Feathered Bastard

Why the Huffington Post Needs to Get Over Chip Saltsman and "Barack the Magic Negro"

Is Barack really "the magic negro"? Considering the state of the economy, let's hope so.

The liberal political correctness posse over at the Huffington Post is doing backflips of fake outrage over RNC Chairman hopeful Chip Saltsman's sending out a humor CD to Republican committee members -- one that included the Paul Shanklin parody Barack the Magic Negro, set to the tune of Puff the Magic Dragon.

Actually, there's probably some real outrage mixed in with the fake stuff. The most I can go with is writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson's description of the ditty -- which first received radio airtime on Rush Limbaugh's program about a year ago -- as "silly, insipid." Let's be honest, Earl, that '60s Peter, Paul and Mary version was pretty insipid on its own, without any augmentation.

But Huffington scribe Paul Jenkins' insistence that Saltsman's distribution of the CD is proof of "the GOP's white supremacy" is a reach. And when the original song's co-author Peter Yarrow calls it, "offensive...shocking and saddening in the extreme," all I can think is that it's time for Yarrow to make acquaintance with ye ole butterfly net.

The song itself is legitimate satire, even if it's not really as funny as it could have been. In it, Shanklin mimics Al Sharpton singing about the appeal of Obama for white folks. The idea behind Shanklin's parody came from a column for the L.A. Times written by David Ehrenstein titled (drum roll, please) Obama the `Magic Negro''

In it, Ehrenstein (himself an African-American) describes the cinematic trope of the "magic negro" who appears from out of nowhere to solve all the problems of the white characters, like Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, or Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, and applies it to Barack Obama. Ehrenstein didn't invent the concept of the "magic negro." But he was the first to peg Obama with that term.

In his 2007 piece for the Times, Ehrenstein unknowingly lays the groundwork for Shanklin's parody by discussing the flap over what he calls, "Obama's alleged `inauthenticty,' as compared to such sterling examples of `genuine' blackness as Al Sharpton and Snoop Dogg." Sheesh, you can practically see the infernal light bulb go off over Shanklin's follicle-challenged pate.

To those who charcterize what Shanklin has done as "black face," I'd point them in the direction of a DVD for Dave Chapelle's Chappelle's Show, specifically, the skit concerning the black KKK member who doesn't know he's black. (Would there be the same uproar if Saltsman had given his fellow GOPers The Best of Chappelle's Show?) Or the unamused could watch an episode of David Alan Grier's hilarious Chocolate News on Comedy Central, where Grier informs white people that Obama's not even black, "He barely even passes the brown paper bag test."

The whole kerfuffle reminds me of a classic SNL skit from the '70s featuring Garrett Morris and civil rights leader Julian Bond wherein they play host and guest, respectively, of a show called Black Perspective. The topic: The myth of white intellectual superiority. The whole sketch revolves around the fact that both men are black, but Morris is far darker than the light-skinned Bond. 

Check this bit of dialogue from the sketch in question:

Garrett Morris: ...The fact is that people have been saying that white people are smarter than blacks for hundreds of years. We've only had I.Q. tests for 20 or 30 years. How did the idea of white intellectual superiority originate?

Julian Bond: That's an interesting point. My theory is that it's based on the fact that light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks.

Garrett Morris: [ not sure he heard that right ] Say what?

Julian Bond: I said I think it might have grown out of the observation that light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks.

Garrett Morris: I don't get it.

Julian Bond: It's got nothing to do with having white blood. It's just that descendants of the lighter-skinned African tribes are more intelligent than the descendants of the darker-skinned tribes. Everybody knows that.

Garrett Morris: This is the first time I've heard of it.

Julian Bond: Seriously? It was proven a long time ago.

Garrett Morris: Well, I still don't quite understand. We're out of time right now, but perhaps you could come back on the show again and explain it further.

(Couldn't find a clip on YouTube, so you'll have to imagine Morris squirming as Bond explains his theory to him.)

I guess you could argue that Shanklin can't do this sort of humor because he's white, but Chappelle imitated white people for laughs. So did Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. Few ofays can pull off such racially charged material. But I'm reminded of Gene Wilder in Silver Streak. And consider all the racial jokes in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. The late George Carlin, also, was one of the few Caucasians with this ability.

Shanklin's not in their league, obviously. But his parody is not racist, and these tongue-lashings of Saltsman by Huffington's bloggers seem pretty self-serving. All they want to do is beat up on a Republican. Normally, I'd have no problem with that motivation. It's just that they can find better objects for their anger and derision than this one.  

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons