Today the entire world is transfixed by the power and promise of the American Dream. Barack Hussein Obama will become the 44th president of the United States of America!
For many, his presidency marks a new beginning, for others it provokes suspicion, fear, and distrust because our nation is haunted by an old ghost—not quite like the ghosts with which we have become comfortable: Banquo visiting his cunning and power-hungry murderers; Washington Irving's headless horseman spooking the quiet village of Sleepy Hollow in Ichabod Crane's early America; Edgar Allan Poe's tell-tale heart pounding from behind the walls of the cellar of The Cask of Amontillado; or the ghosts from the framed portraits on the walls of the staircase in Hogwarts in the Harry Potter chronicles.
No, this is a different kind of ghostly visitation that is a 21st-century cultural haunting of America. This ghost is more like Toni Morrison's Beloved, who is a full-bodied, central character in the American narrative. In America, to use the language of literary scholar Kathleen Brogran, the ghost "serves to illuminate the shadowy and more repressed aspects of our national character" that have played out disastrously in this presidential election. During the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, this old ghost showed up everywhere: in the elderly woman in Milwaukee expressing her suspicion and distrust of the "Arab"; in the old man screaming, "I am fed up; and mad as hell!"; in the unidentified shouts at Republican political rallies: "Kill Obama!"; on the front page of the New Yorker depicting Barack Obama wearing a turban and his wife, Michelle, toting an AK-47; in the sign of a backwards "B" on the face of the young McCain campaign worker in Pennsylvania; and in a foiled assassination plot that, thank God, was hatched by simpletons. These are all signs of the ghost that stalks in the shadows of American collective consciousness—it is alive, well, very dangerous, and it will not go away because we have elected our first African-American president.
What is at stake in these cultural hauntings is a revelation of how deeply embedded race is in American culture; and an opportunity, maybe an invitation to a larger public conversation on leadership, religion, and race in our country. These assaults on Barack Obama's character are related to the larger question of American character that is generally connected to the call for renewal in our society, as if the United States were a huge machine that the right political leader simply needs to fix or adjust—much like raising the hood of a dysfunctional automobile and replacing the carburetor; or adjusting rising oil prices by offshore drilling or offering a tax holiday or fixing the markets. But the United States of America is not a machine—it is a republic of "we the people," consisting of ethnicities and tribes from every corner of the Earth who must find a way to live together in what Fareed Zakaria calls a post-American world.
The election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land will not provide a quick fix or a miraculous adjustment of American character that will remedy our present impasse—"we the people" must assume responsibility for our common destiny and this will require an open and candid conversation about what ails us most and what has played out in his presidential campaign, both abroad and at home—our history of racism. Barack Obama is a bright star here and abroad because he has new ideas, a new agenda, and yes, a new face—but the nation's lingering ghost will still haunt his every stride forward.
As Toni Morrison writes in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, "Race has become metaphorical—a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological 'race' ever was. Expensively kept, economically unsound, a spurious and useless political asset in election campaigns, racism is as healthy today as it was during the Enlightenment. It seems that it has a utility far beyond economy, beyond the sequestering of classes from one another, and has assumed a metaphorical life so completely embedded in daily discourse that it is perhaps more necessary and more on display than ever before."