I am here because of Ashley: Obama and Piper on the Rhetoric of Race
The U.S. Presidential Election 2008
by Audrey Chan
I’m black. Now, let’s deal with the social fact and the fact of my stating it together.
–Adrian Piper, Cornered (1988)
I wrote this essay partly because of a nagging resistance to the idea of Barack Obama as a messiah. I would like the banners of “Hope” and “Change” to be put away soon. They make me nervous. They are too full of potential and of dreams deferred. It makes the moment too fragile. The most important thing that we can ask from a leader is accountability. By focusing primarily on rhetoric, the effective and persuasive use of language and the art of influencing an audience, in the case of Obama and Adrian Piper, my hope is that lessons can be drawn from both of their rhetorical approaches to the subject of race, a subject that is bound to take on new dimensions in the very near future. It will be a struggle that is characterized by a conflict of a generous hope and faith in humanity on the one hand and on the other a deep irony that may be more accurate in describing the situation on the ground.
The 2008 election season is roiling to an explosive finish. Senator Barack Obama, young, gifted, and black, is forecasted to win decisively. We don’t yet know if his campaign will fall victim to the Bradley Effect or rampant voter fraud; we don’t yet know how we will speak about race post-11/4. The language that we currently use to talk about race and racism descends from a history of pain. The verbal trauma of this history is manifested in a rich vocabulary of oppression, slavery, and victimization. Barack Obama presents a new situation that begs the question: what will happen to the conventional power dynamics of racial discourse when the Other assumes the mantle of “Leader of the Free World”?
The current fraught discourse of race in this presidential election produces a timely context to investigate two rhetorical examinations of race in America: artist Adrian Piper’s video installation Cornered (1988) and Senator Barack Obama’s speech “A More Perfect Union” (2008). A span of twenty years separates these two performative events, a period which has seen the rise and the so-called end of the Culture Wars. Although the heated conversation around race and difference abated to a degree in the last decade (the fervor of which was transferred to the terrorism paradigm), the linguistic legacy of political correctness continues to inflect our policy, language and social behavior. The term originated to describe attempt to develop linguistic standards that would ameliorate offensive and prejudicial speech. However, rather than eliminate the vocabulary and behavior associated with sexism and racism, the self-policing nature of political correctness has sublimated these impulses into an increasingly elaborate vocabulary of coded winks and nods. Racism was thus pushed out of “polite society” into the private sphere, where it is not subject to rebuke.
In Piper’s Cornered and Obama’s “A More Perfect Union,” race is performed as pedagogy in an attempt to coax the subjects of race and racism back into the open. (Not surprisingly, both Piper and Obama come from academic teaching backgrounds as professors in philosophy and law, respectively.) Employing the strategy of rhetorical modeling in their made-for-television monologues, Obama and Piper seek to persuade an anonymous viewer to engage in a nuanced conversation about race. Obama seeks the attention of the skeptical voter, while Piper targets a skeptical art viewer. To address these invisible personified generalizations, Obama and Piper adopt the role of the empathetic authority figure. It is a role deliberately familiar and conventional; it is the trusted voice of television broadcast news. The visual cues of their televised images also conform to a predictable standard of polite appearance. Obama stands in a well-cut suit and blue tie at a lectern flanked by American flags, speaking at the hallowed site of the nation’s founding in Philadelphia. Piper wears a blue sweater with a strand of pearls. She is seated at a table with her arms politely crossed. Her long black hair is combed neatly off her face.
“Passing for white” is a key formulation in the construct of race that Piper presents in Cornered. Her monologue opens:
I’m black. Now, let’s deal with the social fact and the fact of my stating it together. Maybe you don’t see why we have to deal with it together. Maybe you think this is just my problem and that I should deal with it by myself. But it’s not just my problem. It’s our problem. … It’s our problem because your hostile reaction to my identifying myself as black virtually destroys our chances for a relationship of mutual trust and good will.
In her opening statement, Piper establishes her provocative relationship with the viewer. By suggesting that you, the viewer, are racist and are uncomfortable with talking about race with a black person, Piper sets up her radical proposal that statistically speaking, the majority of white Americans are in fact black. Piper mines the inconsistencies and double standards implicit in the “one-drop rule” of racial classification in America, which erases distinctions of origin and cultural difference among American black identities. She reverses the equation by suggesting that since she, as a light-skinned black person, could pass for white, white people could consider themselves to be the lightest of light-skinned blacks. Thus, what begins as an accusation of racism moves into a kind of appeal to solidarity, but also an initiation and invitation to participate in “the struggle”, re-characterizing racial suffering as a badge of honor, particularly for those suffering from white guilt. As would any sophisticated self-help guru after a thorough diagnosis, Piper presents a delimited set of personal choices to the viewer in moving forward. For example, one could continue to enjoy (with guilty conscience) the privileges of whiteness or one could decamp from the white elite and positively identify with their black identity to reap the institutional benefits of affirmative action.
