As I watched the predictable news pundit responses tonight about McCain’s Mississippi Maneuver, I was snatched back to the first of the year, when something between Obama and an agitated press corp made me compare Barack Obama’s reactions when provoked to the classic performances by Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and In The Heat Of The Night. Poitier’s characters acted as the moral authority in these pictures, rebuking prejudice through the only stance a black man could take in a movie in those days – coolly restrained rage crossed with a furious sense of righteousness.
There is a heightened level of agitation I am seeing, not just in John McCain, but in a large section of the American population, a visible anxiety about Barack Obama’s ever growing support that is now threatening to ratchet itself up to the next level – an outright racially based fear that these particular white Americans who say they support John McCain and Sarah Palin can’t seem to escape.
At the press conference he held yesterday to announce he was suspending his campaign to help his fellow senators wrestle with the Wall Street bailout plan, McCain’s eyes and his facial expressions told me what you already know - that his defiant stance was being backed by millions of his supporters, who had long been waiting for McCain to "show that uppity Negro" who was really in charge here. The way he looked at the camera when he said “I informed Obama of what I planned to do,” I could see his brain ticking – "negro, don’t you know who I am?"
I don’t have to waste time conducting any damn polls to tell you what kind of nervous jubilation is erupting in this segment of America tonight. For these people, McCain is their Great White Hope, the last obstacle between that black man and the Oval Office. So long as he doesn’t pop up as a suspect in the Jon Benet Ramsey case, he can do no wrong.
For Barack Obama supporters like me, watching their white hero in action, I get the same sense of preposterousness I have when I watch an obviously aged Clint Eastwood punch out men decades younger than him in his movies. But this preposterousness is laced with disgust, because I know the same thing you all know – white America has mastered the art of believing its own bullshit.
There is a scene in the movie In the Heat Of The Night, set in Sparta Mississippi, where a young, vigorous Sidney Poitier, who plays a Philadelphia detective, confronts the old Southern aristocratic banker who is responsible for the death of a wealthy progressive industrialist. Poitier got slapped hard across the face by the banker when he asserted his authority as an officer of the law, something the banker had undoubtedly done many times before to rebuke impudent, uppity blacks who threatened his way of doing business. It was Poitier’s arm slinging back automatically, as if by natural reflex, his brown hand cracking the aristocrat square across the face, that brings me back to this picture year after year.
I have watched this scene many times from the relative comfort of the new millennium, but isn’t until now that I really understand what that slap meant, and why John McCain is really doing everything in his power to avoid facing the movement that is Barack Obama. Suddenly withdrawing from the presidential debate to be held Friday in Mississippi has virtually nothing to do with the Wall Street crisis.
It was the white community's sense of shame that the civil rights movement exploited, because it was the only weapon they had. This white shame that the movement's organizers marshaled into a palpable moral authority literally disciplined America. This metaphorical visit to the woodshed is something these particular white people remember all too well, and are not interested in going through again.
To have to see that brown skinned face standing behind a White House podium for at least four years means that they are wrong, that their belief systems are wrong, that the bedrock of the principles by which they live their lives, which most certainly does not include any notion of true equality by black or brown people, are just plain wrong.
These are the things nobody wants to talk about, because the kind of kindergarten equality we have today is only tangentially related to an actual universal equality. Universal equality means anybody could potentially wield the power to retaliate, the power to dictate the agenda, and the power to rearrange the fabric of the lives we have come to believe are authentically American.
What black Americans want to see from Barack Obama, the thing that will let us finally look upon him as a fully formed man, are crackling, spontaneous reactions to this kind of bullshit, a reaction whose aggressiveness exploits the power behind him. A reaction that says in no uncertain terms that he means business.
His campaign managers know better than this, though. They know intimately the levels of depravity to which a lot of white Americans, including some of those who have decided to support Obama, can sink to in a hurry. So we won’t get to see Obama metaphorically cock his arm back when he is confronted with the rest of the bullshit that you know is about to come.
But what we will see is an increased level of agitation in McCain and his supporters as the eight million volunteers and the $400 million plus dollars that under gird the Obama campaign conspire to do what our standard bearer cannot – retaliate against the odious stench of race baiting, fight to dictate the American agenda, and work to rearrange the very structure of the lives we actually live until we finally begin to really become the Americans we think we are in our minds.