David Ehrenstein, Chip Saltsman, and Puff the Magic Dragon Walk into a Bar

9 years ago

This was intended to be a short piece about how Chip Saltsman distributed a CD with the political parody "Barack the Magic Negro" set to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," and how people were angry at him and Mike Duncan at the RNC got his days-of-the-week panties in a bunch, but I decided that to write something short and sweet was a) impossible for me to do and b) an insult to the intellectual integrity of this issue.

In March of 2007, LA Times columnist David Ehrenstein wrote a piece titled "Barack the 'Magic Negro'" subtitled "The Illinois senator lends himself to white America's idealized, less-than-real black man."

Before we go any further, let's pause the crazy train and reflect on that for a moment, shall we?

Perhaps I'm just being silly, but it almost sounds as though Ehrenstein said that President-Elect Barack Obama is not a real black man. I mean, being that I'm not black myself (indigenous American ancestry actually, listed on the Dawes-Miller rolls and among the dead on the Trail of Tears) I'm not quite sure of other requisites for being black other than the color of one's skin, but perhaps Ehrenstein knows something that I do not. I also understand that he's comparing Obama to this caractiture and therein lies the problem. 

Ehrenstein went on to say that there is a "magic negro" syndrome in Hollywood in which black men are always these angelic humans free of all wrong-doing, who are here on earth to save white people. I'll forgive Ehrenstein for ignoring how Indigenious Americans are only cast in such roles, along with older, black women ("The Matrix" anyone? "How to Make an American Quilt?" "Poltergeist?" et al.).

Let's take the crazy train on down the line to one month after the Ehrenstein piece, when political satirist Paul Shanklin recorded a song about the issue, for use by Rush Limbaugh. Ehrenstein completely goes off his own rails around the eighth graph, but comes back around to coherency with this:

"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 ...

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."

Ehrenstein finishes:

"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."

It's almost impossible not to assume that Ehrenstein is defining Obama with his earlier definition of "magic negro":

"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."

I didn't even vote for Obama but after reading this I'm pissed off for him, honestly. I realize that Ehrenstein neither coined this historical phrase nor is writing
about it it he same vein as Paul Shanklin; it's how with one column
Ehrenstein attempts to rain on Obama's parade by ignoring the man's achievements (I've said they were few for the office which he sought, but more than most and greater than Ehrenstein's), the historic precedence Obama set with his campaign, and tried to neuter the scope of this achievement by brushing it off as nothing more than a penance of "white guilt." I find that insulting.

Even more so - many people for whom I care about voted for Obama. That Ehrenstein suggests their motivation for doing so is attributed to the above referenced is offensive. Everyone that I know who voted for Obama did so because they felt he was the more qualified candidate - race aside - which is what I thought we as a nation were striving for with regards to equality. They did not vote for him because hey! What better way to make up for past inequality than by voting for the first viable black presidential candidate that comes along, validity aside? To do such seems to me racist still. 

Those usually offended by such things as the suggestions in Ehrenstein's column were silent.

All aboard, the train chugs away.

I'm not ashamed to say that I listen to Rush Limbaugh. I work in talk radio; it's unavoidable. Limbaugh regularly plays Shanklin's stuff. Shanklin recorded the song as a parody of the very irony which I just mentioned; and where Ehrenstein wrote that the only affecting criticism was that Obama wasn't as legit as say, Al Sharpton, that's where Shanklin picked up the perspective for his narrative.

To say that the song is racist while excusing the actual author seems inconsistent and demonstrates an inability to see the forest for the trees; to say that it completely jabs at Ehrenstein's convoluted piece in which he diminishes the accomplishments of a black man seeking higher office - an accomplishment that all Americans regardless of ethnicity, creed, or political leanings can celebrate - is spot on accurate.

When the song was brought to Obama's attention, he laughed it off, saying:

"I'm not one of these people who, who takes myself so seriously that I get offended by -- by every -- every comment made about me. You know, the -- you know, what Rush does is entertainment, and although it's probably not something that I listen to much ... I don't mind folks poking fun at me."

