Our first black president?

It's worth remembering the context of Toni Morrison's famous phrase about Bill Clinton so we can retire it, now that Barack Obama is a contender.

Published January 28, 2008 1:26PM (EST)

Toni Morrison's statement that Bill Clinton is America's "first black president" has been repeated so often that it even came up as a question to Sen. Barack Obama in the presidential debate on Jan. 21.

We are now at a moment where more and more voters are showing that they are willing to elect an actual black president. In his historic and overwhelming South Carolina victory, Obama won a majority of whites under 30, along with the vast majority of African-Americans and most women. Real and urgent issues affect black people all across the nation. Endless joking about Bill Clinton's being America's first black president steers us away from serious and long-overdue conversations about race, as well as accountability on the part of both Clintons -- as well as all of the presidential candidates -- with regard to African-Americans. Even Morrison (who endorsed Obama today) might agree that her phrase has been distorted and overused, and is confusing our discussions about race today.

Morrison made the comment only once, in a short essay in the New Yorker in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impending presidential impeachment proceedings. As far as I could find, she has never used the phrase again and has not disseminated it beyond the New Yorker piece. 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."

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.

Once we stop rehashing this term out of context, we can stop accepting as a given that African-Americans have already had their black president, and focus instead on this actual African-American candidate we have before us, Barack Obama. We should also ask real questions about the Clinton legacy vis-à-vis African-Americans, instead of accepting uncritically that they have always worked to advance the interests of black people. We shouldn't forget the fates of Lani Guinier and Jocelyn Elders, for instance, as we evaluate President Clinton's record in advancing African-American appointees.

I am not arguing that the Clintons have done nothing to advance the cause of civil rights. I am saying that they get too much credit for their record, as well as for their supposed cultural comfort with black people. Both Clintons came of age during public desegregation, in which they like many other whites were exposed to black people in schools and in the workplace to a greater degree than those who came before them. Their apparent comfort with black people is generational, not an occasion for widespread celebration. I daresay George W. Bush shares that same comfort being in proximity to African-Americans, given all the hours he spends sweating on the elliptical machine next to Condoleezza Rice. His appointments of Colin Powell and Rice are inarguably historic. Given the way the phrase has been used, you might think that Bush could be termed a black president, too.

"Black" isn't a cute moniker, a stylish accoutrement, nor a "down-home" way of speaking. An actual black man now stands before the nation, making the case for why he thinks he is the best choice for president. Regardless of what happens in the weeks and months to come, America is listening.

By Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander — poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate — is president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She has held distinguished professorships at Smith College, Columbia University and Yale University, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and serves on the Pulitzer Prize Board. Alexander composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009, and is author or co-author of 14 books, including "American Sublime" and "The Light of the World."

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