Posted by: mutantpoodle | October 13, 2008

Barack and Michelle Huxtable

I’m not usually in my car on Sunday nights at 6PM. I’m usually getting ready for dinner, or for Mad Men at 7 (ah, to live in the Pacific Time Zone and have satellite TV), but whatever I am doing, it does not involve listening to NPR.

Specifically, On the Media.

But, through a quirk of airline schedules and airport transportation choices, that’s what I heard when I headed north from the airport home.

Specifically, this piece interviewing Vincent Williams about a piece he wrote for the Baltimore City Paper. In it, Williams talks about the “who is Barack Obama” theme the McCain campaign is pushing – emphasizing Obama’s “otherness.”

Now, I look at the Obamas, and frankly what I see is a typical upper-middle class family (I’m talking about before he got rich off of his books). Educated and successful mother and father, bright children, all of whom are, in their socio-economic group, extremely, well, conventional.

And black.

Williams brought me to the perfect historical precedent.

The Huxtables:

…if there was ever a study in black people trying to posit their existence in normative terms, that was it. I’m on record a couple of times showing my huge love for Bill Cosby’s masterpiece in its entirety, but those first two seasons in particular are a fascinating study in sitcom structure, because there aren’t really plots, per se. Each episode was just 26 minutes of this family’s day to day routine: the first day of school, Denise gets a new car, the family makes plans for the grandparents’ anniversary, etc. In some ways, these early episodes take an almost cinéma vérité approach to family’s life, depicting simple moments in daily existence to point toward a broader truth: that the African-American Huxtable family was a normal one with middle of the road, middle-class values. The fact that The Cosby Show was seen by many critics, black and white, as unrealistic pretty much tells you all you need to know about the manner in which black folks were seen in the ’80s.

Something tells me “that manner” hasn’t necessarily shifted seismically in 20 years, as Thomas points out:

But 20 years later, we’re looking at the Obama family, and looking hard. I’ve been sort of bitterly amused by some of the strategies Team Obama has had to employ over the last few months. In some ways, I’m impressed that Obama and his surrogates have been able to say that “the American people just have to get to know him” with a straight face. What else is there to know? Seriously, when’s the last time we’ve known as much about any politician as we have Sen. Obama? Pop quiz: Anyone know where Ronald Reagan went to church? How about what Roslyn Carter did for a living? No, any information anyone needs about the candidate is out there, so it’s never been about “getting to know” him; it’s been about “getting to accept him as one of us.” Seriously, what else was the Democratic National Convention about? And the undercurrent of most of the overall attention addressing how “normal” Barack Obama is with his normal wife, his normal little girls, and their normal life? Frankly, after a good year of this, I think the jury’s still out on just how much America has judged all of it.

In the interview on air, Thomas added this:

…one of the continuing challenges for African-Americans, and particularly the African-American middle class, is to be seen as ‘run of the mill’. That is the revolutionary brass ring right there.

Thomas contrasted Obama’s reception with that of Sarah Palin, who appeared one day from Alaska with far more unanswered questions buzzing around her past than Obama, at this point, has orbiting his. And yet Palin was marketed – and almost instantly accepted – as a typical mom in a typical American family.

Clearly, some people will never get to the thought of the Obamas as “one of us.” But should Barack Obama win, the Obama show may take us a step closer to thinking of Barack Obama as, perhaps a uniquely gifted politician who lives a normal American life.

In the White House.


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