By JONATHAN TILOVE
May 29, 2008
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Barack Obama has been talking about Cousin Pookie again.
“I need you to grab Cousin Pookie to vote; I need you to grab Ray Ray to vote,” the Illinois senator declared at a mostly black rally in Kingstree, S.C., two days before the South Carolina primary.
Last March, in a sermon at Brown Chapel in Selma, Ala., on the 42nd anniversary of the historic voting rights marches there, Obama also invoked Pookie’s name.
“If Cousin Pookie would vote, if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching `SportsCenter’ and go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics,” he said. There were affirmations of recognition.
But for those not in the know, the question remains: Who is this Pookie?
After Selma, Newhouse News Service consulted some of America‘s best minds on black culture, language and politics. In their interviews and e-mails, Pookie emerged as a stock character of the black popular imagination, a name that came to personify the kind of layabout kin who, if endearing, is also a source of some embarrassment and consternation. And, it turns out, in his use of Pookie, Obama reveals something about himself.
“Pookie means a whole lot of different things; none of them are good,” Kevin Gray, a South Carolina writer and activist, said in March. “Pookie’s always the foil.”
To linguist and writer John McWhorter, Pookie is the kind of ghetto character played by Cedric the Entertainer or Chris Tucker in one of those “Barbershop” or “Friday” movies. In the 1960s and ’70s, he would have gone by Leroy, Tyrone or Otis.
Pookie, according to Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and writer about race, is “nearly a pop-culture folk-figure in black circles.” He is the average black every-youth.
While Gray said Pookie goes way back, Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University, believes he has come into his own only in the last decade, as a “metaphor for kin … who everybody knows is just a little trifling and a little lazy.”
Neal believes Pookie’s rise is linked to the growth of the black middle class, and “intimately connected to some of the anxieties that the black middle class has with regards to their relatives who have not been as financially successful. I’m sure Sen. Obama has a few Pookies in his own family.”
“It’s a real strong use of language,” said Bakari Kitwana, the hip-hop writer, lecturer and activist. In dropping Pookie’s name, Obama is signaling to those who question his blackness _ because his mother was white and his father an African without slave ancestry _ that he is not an outsider to black life.
“If you get it you get it, and if you don’t, you don’t care,” Kitwana said. “I have a Pookie in my family.”
Angela Dillard, a University of Michigan political scientist, has no Pookies in the family, but remembers “a few from the old neighborhood.”
She wrote that she was a bit troubled by Obama’s name-dropping given its “class implication, which doesn’t sit well to my ears coming from someone with a relatively privileged background.” Because of Obama’s unusual family story, Dillard doubts he actually has a “Cousin Pookie,” though maybe his wife, Michelle, does.
Indeed, Dyson, who wrote a book challenging Bill Cosby’s critique of the failings of poor black youth, said in his e-mail that for Obama, Pookie “may be a kinder, gentler take on Cosby’s reference to, and critique of, Shaniqua and Taliqua (as average black youth). So it’s a way of Obama getting purchase on that brand of black self-critique and establishing … his bonafides as a black figure willing to be critical of his own.”
Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie didn’t hear Obama’s reference to Pookie as unduly negative. “I think there’s a lot going on there, but I don’t think that Obama necessarily tried to don Cosby’s mantle,” she wrote. “I think he was being more folksy and personal.”
Obama, Gillespie continued, is “very much a cultural chameleon and quite adept at code switching, or changing his pattern of speech to fit his audience. By referencing Cousin Pookie, he’s showing that he’s comfortable with Pookie without being condescending. (This is especially apparent because he says the name without affect or sounding dorky.)”
She concluded, “By invoking the name of someone that might be familiar to a lot of black people, he’s attempting to personalize his mobilization plea: Everyone has to vote, even your cousin that you hadn’t thought to ask to vote.”
Did it work in South Carolina?
Obama won 55 percent of Saturday’s Democratic vote and, according to NBC exit polls, 78 percent support from black women and 80 percent support from black men. He won 57 percent of those who had never voted before in a primary, and 63 percent support from those who had never voted before at all.
Does that mean Cousin Pookie voted?
“The turnout was amazing, but I don’t think it was Pookie,” Dillard said in an interview Monday. “Pookie’s just so disaffected, under the economy, he’s just given up hope.”
Maybe, she said, it was Ray Ray.