What does it look like to have an African-American in the White House? Pop culture has offered versions awful and great, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Chris Rock.
If Barack Obama wins Tuesday, he might begin his victory speech by thanking Dennis Haysbert.
At least Dennis Haysbert seems to think so. Months ago, he declared that his portrayal of a black president on Fox’s “24” series had paved the way for the real-life senator from Illinois. “If anything, my portrayal of David Palmer, I think, may have helped open the eyes of the American people. And I mean the American people from across the board — from the poorest to the richest, every color and creed, every religious base — to prove the possibility there could be an African-American president, a female president, any type of president that puts the people first.”
He may be on to something. As one of “24’s” most dedicated and ambivalent fans, I have always marveled that a single program could accommodate both Dick Cheneyesque interrogation techniques and the liberal wet dream that is David Palmer. Unassailable in his goodness, ironclad in his resolve, Palmer is only incidentally a black man, and he is, not so coincidentally, everything you could want or need in a commander in chief. In the checks-and-balances universe of “24,” a figure of such virtue cannot live indefinitely, and in the opening episode of Season 5, David Palmer was duly sent to his reward. His legacy lived on, fitfully, in younger brother Wayne (D.B. Woodside), who overcame his wicked-pol origins (and his goatee) to become the Bobby to David’s JFK. “24” is hyper-adrenalized pulp, but pulp can be as good a teacher as art — better, maybe — and it’s hard to deny that six years of the Palmer brothers have inured a whole segment of Fox America to the sight of black faces in the Oval Office. But, in fact, the Palmers are just the latest milepost in a long road of acculturation that has taken several curious detours along the way.
To the audiences of the early 20th century, perhaps the most defining image of black power was provided by “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), which shows the Reconstruction Legislature of South Carolina overrun by barefoot black legislators — an open reproach to everything white civilization holds dear. Given the prevailing political climate, it’s no wonder that the idea of a black president, before it could be broached anywhere else, had to be considered through the prism of fantasy.
In 1926, a Brazilian children’s author named Monteiro Lobato had to look far into the future — the year 2228, to be exact — to imagine an African-American president. In Lobato’s obscure, half-prescient novel, “O Presidente Negro (The Black President),” a politician named Jim Roy, leader of the Black Association party, actually succeeds in claiming America’s highest office, only to be undone by a coalition between the incumbent white president and a white feminist named Evelyn Astor. Roy is murdered in short order, leaving his race to be sterilized into extinction by “the Aryan super-civilization.” See where ambition gets you?
Fantasy of a different order is on view in “Rufus Jones for President” (1933), a bizarre Vitaphone musical short in which a black mother (the great jazz-blues singer Ethel Waters) dreams that her little boy (an immediately recognizable Sammy Davis Jr.) has been elected president. A modern viewer barely has time to register the aspiration before recoiling at the racial slurs that were common to that day: black voters lured to the polls with free pork chops; Rufus celebrating his victory with a half-eaten piece of chicken; a presidential platform that calls for unlatching chicken coops and planting watermelon vines close to the fence.
From bulging eyes to happy feet, scarcely a single racist trope is omitted from this 23-minute film. But perhaps the most disturbing sight is Davis, whose grown-up clothing and prematurely aged face give him the appearance less of a child than of a midget. It’s as though the filmmakers understood that the only way to make a black president pass with Depression-era audiences was to shrink him into freakish insignificance.