The swelling song of a less divided America

Posted: May 27, 2012

I, too, sing America.

So wrote Langston Hughes, the unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes, whose 65 years spanned the lynch mobs of the early 20th century and the race riots of the mid-1960s, intended a defiant reminder to a nation too often content to include him out, a nation quick to regard him as the eternal Other, separate from and threatening to what they saw as the "real" America, i.e., the white America.

"I, too, sing America." It was his way of letting them know that he, too, belonged to America. And America to him.

Hughes died 45 years ago this week, but the need for the reminder survives. Consider two headlines from last week about the revitalization of racially provocative smears against President Obama.

The New York Times reported a plan floated to — and wisely shot down by — a GOP super-PAC. It sought $10 million for ads tying Obama to incendiary statements by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If that leaves you feeling déjà vu all over again, it’s because that controversy was already litigated — and dismissed — four years ago.

This goofy plan to revive it envisioned hiring "an extremely literate conservative African American" spokesman to argue that Obama lied when he presented himself as, ahem, a "black metrosexual Abe Lincoln."

A second story was nearly as bizarre. It seems Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett told an interviewer it’s "possible" he’ll keep the president off the state’s ballot unless he gets proof Obama was born in the U.S.A. Perhaps you think Bennett, who has gubernatorial aspirations, is pandering to the lunatic fringe. Perish the thought. "I’m not a birther," he said, presumably with a straight face. "I believe that the president was born in Hawaii — or at least I hope he was."

So it appears the campaign will turn at least partly on a renewed effort to convince people that the president — a man they’ve seen daily for three years now, a man whom, polls suggest, voters find personally likable even when they disagree with his politics — is a scary and mysterious Other: "Hide the children, Martha — Obama’s comin’!"

It is ironic that this came to pass the same week the Census Bureau reported that for the first time in U.S. history, white babies are outnumbered by nonwhite ones. The majority becomes the minority. And as that wave of babies moves toward adulthood, the nation moves toward a future in which it will grow that much more difficult to "otherize" people for dark skin and exotic names.

After all, President Martinez lies in an incubator as we speak. President Chen has begun to toddle. President Muhammad is being toilet-trained. And this idea that some of us are real Americans and some of us are Others is thereby doomed.

Those still demanding a birth certificate they’ve been provided, those taking applications for extremely literate African Americans, would be well advised to understand this and adapt accordingly. Their business model is dying.

Meanwhile, the future is being born, audible in every new baby’s cry. Langston Hughes would have understood that sound for what it is: America, being sung.

Leonard Pitts Jr. writes for the Miami Herald.

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