mask. You feel you can trust what they are telling you.

In voting for Obama, it’s as though the country has chosen a new level of accountability. We seem to want to stop pretending, even if most of us don’t know how to do that quite yet.

That’s because we can’t afford to pretend anymore. It costs too much to pretend.

Even on a personal level?

In every way. It’s a real generational change. We don’t want to pretend and we don’t want to feel guilty. Just as in Berlin, the Berlin Wall being the second moment I’d compare this to, there are many young people who don’t carry the burdens that their parents did, many white Americans your age aren’t racist in the ways that their grandparents were.

But doesn’t it go even farther than just not being racist. Isn’t it also that there are now actually positive qualities associated with being black?

One of the ways black people have challenged or conquered definitions of blackness has always been by embracing the negative qualities that a society says are black and projecting those qualities as positive instead. In the late 19th century white supremacists said that blacks were primitive, lazy, and only interested in sex and having a good time. Then after the killing fields of WWI, the Harlem Renaissance said these same qualities of black people actually started to look like social values: instead of being committed to the mechanistic society that can only figure out how to kill people, black people could show the world how to appreciate life and music and culture. In the post WWII days, everyone said that black people were very dangerous, aggressive, criminals, this kind of thing – the Black Militants of the 60s took all those qualities and made themselves into revolutionaries, standing up to the power structure and this and that. Black people have always embraced these ‘negative’ things people say about them and turned those things into virtues instead. This is happening again now. One more time.

I see that. And yet there also seems to be something very different going on here. Obama is like an empty vessel in a way, a place where just about anyone can see themselves or the qualities they admire reflected. He’s white. He’s black. He’s eloquent. He’s ordinary.

He can be very street. He can be very refined.

And it doesn’t seem there’s a whole lot of ego there. He seems to always try to get out of his own way. Not that he’s perfect in doing that, but at least he’s aware.

Well after these white politicians have lied to us, people are ready to trust the black guy. And so it reverts to another image of the black in society, which is the one person who will tell you the truth, the guy who has nothing to lose and will be honest with you.

Do you really think there is that kind of archetype at play?

I do think it’s buried there. Every white person in the south had a black person who was a friend. It’s like Zola Neale Hurston and the pet Negro system: She talks about how every white person in the south had one Negro who was considered to be the exception to the rule of everything she or he had thought of black people. In my generation of integration, people used to say to me “I don’t think of you as black; I see you as a person” and they thought that was a compliment. Being black still had a lot of negative connotations then. Now for most kids it’s not a big deal. Being black is just one identity among many. It seems normal to be black now. So the new message, what this election has really told us, is that the mainstream has been reconfigured. The mainstream isn’t just the white guy anymore. It’s women, Latinos, blacks. Obama sort of named them all in his speech. He even said gay. He’s not for same sex marriage, but he said it, “gay straight everyone came out to vote” so there’s a new mainstream in that definition, a new majority. Obama’s campaign made it impossible to play the race card anymore, to use that old derogatory tone, even though race has been a factor working in favor of the Republicans since Richard Nixon. All these years it’s been possible to exploit the fear of race and the fear of black anger and retribution, but that just won’t work now; it’s gone.

That’s a huge change! 

It is a huge change. It’s an idea that governed American politics for over a hundred years. But now white supremacy and the lawlessness associated with it have been repudiated: the Republicans simply couldn’t get any traction from trying to arouse people’s “fear of the black man” in this election; it just didn’t work because Obama was just so unassailable. There was something so unassailable about him.

He seemed to quietly rise higher and higher the more others tried to bring him down. I think he was growing a lot, even as the election was happening.

He kept his calm. There was that moment when people like Arianna Huffington and others were saying “He’s not fighting hard enough”, as if he were being passive, but that might be exactly the reason he won. He was doing the right thing even if a lot of people couldn’t see it at the time. He was being consistent. He wasn’t the angry black guy; he never played that role.

He took a risk in being quiet and consistent and having faith that Americans would eventually see the truth in that. Perhaps the more remarkable thing is that we actually did!

He showed us that those attacks didn’t matter. He couldn’t be baited. He couldn’t be rattled. And he didn’t care if people called him names. He ran his campaign on his own terms, and McCain ran his campaign in the old way, in the terms of Karl Rove.

It’s been said that McCain sold his soul. The unusual thing is that selling your soul no longer works, not even in the short term, as it has in politics of the past.

He did sell his soul. And he did quickly pay the price. Much more quickly. This huge majority has disappeared, this elite that no longer is. They seem like a rump party, a bit like Labor blowing out the Conservatives in England; the Conservatives haven’t been able to put it back together since.

Does Barack Obama having been elected give those who dislike Bush a reason to be thankful for him? If we’d had Kerry in the White House, would we have still voted for Barack Obama?

It’s not a reason to be thankful for Bush. And it’s impossible to know the answer to that question. Certainly Bush being so bad and unpopular contributed to Obama’s success in the sense that many people who were nervous about this unknown young black guy were willing to listen because they knew something had to be done.

But it does seem there is something to this dialectical pattern where the mood has to swing so far one way before people wake up enough to change directions and see another side. It’s as if there is a certain lucidity that only dawns on us in an emergency.

I can see what you mean. I think certainly the Bush years being so terrible galvanized those people who were committed to change through the electoral process. As much as McCain tried to distance himself from Bush and the Republican party, it never really worked. The difference was too clear. Obama is a much more reconciling figure.

