Today I continue a conversation I began a week ago when I invoked Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in talking about Barack Obama. On Thursday evening, actor Clint Eastwood conjured up his own invisible man as he had an imaginary conversation with an absent Obama. (I posted on it here.) As blogger Jamelle Bouie summed up the bizarre episode afterwards, “This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama.” It was also a perfect illustration of projection.
In the famous opening passage of Invisible Man, Ellison reminds us just how vulnerable the black man has been to white projection:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.
Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.
Add the vast rightwing echo chamber to this projection and it becomes more understandable why (1) the extreme right often appears unhinged by Obama (“Obama Derangement Syndrome”) and (2) it is incredulous that the rest of the country can’t see what it sees. The Romney campaign, on the other hand, has to take reality into account—i.e., enough voters to win 270 electoral votes—and so has been sending out mixed messages. To fearful seniors and rightwing supporters, it invokes the images of a dangerous black man who wants to take away what is rightfully theirs. To others it depicts Obama as a nice guy in over his head.
The fact that they’ve had to take this second route at least some of the time signals the success of one of Obama’s strategies: he has gone out of his way to avoid coming across as an angry black man. This has been no small feat. As Ellison writes in the continuation of the above passage, it’s very tempting for black men who are the subjects of projection to react with anger:
It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.
We saw a glimpse of such exasperation when Obama bristled at news that Henry Louis Gates had been arrested by Cambridge police for breaking into his own home. Obama veered off topic in a press conference about his Obamacare initiative, and the resulting rightwing fury almost derailed Obama’s big plans right there. The incident reinforced lessons that he had been learning all his life, and since then I haven’t noticed him letting his guard down. Appearing cold has fewer political ramifications than his appearing angry. But of course, despite his caution he remains a point of projection for white fears.
In the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I linked to in last Monday’s post (“Fear of a Black President”), the African American columnist talks of his mixed feelings about Obama’s accomplishment:
Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.
And yet this is the uncertain foundation of Obama’s historic victory—a victory that I, and my community, hold in the highest esteem. Who would truly deny the possibility of a black presidency in all its power and symbolism? Who would rob that little black boy of the right to feel himself affirmed by touching the kinky black hair of his president?
Coates, who is not a politician and so can talk openly about his own anger, says he now sees (as Ellison sees) that black anger is “seldom successful.” But he also says that he is no longer as optimistic as he was when he saw Obama crisscrossing the country in 2008 to roaring white crowds. Watching the all-out attacks on Obama have tempered his hope.
But at least it’s easier to imagine America moving past racial projection in 2012 than it was in 1952, which is when Ellison wrote his novel. The arc of history is still bending toward justice. But still slowly.