How the Obamas expanded the language of American presidency – with dance

We’re all familiar with the language of American presidential campaigns, the symbolic rituals every candidate must make – kissing babies, high fives with joe average, and sympathetic listening to his wife. Even more familiar are we with the stump speech, and the 100 megawatt smile that communicate, pick me, I’m the best one to lead. Every successful American presidential candidate has had to balance the appearance of groundedness, being relatable, while conveying the gravitas expected from a future president of the United States. In the 20th century, the benchmark has been JFK, against whom every president is measured; after him, we had to wait another twenty years for that kind of liberal glamour, which Bill Clinton conveyed, though Raegan possessed a film star quality that was not easy to dismissed, despite being followed by a cold, conservative message. The Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison famously called Bill Clinton America’s ‘first black president’ saying “he displayed almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” Albeit in a context of negativity, where Clinton’s was symbolically being lynched, Morrison also suggested this was the first president to emerge from a recognisably black cultural milieu, Clinton was cool, he played the sax. Morrison later rowed back from the precision of her statement but the point still stands. After the Clinton era, George Bush’s folksiness was a definite throwback to the era of the president as ordinary guy; Bush, you could also say expanded the language of the presidency, if only by a continuous innovation in buffoonery and inadvertent comic language. Obama’s candidacy was always going to be different – being the first viable black candidate in a country still riven by racial divides required a deft political balance; that balance was almost derailed in the first campaign with the controversy over Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s comments.

But Obama was not only the first Black presidential candidate, but also the first African-American president, equally important with an African-American spouse whose story of struggle was and is more emblematic than his. So when it came to the symbolic language of the campaign and eventually the presidency, Obama and his wife, Michelle have channelled one of the most powerful symbolic aspects of African and African-American identity – dance. Dance, throughout African-American history has been an important aspect of African American cultural expression, often serving as the only outlet for social, political and cultural expression when access to the mainstream of society was barred. Notably, cultural dances such as the cakewalk were as much about enjoying the dance as they were about mocking white slave masters, and in more recent times, dances such as the Charleston, the twist, have all signified the emergence of African-Americans as an increasingly powerful social and political force in American society. So it should be no surprise that the first African-American president and first lady would draw on this cultural tool to inform and communicate during their presidency. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be taken for granted, given the way in which black bodies and identity are frequently policed to conform in spaces predominantly occupied by white power, it was never a given that this couple would feel so free to express themselves. Drawing on the language and history of African-American cultural dance, Michelle Obama used dance to underscore a message of health, and subtly conveyed the arrival of an African-American presence into the language of power in America; we need look no further than the fact that Hillary Clinton, during her presidential campaign sought to channel this language. For Obama, dance was a signifier of his cool, one more signal that this president was ‘black enough’ thank you very much.

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