- Unloosened Forms, Untranslatable Concerns and UnformedThe Limits of American Notions of Race in Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies
In an interview with CNN conducted after the conclusion of his eight year presidency, Barack Obama, the first black President of the US, claimed that his reception among certain sections of the American society—especially Southern whites—was mediated through racism.1 A few months later, his wife, Michelle Obama, made the same allegation. "Knowing that after eight years of working really hard for this country," she asserted in an interview with Lauren Casteel, the President of the Women's Federation of Colorado, "there are still people who won't see me for what I am because of my skin color."2 Even a cursory web search reveals the Obamas were the targets of vicious anti-black racism, of the sort one would think the First Family of United States of America would be exempt from. Within digital popular culture, Obama's visual representations often recycled age-old stereotypes of apes and thugs.3 In keeping with contemporary global Islamophobia, Obama's images have also been juxtaposed with Osama bin Laden, thus signifying him as a Muslim terrorist. Scholars invested in studying the media iconography of the Obamas, have commented, "… Obama images must be read as indelibly racialized representations that, for some readers, express and reflect a discourse of sometimes explicit, sometimes coded twenty-first century anti-Black racism" (Joseph 391).
Within the broader public culture, this form of anti-black racism did not go unnoticed by left-liberal cultural and political interlocutors.4 Many commentators couched their critique of it using the rhetoric of exceptionality. Such commentaries point out how Obama's blackness not only singles him out from other Presidents of the United States, but also how that blackness makes him an easy target of the white supremacist ideologies that form part and parcel of American culture. To be precise, blackness in such discussions often read as a deterrent that sets limits to Obama's authority as the President. An appraisal of the cultural productions of the era of Obama presidency would thus reveal the emergence of a very specific narrative genre which can be termed as literary Obamaphilia. This genre attempts to give Obama back some of the authority lost by his association with blackness. Its literary form involves the creation of a specific kind of consumable personhood [End Page 6] for the first black President of the US. Foremost in this genre is African American memoirist Ta-Nehisi Coates' essay "My President Was Black." Celebrating the election of a black man for the first time to a political office that has hitherto been exclusively masculine and white, the essay is built on a rhetoric of liberal racial uplift which avoids any ideological interrogation of the implications of being the President of United States, a nation which has often been dubbed an "imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy" (hooks 46) by earlier generations of black scholars and critics.
This essay contends that one of the unarticulated understandings of literary Obamaphilia is the assumption that Obama's blackness was enough to insulate him from the structural imperatives and the ideological implications of the imperialism, white supremacism, capitalism and patriarchal politics which his office entailed. Meanwhile, even a quick look into Obama's policies would prove that, within a year of his assuming power in his office, Afghanistan—rather than Iraq—had become the focal point of renewed military action. Political scientist Perry Anderson observes, "Within a year of taking office, US troops had been doubled to 100,000 and Special Forces operations increased six-fold, in a bid to repeat the military success in Iraq" (Anderson).5 Concurrently, the Obama years also witnessed a consolidation and escalation of war in Pakistan. In other words, Obama's ascendance to the Presidency also marked an unprecedented series of imperial-military interventions in South Asia whose political and cultural implications remain as yet largely unexplored, thus enabling the creation of a culture of silence over Obama's imperial missions in the Middle East and South Asia. Cultural critic Sunaina Maira writes, "What was clear in the Obamania that swept the...