John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The New Republic.
Watching Republicans clutching their pearls to see the rapper Common invited to the White House on a poetry night Wednesday has revealed a party whose stars are grievously out of touch with the culture they hope to lead, as well as to culture in general, apparently.
It is understandable that some would imagine if the Obamas convene a poetry night, the invitees would be the likes of Billy Collins or Elizabeth Alexander, who read a poem at the President's inauguration. But this is 2011, in which in terms of people about 50 and younger, the idea of poetry as only, or even mainly, writerly observations on the printed page is about as current as the idea that a newspaper is a physical object.
Although not all process it quite this way, poetry now occupies a more central place in the lives of typical young Americans of all colors than it ever has in the history of the nation — as rap music. The only question would be why the Obamas, as today's Kennedys, would not include a rapper on their list. Anyone who can see nothing valid in rap reaching the White House hasn't listened to much rap since about — well, in Sarah Palin's case, apparently 1979. Helpfully letting us know that her problem with Wednesday's White House event was not based on being "anti-rap," Palin told us that she knows the words to that year's "Rapper's Delight," the hit that created a new musical era.
Indeed, those lyrics were cute, but hardly something one would expect the First Couple to be musing upon after dinner. Rap lyrics have gone much further and deeper than that over the past three decades, and even the days when the nasty "gangsta" variety was the hottest thing are now past. Rap is in a refractive, self-reflexive phase in which the major players, such as Kanye West and Lil Wayne, are more about how interesting they find themselves than about shooting cops.
Furthermore, one could almost have predicted that the invited representative would be Common. He is one of the foundational "conscious" rappers who has eschewed the "gangsta" routine, even including his father on one recording (Be) advising us to "be a brilliant soul, sparkling in the galaxy while walking on earth." But to Palin, Karl Rove and their ilk, Common is just one more exhibitionist polluting the culture with a thug routine, as if 50 Cent were invited to regale the Obamas with strophes about "gats." One could only take this view of Common with a willful blindness to context and nuance.
Big surprise: Dig around in Common's oeuvre and you find that — get this — this black leftist bard of the black condition turns out to have some tribal affection for Black Panther sorts, despite their less-than-pristine criminal records. The Republicans' problem this time is Common's passing shout-out to Joanne Chesimard, an ex-Panther who was convicted of killing a New Jersey officer in a shoot-out and has long been under political asylum in Cuba. But this hardly means Common would warmly advise a young man to go assassinate some more cops, or that he applauds to hear of cops dying today.
Adulation of the Panthers is hardly ideal, to be sure, based more on drama than action. But if it's wrong for the Obamas to have anyone over who sees a certain revolutionary heroism in the Black Panthers as people battling the more overt racism and police brutality of that historical period, then this would disqualify probably every second black writer or thinker in the United States, not to mention legions of ordinary citizens with Huey Newton T-shirts.
Interesting: I presume Rove and Palin roll their eyes at those who see racism in Southerners celebrating their Civil War military heroes. We are to be "mature," stop being so hasty and reductionist, and understand that one can cheer for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee without being a racist. Okay — but then, we will not, either, condemn black people with a passing fellow-traveler feeling for the Panthers as advocates of murder.
Or, it turns out Common said "burn a Bush" in one lyric. Again, who's being immature and hasty here? Not so long ago, we were to stop bashing Palin for the likes of "Don't retreat, reload." I agreed — to link this kind of language to the Tucson disaster meant being studiously deaf to how metaphor pervades all human expression; no one would have batted an eye if Barbara Jordan had said the exact same thing. Well, now a rapper says "burn a Bush" and he shouldn't be allowed on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Please: This suggests a numbness to the basic abstractness of human expression, or at least a rather pathetic inattention.
Of course, while Common is a poet worthy of the White House, he's no political leader, and thus the sourest note about the whole fracas is that it has stirred up something that Obama's election quietly tamped down. Not so long ago, quite a few harbored a melodramatic notion that "conscious" rap was going to undergird some kind of "hip-hop revolution." That idea was always a distraction from real politics, which are something quite different from the earnest but idle cynicism set to rhymes over beats.
Immediately after Obama's election, this trope lost its mojo. I suspect that the election of a black president looked so revolutionary in itself, and was ineluctably real in comparison to the fantastical "hip hop generation" vision. At the Obamas' poetry night, rap was treated, in a high-profile venue, for what it is. That is, not something that is going to turn the Capitol upside down, but poetry — like Jay-Z's work now sold between covers.
But the scenario is ruined when we have people of a different brand of recreational opposition protesting on the sidelines as if the Obamas having Common over were like inviting Young Jeezy or Cam'ron. Because Common now has a guru status complete with a burgeoning career in film, the criticism will come off to a healthy contingent as a knock on one of the bards of black dignity — i.e. as more evidence that Republicans are racists just as the debate over racism in the Tea Party has retreated.
Moreover, it will revive the eagerness of that same contingent to fill us in on the fact that "All rap isn't like that!" The implication traditionally associated with this observation is that the rap not "like that" is our new Freedom Songs. But it never has been, and we've seen blissfully little of the pretense over the past two and a half years. It's a shame, then, that the cotton-headed artistic sensibility of the Republicans' poster people will pump new life into a routine with such a vast disproportion of heat to light.