GOP's Greek-Column Ridicule Of Obama -- Racist?

When the Republicans mocked Barack Obama's decision to speak in an outdoor stadium with Greek columns as an opportunity for Obama to descend to speak to "mere mortals," Washington Post essayist and apparent psychic Philip Kennicott didn't see mockery of hubris. His mind-reading exposed white Republican racists resenting a black man appropriating Greek culture, with its "white temples, white statues, white marble."

While neoclassicism was the default architectural style across the United States, it became particularly associated with the aristocratic architecture of the antebellum South. Obama wasn't just borrowing ancient precedents, he was unconsciously recalling -- and appropriating -- the look of Tara and dozens of other (real) plantation houses.

Is race involved in the criticism of Obama's "temple"? Perhaps.

Consider an academic debate that roiled classical studies in the 1980s and '90s. This was the "Black Athena" controversy, which centered on claims of Martin Bernal -- a professor of ancient Eastern Mediterranean cultures -- that Greek culture was essentially cribbed from Afro-Asiatic roots. Bernal's book is not held in high repute today, but it fostered an important debate about the role of racism in classical studies.

The vitriol of the discussion also demonstrated the extent to which "classical" culture is equated with "white" culture, even on the most superficial level: white temples, white statues, white marble. Which turns out, of course, to be an illusion of history. Greek temples and statues were routinely painted with vibrant colors.

Efforts to use race against Obama often have centered on a stark juxtaposition of architectural ideas with Obama's blackness: One cartoon circulating on the Internet shows Obama painting the White House black; the controversial July 21 New Yorker cartoon in which he appeared as a terrorist inside the White House, rendered the Oval Office with precise neoclassical details: an arched alcove, molding and wainscoting.

The debate, then, isn't about arrogance, or Greek gods, or hubris. It's about whether Obama can lay claim to an architecture, and a culture, that is perceived as both our collective inheritance, yet is also deeply coded as European and white.

Tim Graham's picture


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