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Signifying without Specifying

Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama

Stephanie Li

Publication Year: 2011

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama faced a difficult task—rallying African American voters while resisting his opponents’ attempts to frame him as “too black” to govern the nation as a whole. Obama’s solution was to employ what Toni Morrison calls “race-specific, race-free language,” avoiding open discussions of racial issues while using terms and references that carried a specific cultural resonance for African American voters.

Stephanie Li argues that American politicians and writers are using a new kind of language to speak about race. Challenging the notion that we have moved into a “post-racial” era, she suggests that we are in an uneasy moment where American public discourse demands that race be seen, but not heard. Analyzing contemporary political speech with nuanced readings of works by such authors as Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead, Li investigates how Americans of color have negotiated these tensions, inventing new ways to signal racial affiliations without violating taboos against open discussions of race.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

When I was in the second grade, my teacher announced that our class was going to hold a science fair. She explained that the best way to come up with a topic for our projects was to ask a question that we could not answer. I remember how easy it was to think of questions: Why does the...

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pp. xi

My thanks begin where this project began, with Grant Farred’s invitation to me to submit “something on Morrison” for the SAQ edition on “Thinking Black Intellectuals.” I am grateful both for Grant’s confidence and for his helpful feedback on what would become the seed of this book....

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pp. 1-30

When then Senator Barack Obama announced to a crowd of thousands in February 2008, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” few knew that the line referred to a poem by African American poet June Jordan.1 Instead commentators either thrilled with the power of his commanding oratory...

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1. Violence and Toni Morrison’s Racist House

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pp. 31-67

In the fall of 2008 with the presidential election only months away, Toni Morrison published her ninth novel, A Mercy. At the very moment when the country was anxiously, incredulously looking toward the future, Morrison directed her readers backward. Moving well past the history of antebellum...

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2. Hiding the Invisible Hurt of Race

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pp. 68-99

Metaphors of race in African American literature have generally been characterized through visual terms—the invisibility of Ralph Ellison’s protagonist, the veil that prevents the young W.E.B. Du Bois from joining his white classmates, the yearning of Pecola Breedlove for blue eyes and the...

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3. The Unspeakable Language of Race and Fantasy in the Stories of Jhumpa Lahiri

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pp. 100-133

Part I of Obama’s Dreams from My Father is largely dedicated to chronicling the difficulties of growing up black in Hawaii. With his mother in Indonesia conducting fieldwork for her dissertation, the adolescent Obama lived with his maternal grandparents. Though his grandfather introduced him...

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4. Performing Intimacy: “Race-Specific, Race-Free Language” in Political Discourse

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pp. 134-163

President Obama has proved to be our country’s most adroit user of “race-specific, race-free language.” However, because the race of participants upon the national stage is already known, such coded rhetoric operates apart from the experimental ambiguity of...

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Conclusion. The Demands of Precious

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pp. 164-177

Lee Daniels’s 2009 film, Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, begins with the appearance of the words “LE DANS TINMIN” written in a red scrawl at the bottom right of a black screen. A moment later “(Lee Daniels Entertainment)” emerges in a standard font below the original phrase...


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pp. 179-189


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pp. 191-198


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pp. 199-202

About the Author

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pp. 203

E-ISBN-13: 9780813552101
E-ISBN-10: 0813552109
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813551432

Page Count: 218
Publication Year: 2011