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For some time now I have been puzzling over the flap raised over Ludacris’ praise of Barack Obama. As hip hop goes the language was rather tame, nothing you would not hear in any bar or even walking down a city street. There is only one offensive word: b-h, but unfortunately it is used to describe Hillary Clinton –which as Obama admitted is out of line and frankly a bit stupid, considering there is no reason to dis Hillary Clinton at this point.

Something more is going on here, something that takes us back into the shadowy regions of the American past, regions most of us would just as soon not visit or admit even exist. My fellow blogger Francis Holland has brilliantly coined the phrase “extreme color arousal” to describe the more ambiguous term racism, but color arousal has long been tied to what might be termed “culture arousal.” By that I mean extreme sensitivity to elements of African American culture.

The denigration of people of color has always been wound together with a denigration of their cultures. The stereotypes that used to grace Hollywood movies all employ elements of culture from speech to dress to body language to music. Back when racism was more overt and segregation acceptable, the culture of people of color served to reinforce all manner of half-baked ideas about African American inferiority. Whites even went so far as to invent a pseudo-African American culture that graced literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, popular songs like “Old Black Joe,” and, of course, the minstrel show, which was created by Dan Emmett, who not coincidentally wrote “Dixie.”

It was W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk who lifted what he termed the “veil” over the importance of African American culture. In the preface to that book DuBois definitively captured that relationship:

Before each chapter, as now printed, stands a bar of the Sorrow Songs, — some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past. And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil ?

As he explored the cultural implications of the veil, DuBois articulated what my other fellow blogger Field would today describe as the split between the “field” and the “house” Negro–one which remains behind the veil, but true to his or her culture while the other seeks to please white folks and denies their culture.  The issue of “behaving white” has echoed through African American culture since the first slave ship unloaded those who had survived the brutal voyage, for even today many regard it as turning against your own culture whether it be in how you speak or how you dress or what music you favor.

In the late nineteenth century, ragtime became the first African American originated musical form to reach white audiences and that issue lay at its center.  Some of its earliest forms followed the minstrel tradition of creating a racist, pseudo-African American of which the notorious “coon songs” still remain a low point in American musical culture.  Some of these were written by African Americans.

The story of Scott Joplin, “the King of Ragtime” would take at least another essay to relate, but all his life he struggled with the culture issue, at one time even writing a ragtime opera. Suffice it to say, Joplin’s life was not an easy one and although his best-known song “Maple-Leaf Rag” is credited as being the first million-seller (in sheet music form), Joplin never made much money with it (a story that echoes through American musical history).

To put it bluntly, whites gentrified ragtime and it is still not uncommon to find music or cultural histories that speak of ragtime as a “sophisticated” version of more “primitive” or “folk” music. This dichotomy would loom even larger in the story of jazz, which most of us know, represents a story of an African American cultural form that was also gentrified (the most notorious example being Paul Whiteman–those of you who don’t know their jazz history must be rolling their heads at that one). Meanwhile African American performers were segregated and African American jazz derided as “jungle music.”

The rock era only continued the same themes which reaching its extremes with freshly scrubbed white teenagers like Fabian and Leslie Gore, whose talents were at best limited, while so-called rhythm and blues was regarded in much the same way as African American jazz. A Republican representative from Michigan even tried to ban the mailing of rock and roll records and right wing preachers and other keepers of decency railed against its evil influences on youth.

But behind all this lay a deeper antagonism, even hatred for African American culture. If white kids started listening to African American music or dancing like African Americans, the apocalyptic preachers predicted the fall of American civilization. On the surface it is as absurd to fear music as it is to hate someone because of the color of their skin, but this was not about notes and harmonies it was about culture and cultural control.

George Orwell got it about right when he wrote in “Politics and the English Language:”

Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.

No orthodoxy has better exemplified Orwell’s point than American orthodoxy which for centuries has not merely demanded, but enforced a “lifeless, imitative” style. if one were to take the mastheads off any of the major American newspapers, could you tell them apart? Find yourself in some lonely motel room on the road and turn on what passes for the local news, but turn away from the picture and just listen. Where are you? If you dare look outside the window for help, you won’t find much since “motel row” in most towns looks the same, as do the malls that have taken over the American commercial landscape.

Orwell wrote:

This reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

Political conformity reinforced by cultural conformity has always represented the dark side of American democracy. Our nation at its worst is a kind of high school with all its petty conforming pressures. So it is that at times when this nation has sought to compel political conformity, it also has nurtured cultural conformity.  And never has this nation so sought to compel political conformity as in the days since 9/11.

Once again the old, now distorted arthritic hand of national unity has grabbed the nation around the throat and threatened to choke off any word, any sound that dare disturb the new orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that went so insane as to seek to rename French fries and irrationally cower in fear at the mere mention of the name Hussein.  In this orthodoxy our popular music has gone as stale as it was in those days after World War II and before rock.

But behind the veil that still exists, African American culture went its own way and one of those ways was hip hop, which now has suburban white kids listening to the likes of Ludacris and wearing baggy pants too low.  Which brings us to the present political campaign.

John McCain would love to make this a campaign about orthodoxy and conformity because the hidden subtext of that which can be found in the backwoods of the Internet, where the strands of the web drape ominously in dark caverns harboring creatures with a nasty bite, is an old arachnoid-like desire to feed off cultural differences, sucking them dry.

So the McCain camp has signaled already that just as the Kerry campaign was in the end about culture, so too is this one. The Swift Boat thing worked because of its undercurrent of the blue-blood who got out of Vietnam early and with a questionable Silver Star to boot. The Bush camp succeeded in even portraying the President’s ineptness as a debater as a sign of his being like the rest of us, who also mess up words now and then and get our facts confused.  Forget that the two attended the same Ivy League college and Bush had even more silver spoons than Kerry, it worked.

As with the Kerry campaign, the cultural campaign against Obama will be conducted under the radar, with only a few reminders like the Ludacris incident to bring the theme forward. So Barack Obama, like so many African Americans before him, must contend with the veil. This country has always had a tendency to try to pressure African American leaders to deny their own culture, as DuBois recognized. That was the root of DuBois’  chief and deep dislike for Booker T. Washington.

A little over a half century after DuBois wrote Souls of Black Folk, during the Civil Rights Movement mainstream African American leaders were placed in the double-bind of being asked to symbolically renounce their own children over yet another culture war and in many an African American family there were generational tensions. But none of those leaders was running for President.

Barack Obama can look back to DuBois or the leaders of the sixties for lessons, but none of them faced the pressures he does to denounce his own culture. Will the first black man in THE big house, the big White House be a field or a house Negro? Yet to pose the question that way is to fall into McCain (and Karl Rove’s) trap for that is exactly how they would like to frame this election. It is wedge politics at its ugliest.

Instead, Obama must turn the question from orthodoxy to diversity. He must get America to see what both DuBois and Orwell wrote about–that the path of orthodoxy is the path of cultural and political death. And so this election may not hinge on health care policy or the Iraq War or gas prices, but on whether America can resist succumbing to its dark side.

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