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Signifying without Specifying

Signifying without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 218
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  • Book Info
    Signifying without Specifying
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5210-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (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 or puzzled over the nuances of this peculiar proclamation. It was at once an empowering reiteration of the hope and change vested in Obama’s historic campaign and a strange indictment. Why have we been passively waiting when the country is in shambles—fighting two seemingly endless wars, our international reputation in collapse,...

  6. 1 Violence and Toni Morrison’s Racist House
    (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 slavery,A Mercyexamines a time in which America was not yet America and, more important, a time before blackness became inextricably linked to bondage. Morrison implicitly dismissed discussions of a “post-racial” world by calling attention to the pre-racial colonies of the early seventeenth century. Investigating what it means to “to remove race from...

  7. 2 Hiding the Invisible Hurt of Race
    (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 liberating vision they promise. Even when marks of racial difference are not visible on the skin, as explored in many passing narratives such as Nella Larsen’sPassing(1929) or James Weldon Johnson’sThe Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man(1912), there is always the threat that the color of a child may betray its mother or more...

  8. 3 The Unspeakable Language of Race and Fantasy in the Stories of Jhumpa Lahiri
    (pp. 100-133)

    Part I of Obama’sDreams from My Fatheris 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 to a number of older black men, including an insightful poet named Frank, our future president found himself alone in navigating the tensions and ambiguities of his racial identity.¹ Joining the long legacy of African Americans who, as Karla Holloway observes, “make their marks with a list of the books they have read” (BookMarks, 6), Obama...

  9. 4 Performing Intimacy: “Race-Specific, Race-Free Language” in Political Discourse
    (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 ofParadiseand “Recitatif,” the deliberate isolation of the protagonist inApex Hides the Hurt, and the intimate silences of Lahiri’s characters. Instead, this discourse, when used for political purposes, paradoxically both preserves and elides racial difference according to various strategic ends. Although “race-specific, race-free language” has proved to be a powerful rhetorical tool for Obama, it poses complex challenges. Black critics like...

  10. Conclusion: The Demands of Precious
    (pp. 164-178)

    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. Both titles are replaced by another pair, “IN ASHLAN WIT SMOKWD TINMANT,” again in the uneven red lettering and then “(in association with Smokewood Entertainment).” Once these two fade, the film’s title, “PRECIOUS,” appears in red, followed closely by “(BASE ON NOL BY SAF),” and finally, “(Based on the novel ‘Push’...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 179-190)
    (pp. 191-198)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 199-202)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 203-204)