When will the Press finally place Toni Morrison’s comment that Bill Clinton was “the first black president” in its proper context?
As recently as today, March 26th, 2008, Maureen Dowd, one of my favorite writers, states, “And even Clinton supporters know that Bill does not want to be replaced as the first black president, especially by a black president with enough magic to possibly eclipse him in the history books.”
At the 2001 National Black Caucus Dinner, where he was honored as “America’s First Black President,” Clinton offered his own explanation, “‘I think it’s a function of the work I have done, not just as president, but my whole public life to try to bridge the racial divide and the fact that even when I was a little boy I had friends who were African-American.'” And by reinforcing the narrative that he’d done a bunch of stuff for the African-American community, Clinton lets his political instincts get the better of him. Can’t blame him for that, can we?
Of course, that is not at all what Toni Morrison stated. Here is her statement:
“Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and–who knows?–maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”
In other words, she simply argues that Clinton’s upbringing and subsequent metaphorical public castration fits the African-American trope, that African-American males could sympathize with him. In short, Clinton could be Milkman, the protagonist in her stellar, _Song of Solomon_.
In sum, then, Clinton was never “the first black president” because of his policies or even because of anything he acheived. For Morrison, Clinton’s upbringing and his subsequent “castration” mirror that of the American Black Male.
It’s that simple.