Thursday, January 22, 2009

The age of ubiquity

You’ve seen it for years and you see it today in television advertising, in the movies, in news reports and still photographs: the black or minority man or woman literally on the edge of the frame, last in a visual series, on or near the very periphery of the visual space you’re looking at. On the margins.

It’s no accident. It’s become such a basic aspect of our culture that its composition is rarely questioned, and infrequently tweaked. But this is a passive kind of poison: You can’t see people who look like you constantly shunted to the visual sidelines without being affected by it.

The practice isn’t as bad, as pervasive as it used to be; years of fitful advances by minorities in the studios and newsrooms and ad agencies of America have seen to that. But it’s still one of the more corrosive features of our relentless teleculture.


It’s going to be real hard to do that for the next four years. That formula changed permanently on Election Night 2008, and it changed again on Inauguration Day. Barack Obama has completed the long process of moving African Americans, and minorities generally, to a place among the larger pixels of American culture.

The word “pixels” isn’t dropped casually. It speaks to the way the visual is our main avenue for communication. Whether it’s on your flat-screen in the living room or a billboard on the highway, we tend to prioritize what’s important by what we see, how often we see it, and how much we pay attention. It's how we order things of interest, influence and impact. Who’s that on the box, what’s he saying? Check it out. What the face is saying might be important. Especially if it’s the president’s face.

That face on television, online and in magazines and newspapers. That face we see every day as an index to what’s crucial, maybe indispensable to the national life.

That face has never been a black face before. It is now, and will be for at least the next four years.

That fact changes the definition — the benchmark — of American normality. Forever.

There are some moments of American discovery that can’t be repealed or reversed. Obama’s inauguration as president was one such moment. With a felicitous irony, it ratified what may be the central emotional principle of participatory democracy: You’re not on the margins anymore when the President of the United States looks like you.

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African Americans have come close to this cultural ubiquity before. It’s a fact for black people over a certain age, those who remember growing up in households where the triptych images of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. hung on the walls or adorned the mantels. For many elders it was a kind of personal iconography; for a lot of folks in the 60’s and 70’s, these men were the accessible saints, the contemporary North Stars of our moral compass.

King had a divinely inspired capacity for summoning this nation to honor its basic principles, but all of King’s transformative career occurred before the advent of modern television and the Internet. President Obama’s ubiquity in American life will transcend King’s own, because of the social advances that King made possible, the political advances Obama made possible, and the technological advances America made possible.

All due respect to Roland Burris, the new junior senator from Illinois, but he’s not the self-described “magic man.” President Obama is. The nation’s new chief executive, everywhere at once, the elected arbiter of all things American, the baseline standard for our lives. The automatic normal.

And black people have never been in that situation before. This is new and exciting and maybe even faintly terrifying.

Oh, the presidential honeymoon will end. Those ads for victory plates and presidential coins won’t be on TV forever. The realities of the job will settle on that slender Obama frame; the challenges once theoretical and now real will hasten the appearance of the salt-and-pepper hair we know he's been hiding with Just For Men.

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And for too many millions of black and minority Americans, Obama’s elevation to the presidency is no panacea. Nothing changes for those without work, in danger of foreclosure, recently laid off, under threat of being laid off. The panoply of social pathologies we are heir to and those who take on ourselves won't vanish. Theirs are lives already challenged everyday.

But even so, now for African Americans especially, there’s something special that wasn’t there before. There's a charge in the air that wasn’t there before, a different fact of the undercurrent of our lives. It’s what you tell yourself: A black man is running the country, a man who’s made a pledge to make things better. Got to get up off this couch, out of these doldrums, away from this funk. A black man is running the country.

And as time passes, that’s when it gets really, wonderfully interesting: when the newness of this ubiquitous moment wears off, and Barack Obama becomes to the American people as a leader what blacks and minorities have always sought to be to America as people: Not three-fifths of anything, but whole and sufficient. Not peripheral, but central. John Q. Citizen. Jane Q. Citizen. Everyday people. The automatic normal.
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Image credits: Monitor image (via MSNBC): Michael E. Ross. Obama plate: hsn.com

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