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December 29, 2008

"Barack the Magic Negro"

This is one of those highly nuanced sorts of topics I want to stay away from because, frankly, nuance takes more work than unqualified declarations, so here's Allah on the GOP chairman candidate's passing around of Paul Shanklin's Barack the Magic Negro.

Here's the nuance: Do I think Shanklin's thing is offensive? Not... exactly.

Yes, I say this myself, and thought I originated the notion, until I found out Spike Lee had been talking about the "Magic Negro" syndrome in Hollywood for years. (Yes, like Billy Blasjowski in Night Shift, I invented it, except they already had it.)

But here's the thing. Spike Lee and later David Ehrenstein (who mentioned the phrase in connection to Barack Obama in an LA Times piece (I think) a year or so back) are both black. David Ehrenstein is half-black, but that counts.

The phrase is used to denote Hollywood's use of magical black men who show up to solve all of a white hero's problems. E.g., The Legend of Baggar Vance, where a magical Will Smith steps out of the shadows to help Matt Damon "get his swing back" in golf. The word "Negro" is meant pointedly -- and works far better than "magical black man" -- because it's designed to highlight that while Hollywood imagines it's being all progressive and forward-thinking in writing such roles, they're actually sort of demeaning.

For example, no Magic Negro resembling Will Smith or Morgan Freeman or even Michael Clarke Duncan has ever suddenly knocked on my door to help me solve all of my relationship troubles with some good old-fashioned southern-fried cornpone wisdom. I can't even get an extra thing of BBQ sauce at KFC, so I'm pretty sure blacks aren't particularly concerned about guiding me through my various psychological blocks.

Anyway, the use of the word "Negro" rather than "Black Man" underscores the fact that these roles cast blacks in a servile light, makes them no more than plot-objects, etc., displaying them as lacking their own inner light and personal agenda other than serving the needs of white people.

So: The word "Negro" is used there with a bit of racial bite. Black critics who use the term are angry that black actors are being put into what they see as the magical-reality equivalent of house-slave roles.

That's part of the reason that "Magical Negro" has caught on and "Magical Black Man" has not -- the former has bite. It's edgy. It's just right up to the line of being offensive, while not really being quite offensive.

At any rate: While two black guys have done more to popularize the term than, say, me (and I am saddened I am not credited with doing my own part), it's still kinda owned by blacks, who can toss out the word "Negro" with impunity, because they're using it not to call other blacks by a retrograde term, but to underescore the retrograde thinking behind these type of roles.

So the question of whether or not it's offensive really turns on intent. And blacks are pretty suspicious of Republican intent from the jump anyway. Spike Lee would say he can use it and whites can't because he's using the word "Negro" to highlight centuries-old attitudes about blacks, whereas whites are just digging the phrase mostly because it's giggle-worthy way to get away with saying an almost-forbidden word.

And, on my part... yeah, that latter thing is part of the appeal. I admit it: I'm using it for both reasons. Kinda-forbidden but not quite technically offensive language is sometimes funny. Try saying "octoroon" in mixed company for no particular reason, for example.* Try: "Oh, my friend Charles, he's a perfectly delightful octoroon." Silence and awkward tension. Nervous titters and social horror.

Good stuff.

The fact that it's a word people aren't quite sure they're allowed to say makes it, well, shock humor. (A mild sort of shock, yes, but still in that category.)

But I'm an idiot. I'm not running for RNC chair.

In short, it's really stupid for a white candidate for GOP chairman to think he can get away with this. He can't. Duh. One can argue double-standards until one turns blue but one can't argue with the fact they exist, or that there are consequences for running afoul of them. The GOP is perpetually derided by the media and the Democrats (but I repeat myself) as being "against blacks" because, it is claimed, that we're against policies that help blacks.

Given that reality, it's hardly a smart move to give blacks and race-conscious whites even more reason to be distrustful of the party and our motives.

The more likely a joke is to give offense, the more howlingly funny it had better be to justify that offense. Shaklin's parody is so-so, not really anywhere near his greatest hits CD, and it's kinda old by now in any event.

Not really worth it. Quite the opposite. Counterproductive and stupid, and even or me -- someone mostly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt -- leaving me wondering what he was going for here, exactly.

I kinda wonder if this is his idea of pandering -- "Hey, vote for me. I'll use the word 'Negro.' You guys like that, right?"

I don't think he was really thinking that. But I'm kinda baffled.

And if this cat thinks he's got the chops to charm the media and attract fresh voters to the GOP -- well, this is not exactly giving me confidence in his judgment.

It's 2008, we have the media more overtly in the bag for the Democrats than at any time this century, and we just lost two bruising elections in a row.

What the hell, man? What, things aren't difficult enough for us as it is? You want to make things a little harder because you dig big challenges?

Stupid. I don't even have to reach the actual substantive issue of racial insensitivity because this guy is an Epic Fail on judgment and savvy. Next.


* I'm legally obligated to say that "mixed company" doesn't mean racially mixed company, unless those of other races are your friends and know what you're up to.

I have to say that, or else, my lawyer advises, one of you morons will try this and I'll get sued for provoking a light to medium race riot.

By the Fucking Way: I'm pretty damn sure I did coin "Magic Retard," though I see now everyone is saying it.

Well, not everyone, but other morons who type on the internet.



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posted by Ace at 04:38 PM

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