The Illusion of Black Patriotism

Header image description: Olivia Pope, the main protagonist of the ABC television show Scandal, stands in the Oval Office. She wears a red and black shawl and black pants and has her arms crossed over her chest. To her right there is a navy blue flag bearing the seal of the United States, and in front of that flag is the Resolute Desk. She stands in front of a window with gold curtains.

After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many people — Black and white alike — believed that the United States had finally become a postracial society. To them, his election to the highest office in the nation proved that Black people really could do anything we put our minds to. Thomas Jefferson’s words “all men are created equal” had finally come true.

Except Thomas Jefferson was a white supremacist and Black people were still being murdered simply for being Black while Obama was in office — showing that America was founded on racism and continues to operate based on racism. The idea of America as a postracial society is and has always been nothing more than an illusion.

Postracialism is the myth that Black people have achieved social equality with whites, meaning that race is no longer a salient factor in social relations and we no longer have to worry about racism. The disproportionate violence faced by Black people in this country has shown that postracialism is a total fabrication; however, this hasn’t stopped writers, showrunners, filmmakers, and others from peddling this fairy tale to the American public.

Over the last decade, über-patriotic Black political characters have become a staple in American media. This makes sense when you remember that Obama’s meteoric rise to political fame hinged on him proving to “Middle America” (AKA, right-wing white people) that he’s just as proud to be American as they are. Emblematic of this trend is Hamilton: An American Musical, which casts nonwhite people to play the founding fathers onstage. This musical has led to problems — more specifically, white people thinking they can’t be racist because they like a musical with a mostly nonwhite cast — but I’ve already talked about this quite a bit. There were also David Estes, a CIA higher-up on Homeland, and David Palmer, a Senator and later the president on the series 24.

Even more popular was the ABC show Scandal (2012-2018), which featured Olivia Pope, a Black woman who worked as a “fixer” for the rich and powerful of Washington, D.C., no matter their political leanings. Less mainstream but very well-known in its own right is a Hamilton fanfiction entitled Quid Pro Quo (known by fans as simply “QPQ”), which presents the characters from the musical as prominent political figures in present-day D.C. Both Scandal and QPQ include Black people as protagonists who love their country and fall squarely within the seemingly dichotomous two-party system. But, as I’ll explain, these characters just…don’t make sense.

Image description: A promotional photo for Scandal which shows many of the main characters lined up, apparently at the Lincoln Memorial. They wear all black, except for Olivia, who is front and center. She wears a black and white coat, black pants, and carries a black purse. Credit: ABC

I’m sure y’all know about Scandal, but here’s an overview just in case: Olivia Pope is a Black woman who, through PR expertise, makes problems disappear for influential clients. Before the start of the series, she was the Communications Director for President Fitz Grant III, who is white, male, and a Republican. She’s also having an affair with Fitz, which is the titular scandal. Olivia is self-assured to the maximum and gets what she wants from everyone she asks something of, from her employees to powerful white men. Her race is rarely brought up onscreen. Cheryl Ann Lambert said that “Scandal presents an environment with no discernible sociocultural identity…The minimization of race in Scandal tends to normalize the idea that post-racialism is realistic and desired.” 

Before I get into QPQ, I have to explain how Hamilton fanfictions work. (Also, I’ll refer to fanfictions as “fics” because, TBH, nobody ever says the whole word.) The difference between a Hamilton fic and a regular American Revolution fic (which, yes, those do exist) is that in the former, you’re supposed to imagine the historical figures as how the actors in the original Broadway cast of the musical look. So, instead of imagining George Washington as some old white dude with dentures, he’s supposed to look like Chris Jackson, who originated the role in the musical. Make sense? Cool.

The very short version of this fic is that George Washington (who, again, is Black) is a preeminent U.S. Senator and Alexander Hamilton is one of his staffers and also his sugar baby. Political shenanigans ensue. That’s basically the entire plot. Now, QPQ isn’t just any Hamilton fic — it is the Hamilton fic. It is the most popular work in the “Hamilton — Miranda” fandom on Archive of Our Own, a popular fanfiction site, if you sort by “bookmarks” (the function by which users save works to their personal library). If you sort by “kudos,” or likes, it’s the fifth most popular work in the fandom. It has over 100,000 hits and counting — basically, if you are or ever were a Hamilton fan, it’s virtually impossible to have never heard of QPQ.

What Olivia Pope and QPQ’s George Washington have in common is that they’re highly successful political figures in twenty-first century D.C. who happen to be multiply marginalized Black people (a Black woman, in the case of Olivia, and a Black queer man, for Washington). They live in high-end areas of D.C. that have very few Black residents — Olivia lives in Georgetown, which is only about 6% Black, while Washington lives in Cleveland Park, which is about 9% Black. Both characters seem to be unconsciously isolated from their Blackness, even if other people around them recognize that they are Black. I have a running note on my phone of the times Scandal actually brings up race; in the 47 episodes of the first three seasons, Olivia is explicitly mentioned to be Black four times. In 34 chapters and 123,027 words of QPQ, Washington’s Blackness is mentioned only once.

Image description: A photograph of some of the core members of the original Hamilton cast; namely, Daveed Diggs, Chris Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Leslie Odom Jr. All of them are Black except for Miranda, who is Latino. When reading Hamilton fics about the founding fathers, this is what they are supposed to look like. This photograph actually inspired part of QPQ. Credit: The New York Times

In “Divas, Evil Black Bitches, and Bitter Black Women: African American Women in Postfeminist and Post-Civil-Rights Popular Culture,” Kimberly Springer wrote that professional success for Black women is often to the detriment of not only their self-esteem, but also their racial identity and affiliation. In other words, Black people who climb the professional ladder seem to forget they’re Black. Due to respectability politics, desire for white validation, and the general lack of Black people in fields such as medicine, tech, and national politics, the Black people who do “make it” either sacrifice or are forced to give up connections with the larger Black community for their career.

