On March 19, 2007
, Los Angeles Times
columnist David Ehrenstein
penned a piece entitled "Obama the 'Magic Negro.'" The lede
of the piece was "The Illinois senator lends himself to white America's idealized, less-than-real black man." The gist of the column was that Barack Obama was receiving (and would receive) a political boost by fulfilling a particular role in the race debate of the United States - that of the 'Magic Negro.' Ehrenstein quotes Wikipedia
for a definition of 'Magic Negro:'
The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. "He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist," reads the description on Wikipedia.
He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.
He went on to offer several examples of such a figure in American popular culture.
All this might have been little more than an obscure column, had not right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh ("Some say he's closely related to a pig!") latched onto the column and the phrase it popularized to, in his words, poke fun at liberals. Media Matters counted over two dozen uses of the phrase 'the Magic Negro' on Limbaugh's show the day after the column was printed. There it still might have rested, had Limbaugh's show not then moved on to the next phase. Conservative satirist Paul Shanklin (as described by Limbaugh) recorded a song entitled 'Barack the Magic Negro' which was sung to the tune of Puff the Magic Dragon, with Shanklin imitating Al Sharpton while singing. Limbaugh, of course, began gleefully playing the song on his radio show, predicting that liberals would use his playing of the song to claim he was attacking Barack Obama rather than poking fun at Ehrenstein and other liberal commentators. He was proven correct.
Again, this still would have likely been a two week tempest in 2007. But no. In late 2008, Chip Saltsman, a candidate for the head of the Republican National Committee, sent a CD containing some 41 songs out to members of the RNC - and this CD included the Shanklin song. Saltsman, reacting to the predictable outcry, claimed that "Paul Shanklin is a long-time friend, and I think that RNC members have the good humor and good sense to recognize that his songs for the Rush Limbaugh show are light-hearted political parodies."
He (again, predictably) did not address the point that the members of the RNC are overwhelmingly white, and hence the reaction of non-RNC members, i.e. black people, to the distribution of the song might carry more clout in the open political arena than his mealy-mouthed excuses.
- The Hill, "RNC candidate distributes controversial Obama song," December 26, 2008.
- The Los Angeles Times - David Ehrenstein, "Barack the 'Magic Negro,'" March 19, 2007.
- Wikipedia Entry, 'Magical Negro.'
- Media Matters, "Latching onto L.A. Times op-ed, Limbaugh sings "Barack, The Magic Negro," March 20, 2007.