Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy by Darryl Pinckney, book review: How Obama failed on race

A timely study of the civil rights movement suggests that having a black man in the White House has not helped

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The Independent Culture

We don’t have, here in the United Kingdom, any black/ethnic minority/person of colour quite like Darryl Pinckney.

Novelist/essayist/dramatist/critic/journalist/metropolitan, he lives between this country and New York, where he is considered a major part of the city’s literary scene.

In the United States, Pinckney is allowed to ruminate about himself, and I use the word “allow” because he is given the space to extend his black personhood to include humankind.

In other words, he often writes about subjects other than the colour of his skin. He is that term derided in the UK: a public intellectual.

Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy is a long essay and meditation on being born of African slave descent in the USA.

The picture is not pretty.

The book begins with a kind of aerial view of the history of African America around the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the Sixties. At a fairly fast clip, Pinckney explains how black people moved away from the Republican Party – the Party of Lincoln – to the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. FDR gave people jobs and homes and food and the possibility of dignity.

This swing to the Democratic Party happened primarily in the North. The South, however, was a different matter altogether.

The Southern Democrats, or “Dixiecrats”, were the standard bearers for that continuous struggle between states’ rights and the federal government. This is what lay at the heart of the conflict, lasting from 1860 to 1865, that Abraham Lincoln referred to as an “insurrection”.  The South called it “The War of Northern Attrition”.

Protesters hold up their hands before police as they block traffic on the West Side Highway during demonstrations in New York

Black people were at once the symbols of this violation of the sovereign rights of the states and the principal victims, too, of an embittered and impoverished region. It was at the ballot box above all that a modicum of Southern white superiority could be maintained, especially over that wildest of beasts – the black male.

Believed to be only three-fifths of a human being, inherently savage and out of control, black people were the children of Cain, and black men the agents of rape and pillage without understanding, remorse or pity. The Dixiecrats did everything in their power to make sure that black people stayed in their “place” and their various methods of achieving this ranged from the gruesome to the ludicrous. Martin Luther King Snr was so frustrated with the Democrats, Pinckney informs us, that he considered taking a black delegation to the Republican Party convention. This was in the late 1940s.

My late father, Mississippi Delta born and bred, would have had to take an obscure test in something like Mandarin Chinese, or something that passed for Mississippi’s version of it, to be able to vote. But he escaped the Delta before he had to do that, and instead found himself part of the Second World War in the meticulously segregated US Army.

America’s existential terror of the black male could not cease for something mundane as a world war. And it is terror: blind; irrational; tinged with hatred and resentment that lies at the heart of the recent deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; and of a little boy playing in a playground with a toy gun. If you’re a black man, you can’t get a break even if you occupy the Oval Office.

This fact is the subtext of Blackballed and the discordant blues that runs beneath the surface of the words. Pinckney uses James Baldwin’s  statement that Dr King was a departure from the old school style of black leaders who often  said one thing to The People and another  thing to “The Man”. King said the same thing to whites that he said to blacks. Perhaps one of the consequences of this is that many white people thought everything was hunky-dory on the race relations front.

People march toward the West Side Highway during a protest in New York

This complacency may be the reason that Pinckney states that his late father hated Mississippi Burning. The “Yeah, but that’s not us” attitude of many Northern white people gave the film licence to depict the FBI  (from the North)  as the heroes.

Part of the delusion of American racism is that it is believed, by too many, to be mainly Southern and spoken with a twang. This “Atticus Finch” versus “Boo Radley” has blind-sided many. They search the stage of the Grand Ole Opry rather than the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. But it is in the highest circles that you might find the kind of racism thought to be extinct. Pinckney agrees with President Jimmy Carter’s statement that racism lies behind much of the hostility against Barack Hussein Obama. 

Toward the late middle of the essay, Pinckney hits his stride.  He dissects what to many on this side of the Atlantic looks bewildering and bizarre: how in the world has the presence of a black man in the Oval Office actually made things worse for black men and black people in general?

Barack Obama tried to emerge “race-neutral” from the political cauldron of my home state of Illinois. He set out to do what all presidents try to do:  construct an idea of liberty and equality. But as Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York once said: “You campaign in poetry and govern in prose.”

The prose began early with President Obama.  In spite of that fact that he made the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 look like insurgencies, he is of a time when radio shock jocks wield as much power as the late-night TV chat shows. And with most of the successful radio stations firmly planted on the right and far right, even  President Obama’s deft  marshalling of  social media cannot hold back the tide.

New York City police officers push people out of an intersection in Times Square

Pinckney shows that up against the new generational black confidence as exemplified by Obama is the traditional white right wing – and something new. This something new is fuelled by the mega bucks of the East Coast right, funnelled through Political Action Committees, which  drive issues and play a long game.

The Republicans – many beholden to this new force – have just regained the Senate after a bitter battle. This technically boxes President  Obama into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where he can only effect legislation through executive orders and the veto.

Many want him to be that archetypal circus attraction: the Black Man in a Cage.

At the end of this slim but powerful volume,  Darryl Pinckney  leaves us realising that nothing much  has  fundamentally  changed from the bad old days.

Black America is still saying: “I Can’t Breathe.”

Bonnie Greer’s memoir: ‘A Parallel Life’ is published by Arcadia.  Her book of essays ‘Talking Till Judgement Day’ will be published in 2015