I , too, sing America.
So wrote Langston Hughes, the unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes, whose 65 years spanned the lynch mobs of the early 20th century and the race riots of the mid-1960s, intended a defiant reminder to a nation too often content to include him out, a nation quick to regard him as the eternal Other, separate from and threatening to, what they saw as the “real” America, i.e., the white America.
“I, too, sing America.”
It was his way of letting them know that he, too, belonged to America. And America, to him.
Hughes died 45 years ago this week, but the need for the reminder survives. Consider two headlines from last week about the revitalization of racially-provocative smears against President Obama. One story, originating in The New York Times, concerned a plan floated to — and wisely shot down by — a GOP Super PAC. It sought $10 million for ads tying Obama to incendiary statements by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If that leaves you feeling déjà vu all over again, it’s because that controversy was already litigated — and dismissed — four years ago.
This goofy plan to revive it envisioned the hiring of “an extremely literate conservative African-American” spokesman (“How can you accuse us of racism? We’ve got us an extremely literate African American spokesman!”) to argue that Obama lied when he presented himself as, ahem, a “black metrosexual Abe Lincoln.”
The second story was nearly as bizarre. It seems Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett told a radio interviewer it’s “possible” he’ll hold the president off that state’s ballot unless he gets proof Obama was born in the U.S.A. Perhaps that makes you think Bennett, who has gubernatorial aspirations, is pandering to the lunatic fringe. Perish the thought. “I’m not a birther,” he said, presumably with a straight face. “I believe that the president was born in Hawaii — or at least, I hope he was.”
So it appears the fall campaign will turn, at least in part, upon a renewed effort to convince people that the president — a man they’ve seen daily for three years now, a man who, the polls suggest, voters find personally likable even when they disagree with his politics — is a scary and mysterious Other: “Hide the children, Martha — Obama is comin’!”
These pathetic retreads are the kind of ideas you get from people operating on bad food and too little sleep.
It is ironic but also fitting that all this came to pass in the same week the U.S. Census Bureau reported a milestone. It seems that for the first time in U.S. history, white babies are now outnumbered by nonwhite ones. The majority becomes the minority. And as that wave of babies moves toward adulthood, the nation moves toward a future in which it will only grow that much more difficult to “otherize” people for their dark skin and exotic names.
After all, President Martinez lies in an incubator even as we speak. President Chen has begun to toddle. President Muhammad is being toilet trained. And this idea that some of us are real Americans and some of us are Others is thereby doomed. It will probably not even work in 2012. It will definitely not work in years to come.
The conservatives who are still demanding a birth certificate they’ve already been provided, the ones taking applications for extremely literate African Americans, the ones operating on bad food, no sleep and a surplus of panic, would be well advised to understand this and adapt accordingly. Their former business model — appeal to the fears, anxieties and resentments of aging white voters — is literally dying.
Meantime, the future is being born, audible in every new baby’s cry. Langston Hughes would have understood that sound for what it is — America, being sung.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.