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Social Studies

Black Is The New Normal

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 10/1/2008

I haven't really been writing about them, but the political e-mail forwards and rumors are still blowing up my in box. One in particular just hit a couple of days ago that got me to thinking. It's one of the anti-Sarah Palin joints that have become such the rage since John McCain's, uh, interesting choice of the Alaska governor as his running mate. Instead of focusing on her "moon baby . . . from the moon!" or the "fact" that her husband used to be a underground terrorist robot pirate, this e-mail compared the reception that the previously unknown governor has received by the mainstream with the reception that the previously unknown senator running for president has. While there was plenty of attention paid to the two's educational disparity, as well as the size of their prior constituencies, what really jumped out at me was this little observation: Although a bunch of people have spent the better part of a year coming up with new ways to call Barack Obama "exotic," someone who "grew up eating moose burgers" is a quintessential American story and is accepted as such right out the box. And that just struck me, because that's it right there, y'know? Everyone talks about "fill in the blank" is the new black, but all black ever strives to be is the new normal.

In a bit of cosmic confluence, when I read the e-mail, I had one of the DVDs from the second season of The Cosby Show playing in the background, and 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.

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.

Yet, in a matter of weeks, if not days, Sarah Palin is able to waltz into the public arena with shady political affiliations to a group with separatist tendencies, her own questionable church membership, at least two troubled children, and a husband who is questionable at best. Plus, Palin is, right now, in the middle of an investigation into alleged unethical activity, but she is immediately someone whom we've all decided we can relate to. Don't get me wrong, I ain't mad at that. I think, as a culture, we should be able to embrace all types of people and see our commonality with everyone, including the Palin family with all of its blemishes and foibles, because, let's be real, all of us have some type of situation in our lives. I just wish we could extend the same courtesy to everyone regardless of color or robot pirate moon baby status.

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