Failures of the Intellectual: Barack Obama, Black Agency, and the Burden of History

The timeline of black agency has been determined to a great extent in the last six centuries by the need to overcome man-made historical impediments, notably slavery, racism, colonialism, neocolonialism – and their new forms in the present – on the one hand, and the necessity to validate the black world’s contributions to what black luminaries like Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor have described as the “civilization de l’universel” on the other hand. This imperative of rehabilitating the black subject and relocating her within what Sylvia Wynter calls the sign of “Man” has taken such diverse routes as Indigénisme, the Harlem Renaissance, Pan-Africanism, Négritude, the Civil Rights movement, decolonization, liberation struggles/wars, and the anti-apartheid struggle. While some of these routes of black agency were largely discursive, some were praxilic, and some others were a combination of discourse and praxis. What united them was their overarching force of interpellation across global black communities. They were all grands récits that transcended their own immediate contexts of articulation to become transnational sites of black self-fashioning through a strategy based largely on the creation of an imagined community of black memory.

The fault lines of these strategies became manifest shortly after the independence era in Africa. At that point, the identitarian claims and the politics of the nation-state combined with the contested nature of memory to problematize and unhinge transnational black modes of affiliation and identification, which were organized around race and history. The nation-state, for instance, instituted an order of localized identities which was incompatible with the oneiric impulses of a transcendental black globality. For example, pan-African nationalists of the pre-independence era increasingly became Ghanaian, Nigerian, or Kenyan nationalists as national imaginaries and narratives emerged. The postcolonial irrationalities of the African state, which considerably weakened its national identity myths and created room for the reinforcement of ethnic identities, did not help matters. The pressures of localization in the arena of identity had the principal consequence of undermining the seamless globality of black memory and history. In this context, Countee Cullens’s “What is Africa to Me?”, a question that the generation of W.E.B du Bois answered very unambiguously by projecting Africa as a romanticized ancestral home became, for subsequent generations of African Americans, the guilty location of greedy, venal, and inhuman ancestors who “sold our ancestors” to slavery. The romanticized Guinée of the Indigénistes, depicted so poignantly in Euzhan Palcy’s film, Sugar Cane Alley, became, for subsequent generations of Caribbean blacks, an absurd collection of rickety nation-states whose sorry fortunes in the modern world make continental Africans look like subjects evolving into a Hobbesian universe.

These conditions inaugurated an order of conceptual delinking from the idea of a black globality in ways so radical as to render the relationship between Africa and her diaspora fractious at best. It is only in such invidious conditions that Paul Gilroy’s project in The Black Atlantic could have had the resonance it had in the Academy. The book’s subterranean ideology seems to be the idea of a black diasporic world shorn of its roots in Africa. Paul Gilroy’s logic is also implicitly at work in some of August Wilson’s plays, where the idea of African American roots seems only traceable to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean – the mythical City of Bones – and not beyond. With Wilson and Gilroy, black history seems to start in medias res in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Alex Haley’s Kunta Kinte is advised not to look beyond the Middle Passage for his roots! But these are only the positive dimensions of the conceptual split in black globality. Worse is to come with the Keith Richburg of Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa and the Henry Louis Gates Jnr of Wonders of the African World. In these two instances, the split is total and the sentiments projected on Africa range from inculpation (why did you sell us?) to revulsion and outright spite. This split is, of course, mirrored in curricular trajectories that sequester African and Africana studies in separate universes in academia. In some North American Universities, Africanists and Africana studies specialists must struggle for the rare handshake across formidable disciplinary Berlin Walls.

Against this background, the emergence and rise of Barack Hussein Obama is arguably the single most important inflatus for the transcendence of this split and the resurgence of a new kind of black globality in the 21st century. For Obama is both subject and sign. Influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure, only structuralists dared to elevate the sign above the subject. Yet the sign, Obama, leaves one with little choice than to risk this dangerous structuralist maneuver. Obama-as-sign inaugurates the moment of a transnational black consciousness not necessarily moored on contested memories and histories but on new, hitherto unimaginable possibilities and directions in blackdom. Within the schemes of globalization and transnational capitalism, where subjecthood is increasingly determined by the propinquities of MAC (mutually assured connectivity), it is significant that the iconic sign around which a new global black consciousness has begun to coalesce is an ontological summary of the orders of the moment: black but biracial; at once African and African American; Westerner but Other; Christian sired by a Moslem father; American with marginalized childhood localizations in Hawaii and Indonesia; elitist (Harvard) but rooted in the plebeian lore of Chicago’s South Side! This sign is métissage ad infinitum.

