Under Obama, identity conceptions may shimmer in the arts

My eldest daughter, who is majoring in African American studies, read Barack Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father,” last summer. And she said to me in wonder, “It’s a beautiful book. He’s a great writer.”

A president who is a great writer, who has said in interviews that he enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead,” noting, “The language just shimmers.” A president who uses the word “shimmers.” A president who has also said, “Nothing has a bigger impact than reading to children early in life.”

Lovers of American literature should be thrilled.

My three daughters are thrilled because not only is he a writer and reader, but he looks like them. In fact, we have had countless discussions about his use of “mutts” when he discussed the future White House canine; my eldest titled her college entrance essay “Mutts.” Their father is African-Irish-Cherokee-American; I am Swiss-French-Cowboy-American. My children have gone from the innocent preschool belief that no one notices color or cares what their playmates’ hair looks like to the realization, during high school, that little matters more, still, in America. How black is black? Another endless debate in our house, and in many others all over the nation. Mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, sameloque, griffe -- all the terms people used in the past to classify people of mixed race, based on exactly what percentage of African or French or Spanish blood someone had, back in the 1700s and 1800s and even 50 years ago, in some states.

Beyond literature, maybe the presence of a president who looks like Obama, who looks like millions of people of mixed race, will loosen up the rigid constrictions that rule movies, novels and visual art. “Black movies” appeal only to black audiences, the current wisdom seems, and the “African American” sections of bookstores are places where white readers seldom browse, according to a lot of recent essays and blogging about the segregation of literature.

One thing my daughters have said recently, with Obama being so visible, so un-risible, and having his face become commonplace as a symbol of America: Maybe American movies and literature can have fewer black sidekicks who exist only to further white characters’ motives, plans and lives. Because Michelle Obama, with her sense of humor that reminds my girls so much of the women in our family, with her height and cheekbones and heels (my girls are all tall), will be the new gracious face of the White House, my girls have ventured that maybe a black woman could actually be the lead in an action movie or an independent ensemble film, and maybe she could have a white girlfriend who plays a very small part, has to do a lot of patient supporting and doesn’t get a guy.

The recent controversy over the “magical Negro” and last year’s (kind of) hilarious flap over the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s comments about Obama not being black enough are also illustrative; maybe there will be room in contemporary American fiction and memoir for mutts, and maybe those mutts will be part of the great American novel. No one ever says of white writers that their novels are about “the white experience,” as if there’s only one, but that is said almost always about writers of color -- someone will classify a novel as “a story of the black experience” or “the Latino experience” and even “the Asian experience” in America.

But to paraphrase something James Baldwin said many times, something I heard him say in a lecture when I was learning to be a writer: Before they came to this country, people were Greek or Armenian or Irish or Italian; only when they landed in America did they become white. Obama, famously hailed now as the son of a Kansan and a Kenyan, with that convenient alliteration and so much geographical neatness, may bring a new idea of what writers, artists, filmmakers and others might think of, or be allowed to think of, by the publishing and arts world, as the American experience.

But I’m still pretty happy that he reads novels and thinks language shimmers.

Straight’s most recent novel, “A Million Nightingales,” is about a mixed-race woman in 19th century Louisiana.