If you grew up watching Showtime at the Apollo, then you already know where I’m going with this. For those of you who have never had the privilege of seeing Amateur Night at the historic Apollo Theater, please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself.
Yes, the crowd is booing a 13-year-old girl. And yes, that 13-year-old girl is indeed future Grammy-award-winning artist Lauryn Hill. Cruel? Maybe a little. But the point here is that when you step out onto the Apollo stage, you bring your A-game. If you don’t, prepare to be booed. It’s that simple.
On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed the NAACP’s national convention in Houston. Although he wasn’t singing before an audience in Harlem, the Apollo comparison is fruitful for thinking through the politics of his appearance. Granted, the convention is not the same thing as Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, but the basic idea–that one should take his/her performance seriously and be prepared for an exacting audience or else suffer the consequences–remains the same. Lest we forget the history of Republican presidential candidates and the NAACP, allow me to remind you that George W. Bush was invited to speak at the 2004 convention and did the unthinkable by declining. Clearly, Romney knew that he needed to make up the ground that his predecessor lost with that snub. And yet, when he finally took the mike, Mitt Romney delivered a speech to the NAACP that was a disaster of spectacular proportions, one that underscored the racial, cultural, and political divide that it was (ostensibly) designed to bridge.
In case you missed it, here are some highlights. This happened:
And then this:
I know what’s running through your head right now, but I assure you: oh yes he did.
Twitter and Facebook exploded as posters offered various interpretations of Romney’s speech, the crowd’s reaction, and the potential outcomes. Many astutely hypothesized that conservative news outlets will characterize the NAACP audience as “reactionary,” drawing on easily accessible (if never explicitly stated) stereotypes of blacks as “angry” and “aggressive.” Some have even asserted that this was Romney’s intention all along–that by playing victim to a “hostile” black crowd, Romney solidified support among his core supporters. Intentions aside, it’s not hard to figure out how this moment will probably be spun by the media in the days to come.
It is little surprise, then, that the booing itself has become a topic of discussion. On Twitter, some asserted that it would have been better for the crowd to sit silently, or even walk out rather than engage in booing. In other words, the NAACP audience should have expressed their displeasure in a respectable manner. To be fair, if there’s one place within the black community where Romney probably could have expected propriety, it’s the national convention of the NAACP. The NAACP is the civil rights organization that prioritizes respectability. After all, it was the NAACP that pressured CBS to take Amos ‘n’ Andy off of the air. It was NAACP Executive Director Walter White who targeted Hollywood’s reliance on outdated racial stereotypes, arguing that films should feature glamorous black actresses like Lena Horne instead of mammy-like figures such as Hattie McDaniel (McDaniel didn’t appreciate White using her as the living symbol of mammyism, by the way). And it’s the NAACP that gives out “Image Awards” at its annual arts and entertainment awards show. The NAACP doesn’t just employ the politics of respectability: the NAACP is the politics of respectability.
That reputation for being respectable, for being upstanding, for being polite, is what makes this moment so amazing. Romney wasn’t at the BET Awards or at the racetrack with Tami and Evelyn. There was no threat of Kanye interrupting his speech or telling the audience that Mitt Romney “doesn’t care about black people.” This was the NAACP: the “talented tenth,” “credit to their race” black folks. So, when that crowd booed him, it meant that he had really messed up.
Romney didn’t just present a platform that happened to be antithetical to that of the current president: he insulted the president’s health care plan by using the pejorative Republican nickname “Obamacare.” Furthermore, by promising to eliminate “Obamacare,” Romney either didn’t realize or didn’t care that the people sitting right in front of him were actually the ones who stand to benefit the most from the president’s “nonessential” and “expensive” plan. Moreover, Romney’s statement that he was the president to make things better in the African American community (as opposed to Barack Obama) indicated an inexcusable elision of the historical and ideological significance of Obama’s presidency for African Americans. You don’t sit in quiet disagreement over statements like that. You boo. You boo loudly. You boo so forcefully that every sound bite that plays on FOX News will be tainted with the indelible mark of your dissent. You boo so emphatically that there isn’t a single YouTube clip of the speech that doesn’t bear the Curse of your Contention.
Romney’s boo-worthy comments demonstrate his–and by extension, the Republican party’s–stubborn incomprehension of the political, cultural, and historical issues within the African American community. Romney’s use of the word “hospitality” embodies this disregard. Towards the end of his address, Romney thanked the NAACP for the opportunity to speak, stating “I do promise that your hospitality to me today will be returned.” The Oxford dictionary defines “hospitality” as “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.” But here’s the thing: a man running for president should not present himself as either a guest, visitor, or stranger when it comes to his fellow countrymen and countrywomen. Romney acted as if he were Odysseus landing on the island of the Lotus Eaters rather than a potential head of state addressing his constituents. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the Apollo, it’s that one should know his audience. Sandman, get him out of there.