A generation of Americans have grown up learning that the color of one’s skin is irrelevant, that to judge someone solely on the basis of skin color rather than one’s personality and contributions to society is stupid and amoral. Barack Obama’s election to the highest political office of this land certainly seems, at first glance, to lend credence to the notion that Americans as a whole have embraced the notion of equality.
The invidious, so-called Obama parody, however, contradicts this by resurrecting the word negro, not in its familiar historical role as a nobler affirmation to the then common derogatory term colored, but now as a cultural misidentification of Blacks – a kinder, gentler substitute for the word nigger. It shows that the negative stereotypes ascribed to Blacks have not been eradicated from our society. It allows one to hide behind the tenet of free speech and wink at the spirit of parody with a performance that allows racist Whites once again to laugh at, not with, Black people.
The denigration of Blacks is a crucial part of the racist argument against full human status of Black people. The name one responds to is a measure of one’s sense of self worth. Similarly, the collective response of a minority group to a name can have devastating effects on their lives, especially if they themselves did not choose the name.
To place this in historical perspective, the origins of the word “negro” – from the Spanish word negro, meaning black, and the Greek word necro meaning dead – clearly defined the state of Africans at the birth of the slave trade; it dehumanized them and devalued their historical worth as a people in order to, conversely, ensure their value as slaves.
Today, a generation of White children who grew up idolizing Black sports figures and listening to Black music would no doubt profess some confusion at any effort to define the social distinctions of Blacks as a minority group. But Black people are distinctly different; no American minority group has been caricatured and denigrated as often or in as many ways as Black people. Accomplishments by Blacks outside the populist spheres of sports and entertainment are underreported and overshadowed by a steady deluge of images, in all forms of media, portraying Blacks as violent, intellectually inferior and criminal, incapable of policing their own lives much less the national community. The election of Mr. Obama notwithstanding, these images engender and embolden the racist diatribe.
It is not the creation of the so-called Obama parody that worries me, it is its embrace by key figures of the Republican party and their apologists, for whom the social lessons of history are a blur.