For Piper, it’s not a matter of whether or not she has good faith or bad faith in the American people. She shares in common with Obama his emphasis on race as a mutual, shared problem. In Cornered, she is constructing the means by which one can excavate the deep hypocrisy written in our psyche and “the entrenched conventions of racial classification in this country.” The work is designed to offend and alienate the viewer, not as an end in and of itself, but rather to generate a self-awareness that is produced during the process of watching Piper and being subject to her rounds of questioning, or perhaps later, after walking away from the piece. Piper acknowledges this process within the text of her video, blithely suggesting, “you must be feeling pretty antagonized and turned off by what I’m saying.” It is undoubtedly manipulative but bold-facedly so. Piper’s deadpan delivery of the 20-minute uncut monologue is now practically inseparable from our understanding of the work even though she originally intended her role to be performed by “a white, Diane Sawyer newscaster-type actress.” Piper’s mode of address can be put into context by her own observation,
I personally have the deep-seated, optimistic sense of entitlement of an upper-middle-class het WASP male…I always have, and there’s nothing I can do about it…to have that sense on this particular planet is to have no bounded sense of self at all, since all of one’s subjective tastes, prejudices, and impulses are equated with objective truth.
It can be argued that it is both Piper and Obama’s ability to channel this sense of entitlement without capitulating themselves to the role of victim that provides the subversive edge to their respective monologues.
On March 18, 2008, Barack Obama delivered the speech “A More Perfect Union”, known more colloquially as “Barack Obama’s Speech on Race”, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The occasion for the speech was controversy surrounding Obama’s relationship with his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ located on the South Side of Chicago. By responding to the Wright controversy with an expansive speech on the state of race relations in the United States, Obama was able to reframe the conversation on race on his own terms rather than engage it on the level of sensationalism.
Obama opens “A More Perfect Union” by establishing historical context—the failure of the Founding Fathers to abolish slavery in the primary documents that form the basis of American government and society. The Founding Fathers would leave the question of slavery, the American original sin, to be resolved by future generations. The inconsistency between the fact of bondage and the ideal of equal citizenship under the law would be worked out through a twisted future that would include civil war, lynching, segregation, protest, legislation, assimilation, and systemic neglect. These historical allusions form a backdrop for Obama’s campaign, part of whose stated goal is to continue the unfinished project to bring more integrity to the opening words of the Constitution, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…” By reframing the flaws in America’s origins as an opportunity for collective self-improvement, Obama offers the “glass half full” version of Reverend Wright’s “anti-American” characterization of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as blatant lies.
In his speech, Obama paints an evocative portrait of a nation bathed in resentment. Blacks resent whites for generations of institutionalized racism. Whites resent blacks for the institutional privilege of affirmative action. He catalogues the resentments and misunderstandings, taking a moment to empathize with each wronged party. He even cites criticism of his own candidacy as “somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.” But the message that he returns to again and again is that Americans are not maximizing their inherent potential for unity and good. Obama’s hopeful humanist message is based in a continual process of affirmation as opposed to Piper’s strategy of provocation and self-criticism. The advantage to Obama’s strategy is that his integrity remains intact through the constant buffering of hard evidence with the invocation of the exceptional, in the form of anecdotes from his successful campaign. Piper, on the other hand, offers herself up as a scapegoat, relentlessly pursuing the notion that people need to be pushed far out of their comfort zone if they are to make radical change in their psychic orientation.
Obama’s speech was the contemporary equivalent of the passive resistance and non-cooperation favored by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s camp in the Civil Rights Movement descended from the teachings of Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi. In “A More Perfect Union,” Obama’s rhetoric was rooted in a radical passivity (or cynically, a glorified version of damage control) that has allowed him to skillfully navigate the landmines of dirty politics and race-baiting. It is impossible to talk about Barack Obama without comparing him to leaders who were crucified and shot down—not to mention the many stylistic comparisons of Obama to JFK—for their exceptional ability to build public coalitions around ideals of equality and justice. Currently, it is Obama’s rhetoric more than his actions that link him with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. An Obama presidency would be an opportunity to demonstrate that the goals of equality can be pursued without bloodshed. It is an example that we desperately need.
Welcome to the struggle.
Audrey Chan is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles and France. Her projects can be viewed online at audreychan.net.