Whether by "folks" he was refering to Ehrenstein or Shanklin went unverified.

Ride the crazy train to Christmas of this year.

Chip Saltsman, RNC Chair hopeful, sent out a 41-track CD comprised of political parodies such as "We Hate the USA," "Love Client #9," and "Barack the Magic Negro" to national RNC members. When news of this hit the press the people who weren't outraged when Ehrenstein penned his now-famous column were now incensed and the fervor with which they expressed their displeasure seemed to be such as to make up for lost time.

RNC Chairman Mike Duncan nearly wet himself, so eager he was to seize this as a tool with which to beat down an opponent; his are actions of a desperate man, a man without the skills and accomplishments necessary to secure for himself a second term as RNC Chair. Duncan stated:

"The 2008 election was a wake-up call for Republicans to reach out and bring more people into our party. I am shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate as it clearly does not move us in the right direction."

I am appalled and shocked that Mike Duncan thinks enough time has passed after his recent mismanagement of the RNC and his failure, as party chairman to include women and minorities for him now to make such ironic statements.

I agree with Sister Toldjah, who writes:

"There’s no question that there are going to be a number of
controversial issues that will inevitably be discussed and debated over
the coming years that are going to generate “outrage” amongst the usual
suspects, topics that the GOP routinely get dumped all over for
addressing (affirmative action, gay marriage, sex ed, etc) and in those
areas we’ll need to stand our ground and not bow to the winds of
political correctness. But on the issue of “Barack the Magic Negro” as
it relates to a potential RNC Chair (rather than a columnist or talk
radio host), it’s all about perception, and unfortunately for Saltsman,
the parody - while not worthy of the “outrage” being displayed by those on the left and right - pushes the limits of “defensible.”

Do I think that Chip Saltsman is a racist? No, I don't.

If Saltsman is a racist for distributing it, Ehrenstein is a racist for writing it and those who excused Ehrenstein while condemning Saltsman are no better.

Do I think that there are some whose eagerness to mark Saltsman as a racist betrays their own prejudices? Yes. Betrays their own double-standard? Yes. Some of those suddenly demanding respect for the office of the presidency, were, after all, the same people who also joked about Bush's assassination or bought and sold violent anti-Bush merchandise.

(That's a tangent that needs to be stated but not the point: I don't measure the appropriateness of a term by whether or not the status quo is comfortable with it; I think words like "negro," et al. are inappropriate regardless of who says it, who uses it in a joke, a song, whatever. This is not and should not be a debate on employing a word that causes discomfort not just to black Americans, but all Americans who find it in poor taste.)

Do I think that there exist others anxious to leverage Saltsman as a pawn for their own ambition? Absolutely. This includes the NY Times for purposefully failing to so much as mention the origin of the song.

Do I think that fear of how the media will react to an issue should be the ultimate definition of an issue? Bells no.

Right Wing Sparkle asks:

"Why is is controversial to make fun of a liberal black columnist calling Obama "The magic negro?" It absolutely begs to be made fun of."

She adds:

"I would think that the column itself would be what is controversial, not the song making fun of it."


Was Saltsman wrong to distribute the CD? I personally think it was in poor taste. By his own account, Saltsman distributed the CD to showcase what he perceives to be the blatant idiocy on the part of Ehrenstein and the silence that followed the publication of the aforementioned column.

Because we live in a climate where speech is closely monitored, where the lamestream media are nothing more than lobbyists, and men women young and old are eager to play the victim of offense, Saltsman had to have known that this would cause a torrent of bad press because people would completely miss the point - and that the entire thing would cause a deluge of racism accusations and in turn, be a PR nightmare. Because he lacked the foresight needed to anticipate such an outcome, Saltsman should be yanked from the RNC Chair race. We already had one giant boob manhandling the party, we don't need another.

Saltsman isn't a racist, but he sure as Hades is a doofus - and  I find Ehrenstein's assumption that the reason Barack Obama was elected president (as opposed to others like Al Sharpton, etc.) is because of white people's fascination with the "magic negro" phenomena just as doofusy.  

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