Barack Hussein Obama, or, The Name of the Father

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Barack Obama, Media Archive, United States on 2014-02-02 00:13Z by Steven

Barack Hussein Obama, or, The Name of the Father

The Scholar & Feminist Online
Barnard Center for Research on Women
Barnard College, New York, New York
Issue 7.2 (Spring 2009)

Tavia Nyong’o, Associate Professor of Performance Studies
New York University

To name, to give names that it will on occasion be forbidden to pronounce, such is the originary violence of language which consists in inscribing within a difference, in classifying, in suspending the vocative absolute. —Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

But this is amazing, you know, the first black president. I know you’re bi-racial, but, the first black president. You’re proud to be able to say that: “The first black president.” That is, unless you screw up. And then it’s gonna be “What’s up with the half-white guy? Who voted for the mulatto?” —Wanda Sykes, White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, May 2009


While many commentators have held forth on the possibility that Barack Obama might be our first “post-racial” president, and while others have subjected this notion to a perhaps deserved derision, few have been as interested in contemplating another, equally likely prospect: Obama would be, and now is, our first post-colonial president. This silence bespeaks the degree to which “empire” remains a name that is still, on most public occasions, forbidden to pronounce. And isn’t the difficulty with registering Obama’s relationship to the colonial-modern obvious, in the way that is so often the case with things conspicuous, yet hard to hold in one’s vision, like the nose on one’s face? Barack Hussein Obama has a Swahili first name, a Luo surname, and that notorious middle name. He was born in Hawai’i and raised there and in Indonesia. Only the best political image-making team money could buy could have convinced a critical percentage of the voting public to actively disattend—or remain sufficiently ignorant of—the postcoloniality of his blackness long enough to select him as their surrogate to redeem the national crimes of slavery, segregation, and anti-black racism. But now that American presidentialism has finally secured to itself the black male body that has so long served as its abject, generative foil, how is this interstice between the national and non-national to be navigated?

The “irony” of the first black president being born of a white mother and a black Kenyan father has been pointed out so often that one starts to suspect that said irony is really something else: a point de capiton, Lacan’s term for the anchoring point in discourse “by which the signifier stops the otherwise indefinite sliding of  signification.”[1]  The repeated national assertions that Obama’s mixed-race birth is an irony subject to anxious and jokey allusion is one such anchoring point for the national imaginary. That is to say, as exemplified in the joke Wanda Sykes told before the gathered press, political and celebrity corps (see epigraph), American mixed-race discourse as a point de capiton gathers up the other amorphous discourses circulating around Obama’s nativity, and halts the ceaseless spread of their signification just before they spill over onto non-national, postcolonial  terrain.[2]  Sykes’ comic repetition of the phrase “first black president” deliberately taunts any who imagine they do black people any favors by looking “beyond” race, including, presumptively, those who fix such a gaze on a transnational horizon. Equally telling is Sykes’ half-serious joke to revoke Obama’s “firstness” should he disappoint. With this declaration, Sykes evokes a powerful, historically symbolic archetype in black feminist discourse: the black woman with the public capacity to name. Is it possible, I ask in this essay, to articulate this black feminist discourse within and against a U.S. national formation, with a discourse that does justice to the postcolonial trajectory that produced an outer-national figure like Obama?…

Read the entire article here.

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