The 2012 U.S. election has mercifully ended, and Barack Obama will continue in his job. If, as the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd seems to believe, Obama is a most reluctant leader, he at least did what he had to do to keep on leading. His victory, while not a landslide, was decisive. This has not prevented citizens from various states, especially those of the former Confederacy, from circulating secession petitions.
Maybe it is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War that has prompted calls for self-removal. The arguments are couched in economic terms and in the fear of the federal government overstepping its bounds, but these were used in 1860 and 1861 as well. Various reenactments of secession events over the past few years—a “secession ball” in Charleston, a recreation of Jefferson Davis’s swearing in as Confederate president in Montgomery—along with Texas governor Rick Perry’s brief presidential candidacy, perhaps prompted [white] southerners to think about leaving the Union again.
Or perhaps, as it certainly did then, it has something to do with blackness.
One of the things Barack Obama is not allowed to talk about is blackness. Sure, he is president of everyone, but he clearly is not everyone’s president. No president in my memory has ever had his legitimacy questioned to the degree that Obama has. Even Bill Clinton, denigrated as “Slick Willie” and condemned, investigated, and nearly impeached for his interactions—to put it kindly—with women, never had to deal with his own citizenship as a major issue Trump-eted across the land even as he served his terms. Clinton’s status as a stand-in for the rural white Southern impoverished class seemed to rankle his social betters. Novelist Toni Morrison caught the connection Clinton had with black voters when she facetiously dubbed him America’s first black president. But the actual first black president, black because of his half-black parentage and his own cultural identification according to his memoir, can never afford to register as “too black” in the public mind. Cornell West condemns him for not being an authentic advocate for people of color and the poor (in his press conference this week Obama briefly inserted “those aspiring to the middle class” as part of the constituency for economic growth, but it hasn’t been his habit). Obama can’t be black because it is trouble enough just looking black. Surely no previous president has prompted a “Put the White Back in the White House” t-shirt of the kind seen at a Romney campaign event just prior to the election.
Obama is not able to trade on his blackness except for lengthily interspaced cultural cues—soulfully crooning a line of Al Green for the Reverend himself at the Apollo, beating Clark Kellogg in a backyard game of P-O-T-U-S, expressing muted support for Trayvon Martin—because he understands there is very little to be gained politically by doing so. But his supporters have tried to find ways to make blackness work for Obama. Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster in 2008 reconstituted Obama’s blackness in the image of the nation’s colors. This powerful recasting is perhaps part of what prompted the backlash against Obama and the questioning of his legitimacy. Color scheme aside, the poster reminded some of the political art associated with leftist revolutionaries such as Che Guevera, a short step to the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground and Bill Ayers and so on.
Which brings me to jazz album cover art, of all things. How to cast Obama as authentically black but distinct from a revolutionary or black nationalist tradition? What would signify Obama’s status as culturally black but also unequivocally legitimate as leader of the country? J.C. Pagán, a graphic designer from San Antonio, found a way.
Pagán used the template of Blue Note Records album covers from the 1950s and 1960s through various stages of Obama’s re-election campaign, and in so doing reached back to the redemptive program the Blue Note imagery had performed for black jazz artists during the civil rights movement. As I discuss in Blue Notes in Black and White and in this interview, the photography of Blue Note co-owner Francis Wolff and the designs of Reid Miles depicted jazz musicians as dignified, serious, and creative artists rather than mere entertainers. The advent of the long-playing vinyl record in 1948 and advances in photographic reproduction technology made images of musicians standard on records by the mid-1950s. It had been possible prior to this to buy records and listen to music on the radio without the attending visual associations of race. Just at the moment that the modern civil rights movement gained national exposure, black musicians appeared on their album covers. To listen to the jazz of Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, or Art Blakey now meant having their photographs in 12 x 12 inch glory in one’s home. The Amazing Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk’s Genius of Modern Music, The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson—the very titles strove to lend prestige to the music and its makers. At larger labels such as Columbia, Miles Davis had such clout through his sales that he could influence who and what would be depicted on his covers. He had no problem choosing himself.
The photographs of Blue Note artists (and many of those on other labels such as Riverside and Prestige), visually contradicted just about every stereotype of the black male that had poisoned American culture since slavery itself. Blue Note projected a casual elegance and prompted a run on Oxford cloth shirts among certain jazz fans. Pagán’s rendering of Obama as jazz leader comport with the president’s famed and sometimes criticized sense of cool (killing the fly in the midst of a sit-down interview, delivering a speech as the Bin Laden operation went down, burying the winner vs. Kellogg while the cameras rolled). Throughout Obama’s ascent, Dowd has consistently referred to him by his old nickname, Barry, a verbal stripping down that seems intended to puncture the president’s “self-regard.” J.C. Pagán’s Blue Note images celebrate that which most seems to irritate Dowd and other Obama detractors. Whether capturing Obama’s “cool struttin’” toward Air Force One, his self-confidence while being photographed playing with Bo the dog, or showing the appropriate preacherly fire as “The President,” Pagán’s images reach back to a visual past to burnish Obama’s public image. The irony is that the originals were an ancillary part of a campaign—the civil rights movement—to make it less necessary to defend the abilities and accomplishments of a black man in America. Who knew that in 2012 they would be more necessary than ever as a counterweight to attacks on Obama’s very personhood and legitimacy in office?
The original Blue Note covers marketed the music to a particular audience: jazz fans, the white members of whom (see Norman Mailer) liked to consider themselves cultural outsiders. The designs stand in for a place those in the know can always go: a visually constructed world of cool that is just so much richer than the humdrum world we inhabit. Despite this insularity and the fact that Blue Note’s operation was so small that a hit record nearly bankrupted the company, the artwork has had an influence well beyond actual sales figures and has come to signify a classic era of jazz, one still mourned by those who remember. What they portray—a self-confident yet down-home sophistication (what Ralph Ellison liked to call “elegance”), an easy mix of creativity and gravitas—suits Obama rather well. They may not salve the dislike of the president among Americans whose jazz collections may be minimal or nonexistent, but as images to rally the president’s supporters, these curiously retro mock album covers express high hopes for Obama as he prepares for what has often for his predecessors been a perilous second term. (The complete Obama Blue Note collection is here.)