"It could be said that Obama's way has been prepared not my Colin Powell, dutifully holding up the vial at the U.N., but by Nelson Mandela, who emerged from his prison not bitter, calling for reconciliation. It is possible that the emerging youth vote is an anti-'War on Terror' vote, not just an anti-Iraq War vote. Mandela was also the one figure on the world stage who persuaded us that he was exactly what he seemed to be. The anti-apartheid movement was one of the few things happening on campuses in the 1980s. Since then white students in their thousands have taken Black Studies classes, reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, bringing Derrida to bear in their term papers on the hip-hop artist Nas's debut album, Illmatic, even as black student enrollment has been falling." — Darryl Pinckney, "Dreams from Obama," The New York Review of Books, March 6, 2008 issue
Besides the fact that the writer is constitutionally incapable of developing his thoughts in a cogent manner (not that his thoughts are worth much refinement), two things are obvious here: Pinckney knows as much about the historical (as opposed to iconic) Nelson Mandela as he does about the lives of college students today. I find it remarkable that his meanderings would be published in the preeminent American literary journal, but, of course, he's there to fill a niche and certainly not Frederick Douglass'.
His comparison of Obama to Mandela, though intended as a compliment, of course, is perilously close to the truth. Their objectives, if not their methods, are the same. There is also great richness in his assertion that "Mandela was also the one figure on the world stage who persuaded us that he was exactly what he seemed to be." The key to Mandela's "success on the world stage" is that he convinced (almost) everybody that he was what he was not. There the parallel to Barack Obama couldn't be closer or scarier.
Pinckney's comparison of Frederick Douglass, one of the glories of black history and black letters, to the hip-hop artist Nas is outrageous. His assertion that it is white students who have validated this relation is even more ridiculous. White kids have no doubt contributed to the sale of Nas' albums and college professors' to the sale of Douglass' autobiography. And? "A" and "B" are still unconnected. Perhaps Pinckney means to imply that Obama is the bridge that connects Douglass' struggle to be free to Nas' struggle to be even richer. There he might have something except that the name of that bridge is Booker T. Washington.
Still, the image — actually, the fantasy — of white college kids listening to Nas' Illmatic album while attempting to deconstruct it with their well-thumbed copies of Derrida, suddenly exclaiming "Eureka, Obama is the answer!" is something that only a college professor could believe or publish.