January 2008

America’s “first black president”

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Elizabeth Alexander of Salon writes about the mis-used Toni Morrison quote that Bill Clinton was America’s “first black president.” This quote was repeated during the Democratic Presidential Debates — which was the first time I heard it. You can read Toni Morrison’s original article from the New Yorker, but Alexander’s analysis concisely illuminates the key point. Surprise, surprise: this quote is always used out of context, and never in the way Morrison intended.

Her words have been used frequently and almost always out of their original context, as a way of signaling Bill Clinton’s supposed comfort with and advocacy for black people, to the extent that Hillary Clinton even attempted to joke that she was “in this interracial marriage.” …

[Instead, Morrison] questioned the pitch of Starr-fueled hysteria, and said: “Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime … The always and already guilty ‘perp’ is being hunted down not by a prosecutor’s obsessive application of law but by a different kind of pursuer, one who makes new laws out of the shards of those he breaks.” …

Morrison was not saying that Bill Clinton is America’s first black president in a cute or celebratory way, nor was she calling Clinton an “honorary Negro.” Rather, she was comparing Clinton’s treatment at the hands of Starr and others with that of black men, so often seen as “the always and already guilty ‘perp.’”

I have to ask the obvious question: does our media even do its basic job anymore? Can we rely upon it to do anything right? Or will it continue to take quotations out of context and mis-represent ideas like these?