Thursday, May 23, 2013

Perspectives on Obama's Morehouse Address

James Fallows points, probably rightly so, to the impossible predicament that President Obama (and First Lady Michelle Obama by implication) find themselves in when addressing issues of race and/or about lesbians and gays, as exemplified by the reaction to the President's commencement address to historically Black men's university, Morehouse.  The historical significance of the President's mere presence (i.e., the first Black president addressing the graduating class of one of the preeminent colleges for Black men) and the content of his address as well.  In particular, two aspects of his speech have gained prominent attention: his admonition that these young Black men need to not blame racism for their failings and to press on, and his mention that Black men should be good husbands, or partners, opening up space for the recognition of the gay men / same-gender loving (SGL) men. (Some Black men find gay to be racially marked as White, and choose other identity designations, such as SGL).  
The President's rhetoric certainly merits the attention many commentators have paid to it (with the exception of the racist and ludicrous writings of certain right-wing pundits).  Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tim Wise, whose arguments I find persuasive, take the President to task for his "bootstrap" message.  While the President addresses the continuing presence of racism and discrimination, he asserts that nobody cares, previous generations had it worse, and these graduates should stop making excuses.  James Braxton Peterson provides a balanced summation of the critiques and accolades of this (and Michelle Obama's) address, concluding: "a longer, more sustained dialogue between the Obamas and black America is a few years overdue."

Jafari Allen maintains that the President's invocation of gayness in the address is far more important and historic, yet has been drowned out in the wake of his racial message.  Allen, who taught the first LGBTQ class at Morehouse and who is also an alumnus, calls the President's acknowledgment of same-sex relationships "profoundly significant, especially at this time, and in that setting, where, until recently, we had remained unacknowledged from pulpits of power."  I strongly recommend reading his article for its perspective on the importance of this utterance and Allen's own experiences teaching the course.

Yet the utterance "partner to your boyfriend" is contextualized within a heteronormative framework of traditional marriage, children, and family.  It is embedded within stories of heterosexual reproduction and hegemonic ideals of masculinity and maleness.  Being a good gay then means being a traditional, strong, responsible man.  Additionally, on the Facebook page of Queerocracy, "a non-normative grassroots organization," one member posted an interesting insight: 
I like that he [Obama] did this, but a lot of the rhetoric he used--at least what is quoted--still suggests that queer and Black are mutually exclusive identities. Despite advocating that the graduates be the best husband to their wives, boyfriends or partners he continues by comparing the struggles of Black people to those of other minority groups, one of them being queer people. I also think it's interesting that The Huffington Post chose to put this in their Gay Voices section when Black Voices would have been just as appropriate, if not more so. I do appreciate that he did this, but a lot of people don't seem to realize that in attempting to be inclusive, their rhetoric can sometimes do the opposite.       
I find this perspective compelling in its call for us all to consider intersections of identities and how we often, even or especially benignly, fail in this.  It also shows the failing of modern gay liberation discourse, in which the President's words are firmly ensconced, to represent a gayness that is not White (or classed, or gendered).

I'm left, in the final analysis, wanting to acknowledge the contribution the President's mentioning of men having boyfriends as a meaningful event for many Morehouse (and perhaps other HBCU) men.  Morehouse has certainly not been particularly friendly to queer students, and perhaps this will help continue opening up space for gay/SGL and even trans or gender non-conforming men at Morehouse and other HBCUs.  But of course, in addition to positing Black vs. gay, there's no acknowledgment of genderqueer or trans people; men is not used to mean a range of bodies and identities.  I don't really at this point expect more from this president.  And perhaps Peterson is right that "maybe a commencement address is not the best place to hash out political inadequacies."  Obama's deployment of modern gay political language is, without doubt, significant in any context and the most inclusive of any sitting president.  I find more problematic his admonitions to Black men which seem lacking in critical clarity at the very least.  But again, I remain disturbed with another invocation of the gay and lesbian politics that dominates American society and that cannot envision a good gay or lesbian who does not uphold neoliberal and heteronormative ideals of citizenship, gender, and family.

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