He also seems to think that the best way to change something is to do it quietly, a bit like the speech he gave about race. Everyone was screaming about Reverend Wright, but Obama didn’t absorb that energy at all; instead he gave this very long and sober speech, one that was honest and drama-diffusing at the same time.

He stopped the campaign to have a conversation about race with that speech. I think for a lot of black people the things he said weren’t so extraordinary. But the fact that people were so amazed by it – Gary Wills even compared it to Lincoln’s second Inaugural address – showed how long it had been since this version of America’s racial reality had been spoken about in the mainstream without being attacked as liberal. Obama speaks in a way that defeats the static, in a way that silences the harping talk. His integrity comes through when he speaks. His thoughtfulness and the way he talks to the public is something we’ve been hungering for. We don’t want to be talked down to, or spoken to like we’re idiots, or manipulated anymore, even by politicians that we like. Playing along with all that manipulation has gotten old. This direct communication from Obama is something we recognize: no matter what medium he’s speaking through, he’s very direct, or at least we feel he’s trying.

That says something about the change that is happening in America though, doesn’t it? That we would respond to a man such as this?

I think it says something about how we’ve changed, about how technology has changed us: a lot of people are not dependent on the mainstream media anymore. Sources of information are varied and more and more people these days are getting most of their information from the web. Obama is perfect for that sort of audience and environment. He’s at home in this diversified media age. He’s very cool, which is very good for television, whereas McCain is a bit too hot.

In the Marshall McCluhan sense, yes, right.

Everything about Obama is perfect for that. He wears clothes well. He moves well. He speaks well. He photographs well.

He’s elegant without being someone others are jealous of. 

And he’s not trying to have a beer with us. You can see that his privacy matters to him. And that we don’t know him. And aren’t likely to. He’s as mysterious as JFK, if not more.

Isn’t there also a kind of stubbornness there? A persistence?

Well, it could be that his admiration of Lincoln is very much to the point. Which is to say that no matter what the issue is, somehow he will be free to say, “I didn’t want to do it this way – I didn’t want to free the slaves – but actually there’s no other way to save the union. It has to be this way.” So it’s the Lincoln who’s not an abolitionist.

Rather, he’s practical.

Right. He’s the practical guy that can accomplish abolitionist goals just by using his reluctance and therefore can appeal to the union and bring them with him step by step. He’s not a zealot. He’s not a radical. But he can accomplish radical goals. He’ll bring in everybody if he finds a way to respect everybody.

I don’t see him as having an investment in having power and control on a psychological level, especially not in the way some people in the past administration did. I don’t think he’ll be running for office his whole first term, or playing to the gallery. I don’t think he’ll be looking for political points. Because actually he’s done all that. Something else is happening. I really think that the change we believe we can detect in him over this campaign and these years is someone who is taking his encounter with history very seriously.

Do you feel like he’s sort of surrendered to his…


Yes. Does he see himself as in truly in service of the country at this point?

Yes. He sees himself as an instrument of something, so his decisions are coming from a perspective that he takes responsibility for, but not credit.

Which maybe explains that gigantic presence of his.

Even so, it may come as a shock to some of the people who voted for him to realize they are to the left of Obama. I think he is really a social conservative at heart.

But is he really rooted to that? Or is he still deciding these things every day? 

I think he is ready to go further, but I think he understands that the country isn’t. I think that he concedes much more to Regeanism than I would, as far as what it did for the way the country felt. And also when he says things like Turn off the TV and spend time with your children, this is sort of echoing Bill Cosby. It says something about his belief in traditional American ideals.

Which can be a positive thing, give meaning. What do think is meaningful in our country right now, what really matters to us in this moment after the election?

I think it’s the feeling that we’ve gotten past something, or come through something, that we are unified as one nation again. That’s the part that is very much like the Berlin Wall. In the same way people then rediscovered their identities, we’re rediscovering American-ness again and that it’s not a right wing thing. Definitions of being American have escaped right wing connotations in the same way that being German suddenly wasn’t being a neo-Nazi or even someone with a secret longing for the past.

This is idealistic, I know, but could Obama be the first World’s president? Or at least someone who is close to being able to represent more of us in the world than anyone else has? Because it’s hard to define Obama as any one word, even “black”. 

I think that could be the case. So many things go into the making of him.

He’s an outsider. Which makes him an insider in the world today. Maybe McCain wasn’t capable of understanding what it feels like to be the outsider in that sense.

And he didn’t seem to think it was important to understand that. Which is what I mean when I say that there is a new mainstream, that these experiences you’re describing are more normal for more people, are common among Americans now and somehow it was reflected in their understanding of the candidates: they identified with the guy who knew what it was like to be an Outsider more than they did with the guy who’s always been on the inside.

Its funny we only now realize such a thing because by definition, we’ve always been a country of Outsiders.

We have, but we’ve always deferred to a political class. That idea is sort of gone with this new presidency. More of the reality is represented. Obama is at the center of a lot of cultural flow that has been going on and that just hadn’t really been named or recognized politically the way it already was in many other areas of American society. He illuminates a lot that had only been dimly apprehended or glimpsed momentarily before. He does seem to cast a very real light. It’s not crazy to say so. But who knows what we’ll be feeling a year from now?

Maybe we’ll be feeling even better than we do right now.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.