Limbaugh’s ‘Barack the Magic Negro’ Parody

John Amato reports that “stations around the country who carry the [Rush Limbaugh] show are having concerns expressed by listeners and even their own workers of color about” a Paul Shanklin parody song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro.” John has an audio file of the most recent variant of that song as played on Rush’s show available for download.

Here’s an earlier version, from the March 21st episode, that someone has set to “video” on YouTube:

The title is not the brain child of Shanklin or Limbaugh, however. It’s a response to David Ehrenstein‘s March 19 column for the LA Times, “Obama the ‘Magic Negro.'”

[I]t’s clear that Obama also is running for an equally important unelected office, in the province of the popular imagination — the “Magic Negro.”

The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. “He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist,” reads the description on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro .

He’s there to assuage white “guilt” (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.

It’s a more blunt way of saying what many have said before. It’s what Joe Biden was getting at with his infamous line, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

Greg Sargent notes that this and other Shanklin songs played on the Limbaugh show use “racially charged” language to make fun of Al Sharpton.

Let’s start with a particularly lovely Rush/Shanklin special. It has a voice parodying an Al Sharpton who is so illiterate that he spells the word “respect” like this: “r-e-s-p-e-c-k.” Here’s a transcript of the relevant bit, where the Sharpton stand-in is standing outside Barack Obama headquarters asking Obama for attention by singing the following lyrics to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”:

    “R-E-S-P-E-C-K. Wha-choo mean it ain’t spelt that way? R-E-S-P-E-K-T? I need a dictionary!”

There’s more. As Media Matters reported the other day, Rush sang the ditty “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show on March 19, basing the lyrics on an L.A. Times Op-ed piece. But it gets better.

Now Rush is running a new, improved version of the “Magic Negro” song that’s way more fleshed out — and way, way, more eye-opening, too. It features a parody of Sharpton singing about “da hood” and saying that Obama is “ar-ti-coo-late.” Just give it a listen, it’s hard to describe how low it is.

There are also routines where the Sharpton stand-in insults Obama by saying “yo mama’s so fat” and so forth, as well as one where Sharpton demands that Obama explain himself to the “commooonity.

He’s uploaded some video clips to YouTube:

As we’ve seen recently in the Don Imus flap, it’s difficult for whites to do humor about racial issues without getting into trouble. I’m sure Limbaugh will be no different. Frankly, while I don’t find it offensive, I didn’t find the “Magic Negro” song funny. Mostly, though, because Shanklin’s impersonation of Sharpton is lousy; indeed, I thought he was impersonating Bill Clinton.

Professional entertainer Joe Gandelman, who has a lengthy reaction and roundup of other reactions about this controversy, observes,

The great comedy coach Greg Dean once told me in a comedy coaching session that humor works within the context of “shared assumptions” and a joke is a “shattered assumption.” And that’s what was so troubling about the Imus foot-in-mouth bout: the assumption that listeners agreed and would think it’s hilarious. And Rush? Listen to it again and decide yourself if there are assumptions behind it.

Imus called some nice, successful college student-athletes prostitutes. That was ugly and unseemly. Limbaugh, via Shanklin, suggested that a longtime public figure with a criminal past and presidential aspirations was inarticulate. That’s neither beyond the pale nor even untrue.

The central points of the “Magic Negro” parody are: 1) Sharpton is much less articulate than Obama; 2) Obama’s adopting the patois of old time black preachers during his speech at Selma was somewhat amusing; and 3) The Sharptons of the world resent that Obama is being taken so seriously as a presidential candidate when they were not, even though they’ve been active leaders in the community for much longer.

Sharpton is a powerful public speaker. That’s especially true when he’s in front of a predominantly black audience and is in preacher mode rather than clownish politician mode. Still, he doesn’t talk like a Harvard-educated lawyer; Obama does. That’s not surprising, since he is one. That makes it funny, though, when Obama or Hillary Clinton affect a “down home” style when giving speeches to audiences where they think it’ll play well. Bill Clinton could pull it off; few others can.

Strangely, while “Barack the Magic Negro” is getting all the attention, the “R-E-S-P-E-K-T” parody is much more problematic. The central premise, that Sharpton isn’t particularly bright, is absurd. Corrupt, slimy, and opportunistic? Absolutely. Dumb? Hardly.

Still, Limbaugh has proven right in this hypothesis: “If I refer to Obama the rest of the day as the ‘Magic Negro,’ there will be a number of people in the drive-by media and on left-wing blogs who will credit me for coming up with it and ignore the L.A. Times did it, simply because they can’t be critical of the L.A. Times, but they can, obviously, be critical of talk radio.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anon says:

    Given that Sharpton is not dumb, would any parody of him as dumb automatically be problematic?

    As I think about it, it kind of seems that way. The problem is that any authentic parody of some one like Sharpton would have to use a traditional black accent, etc. It would then be difficult to clearly articulate, in a medium such as a video, that you are making fun of the individual, and not making fun of black people as stupid.

  2. floyd says:

    The very foundation of a PC world is making it impossible to state the obvious! I have actually met grown men in positions of power who have never read ” The Emperor’s New Clothes”!

  3. jpe says:

    Still, Limbaugh has proven right in this hypothesis: “If I refer to Obama the rest of the day as the ‘Magic Negro,’ there will be a number of people in the drive-by media and on left-wing blogs who will credit me for coming up with it and ignore the L.A. Times did it, simply because they can’t be critical of the L.A. Times, but they can, obviously, be critical of talk radio.”

    Well, yeah. Because it’s true. The L.A. Times piece wasn’t retarded, Rush’s was. That he knows his piece was stupid and offensive doesn’t thereby inoculate him from accusations of the same.

  4. Christopher says:

    James,

    You think Sharpton is smart?!? LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL!

    Have you ever even heard him speak for more than 30 seconds? The guy is a total idiot. Just because the bottom-brightest and poorest of his race flock to him and pay him money and believe in him does NOT make him smart. The guy is one of the stupidest persons on the PLANET. The only people more stupid are the ones who believe in him. Oh yea-plus people that think he is smart.

  5. David L says:

    Ok, the Rush Limbaugh/Paul Shanklin parody refers to Al Sharpton as an inarticulate criminal. So what is the problem?

  6. Derrick says:

    Consider the source. Your last quote from Rush is some of the most childish logic that I’ve seen, “because someone else said it, I should say it too.” Rush is nothing more than a common racist, who hides behind the legitimacy that is provided by his large audience. I’ve seen witty stuff by the KKK about minorities, but the fact that they laced it with humor doesn’t really make it ok.

  7. Christopher says:

    Derrick,

    How is someone calling someone a “negro” racist? Wow, got me on that one.

    You libs love to call republicans racists when nothing is further from the truth.

  8. Jake says:

    Rush the drug-addled divorce junkie
    Lived in a world
    Where insults, lies and dirty words
    Passed for intelligent discourse!

    (Hey — if he doesn’t have to write clever parodies, neither do I.)