Monday, January 28, 2008

Bill Clinton is a black man: What Toni Morrison really said

Thank you, Elizabeth Alexander! In "Our first black president," an article on Salon, Alexander provides some context for the oft-repeated meme that Bill Clinton was America's first black president, a notion that grew from a New Yorker article penned by author Toni Morrison.
Morrison made the comment only once, in a short essay in the New
in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impending
presidential impeachment proceedings. As far as I could find, she has never used
the phrase again and has not disseminated it beyond the New Yorker piece. Her
words have been used frequently and almost always out of their original context,
as a way of signaling Bill Clinton's supposed comfort with and advocacy for
black people, to the extent that Hillary Clinton even attempted to joke that she
was "in this interracial marriage."

A look at the context of the words at the source is illuminating. Morrison
began by describing a nation glued to unseemly details of Bill Clinton's
relationship with Monica Lewinsky, as Kenneth Starr pursued his investigation
and Republicans cheered him on. She questioned the pitch of Starr-fueled
hysteria, and said: "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. . . .The always and already guilty 'perp' is being hunted
down not by a prosecutor's obsessive application of law but by a different kind
of pursuer, one who makes new laws out of the shards of those he
breaks." SOURCE

Over the years, this context has been forgotten and Bill Clinton's alleged "blackness" has been attributed to his Southern roots, his saxophone playing, his being the progeny of a deadbeat daddy and his inability to keep Little Bill in his trousers. In essence, people (disturbingly, mostly black people in my experience) have made Clinton a black man because of the more negative aspects of his story. The idea is offensive and demonstrates the level of self hate ingrained in black culture. (I have yet to hear anyone say: Wow! Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar. He must be really smart. Why, it's almost as if he is a black man.)

The unexamined belief that Bill Clinton more than likes black people, he IS a black person, also keeps the black community from realistically evaluating the Clinton legacy as it relates to African Americans.
We should also ask real questions about the Clinton legacy vis a vis
African-Americans, instead of accepting uncritically that they have always
worked to advance the interests of black people. We shouldn't forget the fates
of Lani Guinier and Jocelyn Elder, for instance, as we evaluate President
Clinton's record in advancing African-American appointees.
Let's get this straight: Bill Clinton is a white man and has enjoyed all of the privileges of being one. As president, he ushered in an era of prosperity for Americans, including people of color. He appointed an unprecedented number of black people to his Cabinet, but it should be noted, President Bush II put black people in positions of real power. The Clintons have long had close alliances with the lions of the civil rights movement. However, this presidential race demonstrates that neither Clinton is uncomfortable trading on race if it helps them. The Clintons may have been good to black people, but they are not above reproach.

We do ourselves no favors by passing out honorary "black cards." It is better to evaluate politicians, including the self-identified black man who is currently running for president, with clear-eyed realism. What policies will the candidates before us enact to make this country better for everyone? That is the ultimate question.

See also: "Why do black folks love the Clintons so much?" here.

God, I hate to agree with Christopher Hitchens, but... here. (Note, he does get the Toni Morrison thing all wrong.)


turtlebella said...

Thanks, Tami. I actually had no idea that Morrison was the original source of this idea. I think her analogy was apt but it's unfortunate it's gotten so skewed over the years.

(Incidentally- this is the first time I've commented here! But I've lurked a bit, coming over from Anti-racist Parent. Glad you are here and nice to meet ya)

Tami said...

Welcome, Turtlebella! I hope you plan to comment more often in the future.

Anonymous said...


I think you're right to caution that we not lionize Bill Clinton for having advanced, in whatever limited way he did, a practical black social agenda much less buy into a notion that, by dint of his impoverished southern upbringing, saxophonic skillz, and lapse in moral terpitude (the Rhodes Scholar quip is priceless), that he IS black.

Of course, the Clintons, as a campaign team, will avail themselves of any tool in the political crib to win the Presidential nomination.

I suggest though that we, especially American blacks, not subject the self-identified black candidate to more intense scrutiny of his ability and readiness to serve the interests of ALL the people than that to which non-black candidates have been subject.

The body of America's economic, foreign policy, and social ills -including, The Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction legislation, Constitutional Amendments and all (the success of which would have forever done away with the push, in later decades, for race-based affirmative action programs), the Depression, all world wars and undeclared conflicts, interrment camps, Watergate, NAFTA, and the current health care and Social Security debacles have happened on the watches of white Chief Executives. Souldn't a black man have an equal opportunity to succeed, or indeed, to screw up, as his caucasian brother. Or will we continue to hold lack of melanin as the ultimate qualifier in Presidential politics?

Tami said...


I agree. Obama should be held to no higher standard than any other candidate. In fact, unlike non-black candidates, he has to be cautious in the way he interacts with the black community. This is not to say, he should ignore the community's needs, but that to be seen as the "black candidate" rather than "a candidate" would spell doom for him. I think it is naive to think otherwise, which is why I don't get a lot of the folks calling him out for not being down with the cause.

Good article on The Roots, the new online mag edited by Henry Louis Gates:

Anonymous said...

Yeah. Barack has got to play to come out ahead in the contest. throughout the country's history, that has been a zero sum game which hasn't included a black man or woman (think those as diverse as Rep. Shirley Chisholm and my friend, the late trade union organizer and leader of Communist Party, USA in Illinois, Ishmael Flory) a possible winner.

As you've elsewhere noted, we black folk are not an undifferentiated mass. Our stratified collective includes a stratum (I'm working on an essay titled, "The Day Hip Stopped Hopping") that, I'm convinced, should Obama win all the marbles, won't be much helped

Grata said...

Hey Tami,

First time on your blog. I am glad that Biil Clinton's true colors can now been seen by black America. I, an African, never got sold onto him.
It would also help to look closely at how the Clinton Administration's economic policies had an adverse effect on the economies of Carribean countries. BP would let go of him for good.
And by the way the Bush Administration has done more for African than Clinton's.

The icing on the cake is his complacency during the Rwanda Genocide. He mentioned his regeret casually to that "Rwanda Thing", seriously.

Check this clip out.

Clinton on Rwanda

This is the last of 12 clips on You tube.

slag said...

Great post, Tami!

Bill Clinton has done significant damage to his reputation among liberals lately. I hope he recognizes the consequences of his behavior.


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