I am currently reading Dreams of My Father, by Barack Obama. In it, Obama describes a scene in which his mother took him and his sister Maya, to see Orfeu Negro, in New York.
This caught my attention. In the Portuguese program at my university, Orfeu Negro had a heavy role in the curriculum. I must have watched it three times with my professors indicating, frame by frame, the deep layers of symbolism. I love this film. I was excited to read that it was one of Obama´s mother´s favorite films. And sad to read that Obama was offended by it.
Here´s how he describes watching it with his mother:
«...black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie, I decided that I´d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad´s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.»
The point of the scene is not to critique the movie, so he doesn´t say specifically what scenes in the film he found so offensive. The point was to discuss what he learned about his mother in learning that what he found racist, she found beautiful. Of course, I think the film is beautiful too. So, what does that say about me?
It´s a good reminder of how hard racism is to understand and how hard it is to untangle ourselves from it. I am not black, and because of that, I can never watch Orfeu Negro through the eyes of someone who knows what it is like to live with the stereotypes, with the discrimination, with the stress of being the Other every day in America (or Brazil).
In these passages, he does seem very critical of his mother and of her decisions. That she might have been looking for something more sensual, more exotic in her life could mean she was fetishizing Brazilian, (and Kenyan, and Indonesian) culture.
Again, it makes me wonder about myself and my own decisions. I wouldn´t say that I have chosen to work in Africa to find an element of myself that is missing...but maybe I am not being completely honest either.
I am acutely aware of my privilege here. Here I am the Other, but that does not mean the same thing as being black in America. I struggle with how to respond to my position here in the right way, the least racist way. As much as I really love this film, I have to try to understand it from Obama´s perspective.
«The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.»
I want to say that, Obama wrote these words in a memoir and they may be more an account of how he was feeling at that moment than the way he feels about it now. In the new preface he writes that if he had known his mother was going to die before the book was published, he might have written more about her, and less about his father. It seems that his feelings about his mother have changed since her death, or at least since he watched the movie with her.
«My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father´s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents´ lives.»
Read the next post for a racial analysis of Orfeu Negro.
The Guardian: Why Obama is Wrong About Black Orpheus