The pluralized integument of this sign, the planetarity of its scopic regime, its constantly unfolding dimensions, is what makes it so apt a metaphor for the readiness of a race that has been despised and excluded for so many centuries to stake a decisive claim to the White House – the last bastion of the first person narrator of modernity and the post-Cartesian appropriator of History, the Western White male. The transcendence of the Obama sign is implicit in the rallying cry – yes we can! Beyond its immediate function as a vivifying chant for campaign rallies lies a deeper imbrication in black aesthetics. Watching Obama declaim the yes-we-can chant in the frenzied cadence of black southern pulpit performance is to be in presence of the choric, antiphonal call-and-response morphology of black oral performance, especially in Africa. “No, you can’t!” has, for five centuries, been the life-force of modernity’s negation of black agency. The Obama sign offers a choric, antiphonal negation of an original negation. And the consequences have been formidable, unlike past attempts by the black world to negate the negation. Over a century ago, one black man, W.E.B du Bois, posited that race would be the dominant question of the 20th century. In “yes we can!”, another black man opens the first decade of the 21st century with a dominant affirmation of possibilities. The historical significance of this sign explains why Obama-the-subject’s pragmatic and politically necessary post-racial discourse and mien in the United States has cut no ice with his audiences in Africa and the black diasporic world. These audiences are interpellated by Obama-the-sign as the site of a new black globality and a new black consciousness. And, for them, that sign is unapologetically black. It is not post-racial. It needs not be.

The distinction between sign and subject is a crucial one to keep in mind in order to be able to engage the Obama phenomenon adequately. Recognition of this crucial distinction is what defines the responsibilities of the black intellectual as an interpreter of the Obama moment. Let me enter a crucial point here. I have zero sympathy for meretricious claims to intellectual objectivity or non-partisanship by those who have failed, tragically, in their duties as interpreters of blackdom’s opening act in the 21st century. Only the most absurd understanding of the nature of intellection would blind anyone to the fact that intellectual enunciation and non-partisanship is a kindergarten oxymoron. I have no patience with the unimplicated intellectual.

This clarification is essential as I attempt to shed some light on what a good number of African and black diasporic intellectuals who opted for Hillary Clinton got wrong in terms of the responsibilities of the intellectual, the black intellectual. As the Obama drama unfolded, the internet (listservs, blogs, ejournals, eMags, online newspapers, African and black diasporic chat rooms, etc) was awash with the hand-wringing treatises of avowed black Hillaphiles. Some American Africans, especially Nigerian-Americans, were particularly obstreperous, weeping louder than the bereaved in their support of Hillary Clinton and their disavowal of Obama. They offered unsolicited explanations and rationalizations of their political choices even as Billary’s too clever by half interjection of race and racism into the entire process increasingly made their positions slippery.

What stood out in their submissions was the facile assumption that their support of a White female candidate was evidence of (1) their newly acquired sophistication as superior human beings who have transcended race as opposed to the black/African supporters of Obama who, in their estimation, are still slaves to the congenital interpellations of race and ethnicity; (2) their sophisticated status as objective, unimplicated, non-partisan intellectuals, insofar as non-partisan is read as non-identification with their racial kind. As they pushed these positions, they almost always concentrated on the individualized proclivities of politics and choice. They tragically misread the 2008 Democratic primaries as a mere political contest between two candidates.

It was a bad time to take a sabbatical from discernment. A bad time to fail to see the obvious fact that one of the candidates had become subject and sign. They failed to see that what galvanized folks from Nigeria to Saint Lucia, from Kenya to South Carolina, from South Africa to Bahia de Salvadore, was the sign and not the subject. In their histrionic quest to perform their subjecthood as postmodern African American and American African citizens of the United States who, unlike the rest of us, are above race, they failed to see that Obama-the-subject has little to do with, and absolutely no control over Obama-the-sign. Above all, they failed to understand the historicity of the sign. Follow the sign! This sign is history, not politics, as Tavis Smiley and BET founder, Bob Johnson, found out a tad late. Whether Obama eventually becomes the first black President of the United States or not is a mute point. What is important is the historical moment and order, which the sign he unleashed has inaugurated for the black race. And the black intellectual is called upon to be the first interpreter of that moment. Failing to read history correctly is excusable. However, does any black person who carries the tag, “intellectual”, have the right to fail to read history at all?

* Full text of my contribution to the Obama symposium organized by The Zeleza Post. For the full symposium, click here.

Written by
Pius Adesanmi
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  • Like I’ll double-vote Obama if I were an American; I double-vote the views of Pius with a partisan alacrity. I find it a courageous heart-piercing knots of words and a rendering of atavistic intellect in this age of sprawling convinience of thought. Again, yes we can!