In Scandal, Olivia has a few Black people around her, but no Black community. There’s her father, Eli; her on-again off-again boyfriend, Senator Edison Davis; two of her employees, Harrison and Marcus; and a recurring white house security guard, Morris. The most Black people she’s ever been around was in a 2015 episode called “The Lawn Chair,” where a cop shoots and kills a Black kid in a Black neighbourhood. Olivia goes to the neighbourhood just to try to ease tensions on behalf of the White House; she has zero connection to any of the Black people or the neighbourhood itself and shows no interest in forging connections with them. Her Blackness is secondary to her relationship with Fitz and the White House. In QPQ, the only Black people in Washington’s life are his wife, Martha, and two of his employees, Aaron Burr and Lafayette. (There’s also Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, fellow members of Congress, but they’re political and personal rivals, not friends or supporters.)

D.C. has historically been known as “Chocolate City” due its high concentration of Black people and culture. I go to a PWI in D.C. and Black students here still manage to connect with the Black culture of the city, including attending Howard’s homecoming every year. I mean, shit, even Frank Underwood, a white Congressman in House of Cards, manages to go to a BBQ restaurant regularly and is ostensibly good friends with the shop’s Black owner, Freddy. How do Olivia and Washington somehow have no connection to any Black community in one of the Blackest cities in the country?

Image description: The signpost of Freddy’s BBQ Joint, a fictional Black restaurant in D.C. in House of Cards. Frank Underwood, a white Congressman and House Majority Whip on the show, regularly visits the restaurant and has a personal connection to Freddy, the Black owner of the shop. Credit: Netflix

Despite rampant gentrification, Black people remain the largest racial group in the District at 47% of the population; we face disproportionately high violence from law enforcement. According to The Guardian, in 2016 — the year QPQ was written and Scandal was in its fifth season — D.C. law enforcement killed five people, all of them Black. Black people are at even higher risk for violence from law enforcement in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) area because it is under the purview of multiple local, state, and federal agencies such as the FBI, Capitol Police, and Secret Service. In QPQ and Scandal, however, Washington and Olivia fully trust these agencies and are unconditionally protected by them; their Blackness is never an issue with cops.

In his paper about the pitfalls of a white liberal approach to racism, Nicholas Oviedo-Torres writes: “White liberalism requires some form of denial of the reality of one’s full role within the racial hierarchy, which includes a denial of one’s full role as an oppressed member within the hierarchy.” When Black characters such as Olivia and Washington deny their reality, they “view other Black people as ‘the other,’ despite never being accepted by white people.” In Season 2, episode 11 of Scandal, Cyrus, the white male chief of staff, says to Fitz — while Olivia isn’t around, mind you — that she “is not exactly a hue that most of your Republican constituents would be happy about.” Basically, Olivia’s race is relevant to others, even if it’s not relevant to her.

It’s clear that both Olivia and Washington comply with a neoliberal approach to life and politics for the sake of their careers. In the singular mention of Washington’s race in QPQ, he says: “I’m a black Democrat from Virginia…I can’t be a radical if I want to stay in office.” The blurb for the fic describes him as “a war hero”; he is very proud of his military service and it’s even mentioned in Chapter 2 that he voted for the PATRIOT Act. In Scandal, Olivia will do anything for “the good of the republic,” from rigging presidential elections in favor of a Republican candidate to literally killing people. Her one guiding moral is to ensure that the American experiment lasts as long as possible. Both of these characters are unequivocally patriotic, and, like Obama, proud to be Americans, despite the racially unjust foundations of the United States.

Image description: The first inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009. He wears a red tie and black suit; his right hand is raised and his left hand rests on a bible held by his wife, Michelle, while he takes the oath of the office of the President. Credit: Los Angeles Times

The history and present of this country show that being both Black and patriotic is more than a bit contradictory. When he wrote about his concept of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois posits Blackness and Americanness as diametrically opposed. He calls these identities “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” In sum, to embrace Blackness is to be un-American, and to be truly American is to be anti-Black. Sure, the world has changed quite a bit since Du Bois wrote this in 1903; I’m sure he never imagined a Black person becoming president a mere century later. However, I believe his words remain true, despite the social and political progress that has been made. In a 2017 article called “The Paradox of Black Patriotism,” Micah E. Johnson wrote about “potential tensions and nuances between allegiance to race and allegiance to nation”; I agree with this sentiment.

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a bit of #BlackExcellence here and there. However, I often wonder what the costs of success are for Black people who are making waves in their respective fields. Black faces in high places seem great at first, but, as many people have written, mere representation won’t save us. Trying to prove that we’re just as American as white people won’t save us either, as the advent of the Movement for Black Lives under Obama’s presidency demonstrated.

It’s not surprising to me that both Scandal’s Olivia Pope and Quid Pro Quo’s George Washington were incredibly popular Black characters who were incredibly patriotic and lived in a seemingly postracial society. Nevertheless, I think postracialism and Black patriotism are not only inefficient, but unnecessary. I’m real tired of this trope; Black people shouldn’t need to love an imperial nation to attain success. Thanks, Obama.