Friday, July 04, 2008

Denver Singer’s Black National Anthem Switcheroo Was a Risky Act for Obama, and Black Americans
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Heaven only knows what black Denver singer Rose Marie was thinking when she stood at the microphone and belted out the lyrics of the black national anthem instead of the agreed on Star Spangled Banner. The event was Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s annual state of the city address and confab. Marie was engaged at no pay to sing the customary opening Star Spangled Banner. The black national anthem penned by civil rights legend and songwriter James Weldon Johnson a century ago is a beautiful, lilting, and powerful expression of black pride and dignity. It has been a virtual staple at any and every kind of black gathering down through the years. And that’s where it’s appropriate to sing it. The Denver Mayor’s event wasn’t.

Marie’s tortured explanation for switching songs is take your pick: it was a matter of artistic expression, her way of showing her pride in being black, a veiled protest against racial mistreatment and discrimination, and her personal statement against the alleged racial hypocrisy of America. Her explanations are facile and self-serving and just about everyone with an opinion on the issue appropriately blasted her and demanded a formal apology which she hasn’t as yet given. She should apologize publicly, and do it now.

Her ill-timed, totally inappropriate act has been fodder for speculation that it could have a possible backdoor blowback on Obama. Obama immediately rapped Marie for her wrong headed switcheroo, and said that there’s only one national anthem. Obama had to move fast and knock the singer’s act. The Democratic convention will be in Denver in August and Obama can ill-afford to have even the slightest hint that he approves anything that could be construed as an act that disrespects America’s number one, time tested emblematic expression of American patriotism, especially from a black singer. And even more especially given that Colorado with a Democratic controlled legislature, and rising numbers of younger voters and Hispanic voters could be ripe for the picking from the GOP orbit in the fall.

The bigger reason is that Obama more than any other presidential candidate in recent times is hyper sensitive to the patriotism issue. Republican rival John McCain has been scrupulously careful not to stoke any doubt about Obama’s patriotism. But others have. Conservative websites, chat rooms, and some writers have feasted off impugning Obama’s patriotism. They have slandered and ridiculed his name; dumped on his wife Michelle for her off the cuff, repeatedly clarified in context, comment about her lack of pride in America, and the one time absence of an American flag from the lapel in his suits.

This line of attack can’t be easily shrugged off as a below-the-belt slug by fringe ultra conservatives or professional political hit specialists. Despite his recent slog to the center, even right on some positions, Obama is still widely regarded by moderates and conservatives as a liberal Democrat. As failed liberal Democratic presidential contenders from Michael Dukakis to John Kerry have found out the hard and painful way, they are subject to ruthless, and sustained attack for being too liberal, and allegedly too willing to waffle and compromise on everything from crime and punishment to military preparedness, and especially national security. This always loosely translates out to doubt about the fervor of a liberal Democrat’s patriotism. A prime McCain campaign attack point against Obama is that he can’t be trusted to be the tough guy against foreign enemies and threats.

Conservatives have long since seized the high ground on the issue of what is or isn’t true patriotism and cast themselves as the protectors and defenders of the flag, the national anthem, and their read and interpretation of American traditions against the liberal defilers.

Obama has one more albatross that white liberal Democratic presidential contenders didn’t have. He’s African-American. There’s the inherent suspicion among some that African-Americans are eternal rebels, and chronic social malcontents who undermine conventional American values and traditions. It’s a short step from that false and bigoted notion to see blacks as less patriotic than white Americans.

Unfortunately this ridiculous tar of Obama as somehow less of a true patriot because of who he is and what his votes and stances on the issues have been is not just a taint him in the minds of some. Those same minds tar blacks with the same, broad unpatriotic brush. Marie was probably oblivious to the implications of her rash act. In a follow up remarks, she blithely blew it off as simply being a risky artistic act. It was much more than that. It was a risky act for Obama and African-Americans.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).