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Volume 15, 2010

  
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Thomas J. Sugrue, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. £16.95 cloth). Pp. 165. ISBN 978-0-691-13730-8


It is particularly fitting for a book on Barack Obama to invoke the legacy of William Faulkner and in so doing seek to tap into the reservoirs of interracial memory the Southerner explored with such unparalleled single-mindedness. The study under review ventures into the minefield of recent culture and political history to examine the dynamics of race in the post-civil rights era and Obama’s pivotal role in it. While premised on the thesis that the 2008 elections ushered in a new multi-hued racial order, the book raises questions as to whether Obama’s ascent to the White House marks the end of race in the US, indeed the end of blackness as a marker of difference. Sugrue, who is David Boies Professor of History and Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, resists ‘epochalist’ thinking and the temptation of viewing Obama’s presidency in any easy dualistic terms. A leading civil right historian, Sugrue follows Obama on his journey to the White House in pursuit of an answer to the question whether racial injustice and prejudices have been overcome. What interests him primarily is not so much Obama the politician and policymaker, as the intellectual and the visionary. Sugrue thus capitalises on Obama’s learned profile, and the formative aspects of his political education that helped shape his conception of race. Obama’s own evocation of Faulkner in “A More Perfect Union,” the speech he delivered at the National Constitution Center in the race for the 2008 democratic party presidential nomination, points to a vision of race as a condition that needs full internalization if one is to effect significant change. Not the direct consequence of Obama’s racial politics, the epochal change in racial dynamics that Obama instantiates is seen as the result of his sophisticated, nuanced understanding of racial memory and its embeddedness in the American collective unconscious. Momentous though it may be, Obama’s rise to power, Sugrue indicates, cannot in itself counter America’s deep-seated racial divisions. In the long run, the president’s profound insight into the political economy of race on the other hand, his background as a civil rights attorney, and teleological view of America, may prove of higher consequence than his racial allegiance. By virtue of being the first African American President in US history, Obama merely fulfilled a precondition ensuring the prospects for a post-racial America.

In a provocative study titled, A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States (2005), postcolonialism theorist Ali Behdad, foregrounds ”historical amnesia” as a dominant national American trait, responsible for the collective dream of the formation of the US, or else for the construction of America as an imagined community. Importing the Freudian notion of denial, Behdad makes a strong case for the mechanism of a willed, convenient forgetfulness at play in the making of the American nation. Key to the reading of Obama’s politics of unity that Sugrue articulates is Obama’s keen awareness of the imperative of cultural anamnesis. A sound appropriation of the cultural genealogy of race, it follows from the study, is inseparable from political vision. Like Faulkner, Obama is animated by a sense of the presentness of the past together with a lucid recognition of the underpinnings of racial identity. In an insightful presentation of the new patterns of racial discrimination in contemporary America, Sugrue’s study posits African Americans as subject to the most persistent racial inequality in the US. Methodical and explanatory, Not Even Past combines the descriptive and the analytical in a balanced, impassionate approach that reveals the limitations of Obama’s leadership avoiding the mores and excesses of cultural/ist critiques. Unlike many presidential scholars, Sugrue relies mainly on historical analysis and description, as well as on close readings of Obama’s seminal speeches, to call attention to the continuing relevance of ambiguity and paradox in America’s contemporary racial history:

Obama represents the paradox of race in early twenty first century America: he embodies the fluidity and opportunity of racial identity in a time of transition. He also captures the ambiguities of a racial order that denies racism, yet is rife with racial inequality; that celebrates progress when celebration is not always warranted. He contains within his own thought contradictory positions that remain in tension with each other. And he brings to the table an openness to grapple with the still unresolved history of race and rights, and the constraints of an elected official averse to controversy. His awareness of history and its burdens provides the rest of us with a challenge and an opportunity. (Sugrue 136)

The crucial albeit indirect statement the book makes on America’s divisive identity politics is that Obama’s stance in intellectual history, his indelible mark on what has been termed post-racial America, owe as much to his scholarship as to his mixed ancestry.

ADRIANA NEAGU

Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca

Works Cited

Behdad, Ali. A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2005.

Sugrue, Thomas, J. Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010.

 

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