I'm delighted to bring you this guest post this morning from Renee Cramer (pictured left), an assistant professor of Law, Politics, and Society at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. Renee's recent scholarly work has focused on intersections of race and class in American Indian law and politics and has been published by the University of Oklahoma Press (Cash, Color, and Colonialism) and several academic journals. Here's Renee!
This Bridge Called Barack
Andrew Sullivan recently wrote that Barack Obama is the only presidential candidate – either Republican or Democrat – who can bring the United States out of the morass that is the “Culture Wars” and into a saner, more peaceful future. Sullivan wrote that Obama is the candidate who can “bridge th[e] widening partisan gulf” in American politics, suture the fissures created by divisive discourse on religion, and connect the generational divide that typifies Baby Boomer Era politics and rubs those of us in Generations X and Y the wrong way.
Sullivan pictures Obama as the bridge to the future that Bill Clinton sold us on, the bridge to the 21st century. And Sullivan’s right. It is useful, indeed, inspiring, to envision Barack Obama and his candidacy as a bridge that takes us beyond where the Clinton administration left off, and from which the Bush administration has tragically backtracked.
This vision – of Obama as a bridge – is a powerful one for many reasons. But for me, its powerful because it brings to mind the mind-blowing, transcendent work of Gloria Anzuldua. Hermana Anzuldua wrote Borderlands - La Frontera: The New Mestiza, which was published by Spinsters/Aunt Lute press in 1987 and went on to become an often assigned, much cited, lovingly read classic in feminism, Chicano/a studies, and queer theory. In elaborating the title of that book, the late Anzuldua wrote, “the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle, and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”
Barack Obama inhabits these borderlands. As the African American son of a “white” Midwestern woman and an African man, he lives on the borderlands of racial identity in the United States. As someone who has lived with varying degrees of material comfort, as a former community organizer with an Ivy League education, he occupies the borderlands of social and economic class. As a man who publicly celebrates being married to a strong woman, and the father of two daughters, he lives on the borderlands of gender relations. As a person who has lived for extended periods abroad, in developing nations, and who has crafted a persona of calm and compassionate rationality on the world stage, Obama has potential to change the face of the United States in the international arena; he is on the borderlands and the frontier of US foreign policy.
As a powerful campaigner who connects as well in small settings as large venues, indeed, Obama shrinks space with intimacy.
But it is not Anzuldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera that Sullivan’s piece evoked for me – rather, it is her earlier work, the edited volume that she and Cherrie Moraga compiled, titled, famously This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, and published in 1981.
That groundbreaking collection was utterly transformational – for scholarship, for women of color, for me (a Midwesterner, a “white” girl), when I read it in college in the early 1990s. The book juxtaposes disparate female voices, in a multitude of languages, attitudes, genres and guises. In it, writers like Audre Lorde call for a “radical restructuring” of the United States – they call for liberation, justice, and subversion. They argued that these transformations could occur in the most intimate of places – the home, the person, the body – as well as in the halls of government and the workings of the law.
NPR’s Tom Ashbrook noted in an interview with Sullivan that Obama’s candidicay, at this particular point in US history, is like a “miracle of American culture.” Anzuldua’s writings, her demarcation of the borderlands, her indigenista mestijae message, her ability to collaborate, to hold onto her idea of self while transcending identity politics – those, as well, are miracles of a truly American culture. I see them embodied in the Obama campaign.
Anzaldua’s writing was called, by Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez in their weblog’s obituary for the author, “honest as a cactus.” Obama would likely smile at that phrase. Certainly he has his own tendencies for telling prickly truths, like when he famously spoke about raising auto emission standards, not at an environmental rally, but in front of United Auto Workers members and assembly line workers in Detroit, and when he is frank about the costs of some of his proposed programs, and candid about the costs of the campaign on his personal life.
Some feminists have argued that Hillary Clinton is the candidate we must support, primarily because she is a woman. And lately, supporters of Clinton have accused Obama of sexist language on the campaign trail, as when he said that she “periodically” attacks his campaign, when she’s “down” in the polls.
But my brand of feminism is an anti-essentialist, transformational politics. It is not a reductivist regressive identity politics that sees insult and victimization in the most innocent of phrases. Barack Obama’s very identity requires an anti-essentialist stance. And his refusal to play the race card in the face of clearly racializing language from his opponents refuses the victim cast. Like Anzuldua’s writings, the potential of Obama’s candidacy is “transformational,” as Sullivan writes – transformational of the culture wars, of America’s image abroad, of our sense of responsibility to each other, and of our cynicism and apathy towards “politics as usual.”
In his hybridity, in his transformational and historic campaign, in his focus on empowering and employing the grassroots of American democracy, I see Obama as the most feminist candidate currently running. Certainly, he is a bridge – not a bridge to the dubious promises of the 21st century; but a bridge that evokes the promises of the borderland, the understanding and acknowledgment that American democracy has, as Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga reminded us, been built on the backs of others who came before.
He is A Bridge Called Barack.
You can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thank you to Shira Tarrant for making the connection!