Black Santa Claus Came to Town. And He's Still Here.

I wasn't going to say anything about this -- plenty has already been said -- but the white vs. black Santa debacle bears at least one more mention. In the waning days of 2013, I was hoping to be able to say something a bit more profound, but the continued fevered state of the American culture wars in the Obama era leaves me little choice. And yes, at the bottom of yet another silly salvo from the right wing about traditional values lies a truth about history and that cultural moment that is in fact profound, if dispiriting.

To recap: After Aisha Harris wrote an opinion piece for Slate.com decrying the ubiquitous whiteness of Santa in an increasingly colored America, Fox News' Megyn Kelly rebutted with a heated declaration that yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he really is white. All those iterations of black Santa that Harris grew up with and that still populate neighborhoods like mine every year are all bogus and, according to Kelly, historically inaccurate.

The timing of such fulminating is interesting. Black Santa has been around forever; certainly Harris' piece occasioned a "controversy" that up until now had been nothing of the sort. Black Santa had merely been one more cultural institution that black folks had taken and tweaked into something relevant to them, kind of like the way they necessarily created black professional associations because white ones didn't allow them in. Santa, of course, is technically available to everybody, even during the years of Jim Crow.

But because Santa is a figure who was purely good, making him black is important because it challenges the assumption that all good, benevolent figures -- Santa, Jesus, et al -- are white. A black benevolent figure spreading joy around the world to everybody is pretty much the definition of cognitive dissonance in a country that for much of its history has diminished and demonized black folks legally and otherwise. So Black Santa is not just self-affirmation, it is a challenge to the world that has long racialized goodness and light -- black people, real or imagined, need not apply for such qualities at Christmas or any other time of year.

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The most significant flesh-and-blood challenge to this racialization that's been sticking in Fox News' craw is none other than President Obama. No, he's not Santa. He's not Jesus. But he is the leader of the free world who came into office vowing to lift the decidedly mean spirit of the Bush years with new policies on war, the economy, healthcare, that sort of thing. And he's black.

What has so alarmed the right ever since Obama crossed the line from candidate to president five years ago is not his policies or his alleged socialism, it's the possibility that a black person would dare to assume the powerful symbolism of good (albeit mythical) America that had been the preserve of white men for just about forever.

So it makes sense that the right would go out of its way, as it is still doing, to make sure that Obama is viewed as dangerous and evil, not good or moral in the least. It is also trying to head off a dangerous precedent: Obama is president for two terms, and next thing you know black people will want to insert themselves into other sacred cultural institutions, like Santa Claus. They will want to lead institutions rather than simply follow or critique them. Tweaking is fine, taking over is quite another. The rather charming suggestion by Harris that Santa be re-fashioned (made into an ethnicity-free penguin) to fit the new reality of a colored majority is really what set Kelly and others on edge. They couldn't care less about black Santa (or Latino Santa, etc.) as long he stays in his neighborhood.

But that's becoming less feasible.

Obama is in all of our neighborhoods, metaphorically speaking; love him or demonize him, he is everywhere. He cannot be contained, which means the broader cultural meaning and aspirations of blackness can't be contained either. That is a gift that will keep on giving long after Obama has left the White House and returned to the North Pole -- metaphorically speaking, of course.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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