Barack Obama, the ‘Magic Negro’.- LA Times

The Illinois senator lends himself to white America’s idealized, less-than-real black man.

By David Ehrenstein, L.A.-based DAVID EHRENSTEIN writes about Hollywood and politics.
March 19, 2007

AS EVERY CARBON-BASED life form on this planet surely knows, Barack Obama, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, is running for president. Since making his announcement, there has been no end of commentary about him in all quarters — musing over his charisma and the prospect he offers of being the first African American to be elected to the White House.

But it’s clear that Obama also is running for an equally important unelected office, in the province of the popular imagination — the “Magic Negro.”

The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. “He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist,” reads the description on Wikipedia .

He’s there to assuage white “guilt” (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.

As might be expected, this figure is chiefly cinematic — embodied by such noted performers as Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Scatman Crothers, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Smith and, most recently, Don Cheadle. And that’s not to mention a certain basketball player whose very nickname is “Magic.”

Poitier really poured on the “magic” in “Lilies of the Field” (for which he won a best actor Oscar) and “To Sir, With Love” (which, along with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” made him a No. 1 box-office attraction). In these films, Poitier triumphs through yeoman service to his white benefactors. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is particularly striking in this regard, as it posits miscegenation without evoking sex. (Talk about magic!)

The same can’t quite be said of Freeman in “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Seven” and the seemingly endless series of films in which he plays ersatz paterfamilias to a white woman bedeviled by a serial killer. But at least he survives, unlike Crothers in “The Shining,” in which psychic premonitions inspire him to rescue a white family he barely knows and get killed for his trouble. This heart-tug trope is parodied in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” The film’s sole black student at a Columbine-like high school arrives in the midst of a slaughter, helps a girl escape and is immediately gunned down. See what helping the white man gets you?

And what does the white man get out of the bargain? That’s a question asked by John Guare in “Six Degrees of Separation,” his brilliant retelling of the true saga of David Hampton — a young, personable gay con man who in the 1980s passed himself off as the son of none other than the real Sidney Poitier. Though he started small, using the ruse to get into Studio 54, Hampton discovered that countless gullible, well-heeled New Yorkers, vulnerable to the Magic Negro myth, were only too eager to believe in his baroque fantasy. (One of the few who wasn’t fooled was Andy Warhol, who was astonished his underlings believed Hampton’s whoppers. Clearly Warhol had no need for the accouterment of interracial “goodwill.”)

But the same can’t be said of most white Americans, whose desire for a noble, healing Negro hasn’t faded. That’s where Obama comes in: as Poitier’s “real” fake son.

The senator’s famously stem-winding stump speeches have been drawing huge crowds to hear him talk of uniting rather than dividing. A praiseworthy goal. Consequently, even the mild criticisms thrown his way have been waved away, “magically.” He used to smoke, but now he doesn’t; he racked up a bunch of delinquent parking tickets, but he paid them all back with an apology. And hey, is looking good in a bathing suit a bad thing?

The only mud that momentarily stuck was criticism (white and black alike) concerning Obama’s alleged “inauthenticty,” as compared to such sterling examples of “genuine” blackness as Al Sharpton and Snoop Dogg. Speaking as an African American whose last name has led to his racial “credentials” being challenged — often several times a day — I know how pesky this sort of thing can be.

Obama’s fame right now has little to do with his political record or what he’s written in his two (count ’em) books, or even what he’s actually said in those stem-winders. It’s the way he’s said it that counts the most. It’s his manner, which, as presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden ham-fistedly reminded us, is “articulate.” His tone is always genial, his voice warm and unthreatening, and he hasn’t called his opponents names (despite being baited by the media).

Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn’t project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.



  1. You obviously have a right to your opinion. I wonder, however, if you hold all candidates – whatever their race – up to the same standard against which you would evaluate Senator Obama. After all, the incumbent president was only a moderately successful governor in a state where the office is among the weakest in the Union. In turn, he was only moderately successful as a business leader, leveraging his family’s connections to achieve whatever success was possible. He then ran for President of the United States, and presided over the most disastrous war in U.S. recent history. I mention these instances because the ineffectual nature of Bush Administration policies suggests that his principal qualifications for the office are that he has some sort of supernatural relationship with the christian right – one which allows them to overlook the impact of his mistakes – due to the fact the he is Christian and White. Are you going to write a column about the “magic white man”, whose qualifications are meager, achievements almost invisible, failures readily apparent, and yet still manages to preserve the support of his political base?

    Probably not.

    From an African American, I will relate two facts. First, few of us use the term negro to describe ourselves. Second, we do not consider Senator Obama magic, and if you had less of a fixation on racist characterizations, you might see that there are people of various backgrounds (even some whites – yes, I know you are incredulous) who can look beyond narrow categories and appeal to a broader one — the fact that we are all Americans, share an appreciable set of common values, and pursue a common future.

  2. Good Morning David,

    I like to point a few things out to you, if I may. Neither I nor any other contributor to this blog contributed a single word to this post. It’s entirety is By David Ehrenstein of that champion of civil rights, the LA Times. So perhaps you’d like to take umbrage with him.

    Secondly, in answer to your original question, yes I do. Regardless of race.

    Thirdly, I find it ironic that you, as an African American would profile me as White and Christian. That’s not very tolerant, now is it? Given that the Liberal Media is choosing to mock Obama. And I, a conservative am choosing to call them out on it. Perhaps you should consider reading more of this and less of that.



  3. Dear Mr. Chin:
    I happen to know that David Ehrenstein wrote the article in LA Times.
    And when I read Mr Mussington’s comments, I assumed that he was merely expressing his views about the content of the article and was not directing them to you. Reading your response however, prompted me to go back and check the credits of the article and I found the only name listed next to “Author” is “Chin”

    In the future, including the author’s name in the heading of the article might prevent confusion.

  4. From the top of the post…

    By David Ehrenstein, L.A.-based DAVID EHRENSTEIN writes about Hollywood and politics.
    March 19, 2007

    “Author” on a blog is the person who posted the content. In this case, “Chin”

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    Barack Obama, the ‘Magic ‘.- LA Times « House of Chin

  6. I have quit YouTube and will be committing ritual suicide online.
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