Artificial Membership Claims

Elizabeth Alexander, the poet and professor of African-American studies at Yale, sets the record straight in Salon about that Toni Morrison quote, which has been repeated ad nauseam by the Clinton camp in Hillary’s campaign for the White House, so much so that it took the form of an actual question in the South Carolina Democratic debate. (“Senator Obama, do you think Bill Clinton was our first black president?”) Alexander went back to the New Yorker essay in which Morrison made the comment:

A look at the context of the words at the source is illuminating. Morrison began by describing a nation glued to unseemly details of Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, as Kenneth Starr pursued his investigation and Republicans cheered him on. She 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.'” Even in its original context the comparison doesn’t quite work. African-American men have been demonized for centuries without having done anything but be black men, while people of all political stripes would likely agree that Clinton put himself in a compromised position with the Lewinsky situation, even if the political reaction was out of proportion to his alleged “crime.” Morrison seemed here to be making a dark admonishment about what it means to be tarred with the same brush that has punished African-American men throughout this country’s history.

In any case, Toni Morrison has made it clear whom she supports in this year’s presidential race, and it’s Barack Obama.


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