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Obama, Melville and the Tea Party

NY Times, Jan. 18, 2014

By Greg Grandin

In 2009, shortly after Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the White House, the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan organized a display of about 50 books that Mr. Obama had read as a young man. The titles were eclectic, with a good number by African-American authors, including Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama demonstrated a remarkable rhetorical ability to present himself as both inhabiting and escaping from the worlds created by these writers. He even modeled his much praised memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” on Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man.” Yet where Ellison’s young, idealistic black protagonist remains anonymous — the book ends with him alone in his underground apartment — Mr. Obama won the White House, inaugurating what many at the time hoped was a new, “postracial” America.

That optimism turned out to be premature. Today, anti-Obama signs with racist language accompany Tea Party rallies; a Confederate flag is unfurled in front of the White House to protest the government shutdown.

Looking back, there was one book in the McNally Jackson display, overlooked at the time, that could have helped us anticipate all this. That book was “Benito Cereno,” a largely forgotten masterpiece by Herman Melville. In today’s charged political environment, the message of Melville’s story bears rehearing.

“Benito Cereno” tells the story of Amasa Delano, a New England sea captain who, in the South Pacific, spends all day on a distressed Spanish ship carrying scores of West Africans who he thinks are slaves. They aren’t. Unbeknown to Delano, they had earlier risen up, slaughtered most of the crew and demanded that the captain, Benito Cereno, return them home to Senegal. After Delano boards the ship (to offer his assistance), the West Africans keep their rebellion a secret by acting as if they are still slaves. Their leader, a man named Babo, pretends to be Cereno’s loyal servant, while actually keeping a close eye on him.

Melville narrates the events from the perspective of the clueless Delano, who for most of the novella thinks Cereno is in charge. As the day progresses, Delano grows increasingly obsessed with Babo and the seeming affection with which the West African cares for the Spanish captain. The New Englander, liberal in his sentiments and opposed to slavery as a matter of course, fantasizes about being waited on by such a devoted and cheerful body servant.

Delano believes himself a free man, and he defines his freedom in opposition to the smiling, open-faced Babo, who he presumes has no interior life, no ideas or interests of his own. Delano sees what he wants to see. But when Delano ultimately discovers the truth — that Babo, in fact, is the one exercising masterly discipline over his inner thoughts, and that it is Delano who is enslaved to his illusions — he responds with savage violence.

Barack Obama may have avoided the fate of the protagonist of “Invisible Man,” but he hasn’t been able to escape the shadow of Babo. He is Babo, or at least he is to a significant part of the American population — including many of the white rank and file of the Republican Party and the Tea Party politicians they help elect.

“Benito Cereno” is based on a true historical incident, which I started researching around the time Mr. Obama announced his first bid for the presidency. Since then, I’ve been struck by the persistence of fears, which began even before his election, that Mr. Obama isn’t what he seems: that instead of being a faithful public servant he is carrying out a leftist plot hatched decades ago to destroy America; or if not that, then he is a secret Muslim intent on supplanting the Constitution with Islamic law; or a Kenyan-born anti-colonialist out to avenge his native Africa.

No other American president has had to face, before even taking office, an opposition convinced of not just his political but his existential illegitimacy. In order to succeed as a politician, Mr. Obama had to cultivate what many have described as an almost preternatural dominion over his inner self. He had to become a “blank screen,” as Mr. Obama himself has put it, on which others could project their ideals — just as Babo is for Delano. Yet this intense self-control seems to be what drives the president’s more feverish detractors into a frenzy; they fill that screen with hatreds drawn deep from America’s historical subconscious.

Published in late 1855, as the United States moved toward the Civil War, “Benito Cereno” is one of the most despairing stories in American literature. Amasa Delano represents a new kind of racism, based not on theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another’s absolute slavishness. This was a racism that was born in chattel slavery but didn’t die with chattel slavery, instead evolving into today’s cult of individual supremacy, which, try as it might, can’t seem to shake off its white supremacist roots.

THIS helps explain those Confederate flags that appear at conservative rallies, as well as why Tea Party-backed politicians like Sarah Palin and Rand Paul insist on equating federal policies they don’t like with chattel bondage. Believing in the “right to health care,” Mr. Paul once said, is “basically saying you believe in slavery.”

As for Mr. Obama, he continues to invoke fantasies that seem drawn straight from Melville’s imagination. One Republican councilman, in Michigan, attended a protest carrying an image of Mr. Obama’s decapitated head on a pike, which happens to be the very fate that befalls Babo once his ruse unravels. Another Republican ran for Congress in Florida with a commercial featuring Mr. Obama as the captain of a slave ship.

Over 60 years ago, Ralph Ellison began “Invisible Man” with an epigraph drawn from “Benito Cereno.” It’s a pleading question that Delano asks Cereno after the revolt is put down and Babo is executed: “You are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?” Though Ellison purposefully omitted it from his epigraph, in today’s America it is still worth recalling Cereno’s answer: “The Negro.”

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and the author of “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World.”

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