John McWhorter is a curious fellow. When McWhorter is working in his depth as a socio-linguist he is devastatingly sharp. By comparison, McWhorter's writings on politics are horribly uneven. At times, he knocks it out out of the park; more often than not McWhorter's observations are a more high-brow version of typical, lazy thinking, black conservatism.
But there is little evidence that Cain is trading on that kind of racism: “Shucky ducky” and “I does not care” are harmless cultural flotsam. Rather than policing Cain’s behavior, we should take it as a learning opportunity. At the least, our conception of blackness should be generous enough that conservative black Republicans can afford to be black in public.
Unfortunately, McWhorter's piece in the New Republic defending "Cornbread" Herman Cain falls into the latter pattern. He is bending over backwards to explain away a black buffoon's routine that is prefaced on denigrating the intelligence and dignity of African Americans for the glee, approval, and entertainment of white conservatives. Moreover, McWhorter, a true intellectual, misses the obvious, i.e. the reason d'etre of race minstrelsy. The black mask was precisely a fantasy role that validated the fantasies of white supremacy at the expense of African American personhood and humanity.
How John McWhorter can miss this obvious aspect of Herman Cain's presidential campaign--by a man who is a rocket scientist, and a Morehouse graduate, feigning a version of country negro illiteracy that is straight out of Song of the South--is shocking to me. Such an omission on McWhorter's part can only be intentional.
If John McWhorter were a social scientist, I would accuse him of conducting "piss poor social science." He is a professor in the humanities. Thus, I am unsure of the equivalent to describe McWhorter's myopic and poorly reasoned article on Herb Cain. Any suggestions as to a fitting moniker?
Here is a particularly rich passage. The whole essay can be found here.
Were it that we could come to the same agreement about Herman Cain’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, when he says that his Secret Service handle could be “Cornbread,” or greets an enthusiastic audience with the theatrically humble expression “Shucky ducky,” commentators get their hackles up. Read the op-ed written by Brown University’s Ulli Ryder last week in the New York Daily News and you would think that Cain is himself a racist, encouraging insulting “stereotypes”.
The truth is much simpler—namely, he is exposing (in some cases, introducing) the country to an authentic thread of black culture. Cain isn’t a self-hating minstrel. Quite the opposite: He’s a black man from the South actually comfortable enough to be himself on the national stage.On the epistemological question of whether there is such a thing as “authentically black” culture, I have my doubts, and have expressed them at length in my previous writing.
But we also shouldn’t say that there is no such thing as blackness at all, as some educated black people have alleged. A culture with no traits is nothing—or at least nothing worth discussing. The real problem is that many political and media elites have a much too narrow conception of what it means to be black. Indeed, one of the saddest things about modern black American culture is the sense that there are large aspects of it that are somehow not respectable.
The fact is Cain is a black person from the state of Georgia: Why shouldn’t he have a right to invoke vernacular Southern black culture, including a fondness for cornbread? Cain’s saying “shucky ducky” is no different—no more anti-black—than when President Obama says “goin” instead of “going.” It is Cain’s critics, with their deep-seated ambivalence about the value of black culture, who deserve to face the charge of self-hatred. Where Cain is proud to display his blackness—from its physical characteristics (he has openly said he finds the color of his own skin to be beautiful) to its more subtle and humble cultural components—his detractors would seem to wish he would not be so black where white people can see it.
Certainly, some of Cain’s rhetoric needs to be contextualized to be properly understood. More than anything, Cain shows an affinity and comfort with the particular sense of humor rooted in black American experience. However questionable it is as a political trope, Cain has been regularly employing on the campaign trail a particularly black rhetorical comic style, one that involves a certain cartoonish, and fantastic treatment of violence. This is the tradition he was drawing on, for example, when he called for a border fence that would electrocute Mexicans.