Why Bill Clinton Was Called “Our First Black President”: Saxophones, Black Votes, and Toni Morrison

Over fifteen years before Barack Obama was sworn into the Oval Office and became the United States’ first black President, Bill Clinton was called “our first black President.”

So how is it that the nation’s 42nd (white) president got that honorific before the first actual Black president?

The answer is a story that really spans the duration of Clinton’s presidency. Founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Dewayne Wickham, probably tells it best in his acclaimed book, Bill Clinton and Black America (2004). In his book, Wickham accounts for “the large African-American presence in [Clinton’s] administration, his perceived legal persecutions, his personal style,” and “his lasting yet tumultuous marriage”—not to mention his relocation to NYC’s Harlem after his presidency—which help explain why the former-Arkansas-governor-turned-president appealed so well to the American black community of the 1990s.

While this post can’t pretend to have a more extensive answer than Wickham in that regard, it can seek to provide a more succinct and specific answer to why Bill Clinton was (and indeed in some circles might still be called) “our first black President.” My answer to this question boils down to the following three essential events of the Black 1990s:

  1. The Arsenio Hall Show hosted Bill Clinton playing the saxophone in June of 1992, which helped Clinton win the hearts of Black America in a big way.
  2. Black voters turned out to give Bill Clinton a supermajority of their votes in November of 1992.
  3. Toni Morrison wrote Bill Clinton into Black History when she literally called him “our first black President in 1998”

Although I will touch on some of the complications and contradictions inherent to attributing Clinton this honorific, I will not be able to address those problems in deep detail, particularly as they include his complicit usage of the term “superpredators” to implicitly describe young, urban (codeword: black) criminals who purportedly preyed on America’s youth to partake in gang culture in the early 1990s. Addressing those problems in the detail they deserve would take the length of another post, if not a full-length article, to explain sufficiently.

In channeling the former president’s birthplace in my home state of Arkansas, my hope is that this post will generate interest in crafting a more careful and critical post that can balance the other side of the honor and praise that is so often allotted to Bill Clinton. At the same time, I hope it will recognize that the former president contributed more than most of the presidents that came before him in terms of representing the American black community during his administration.

The Saxophone

Directly after Bill Clinton clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1992, The Arsenio Hall Show hosted the newly minted presidential candidate.

Out of this hosting opportunity, Clinton not only decided to make an appearance; he deliberately sought to show his soulful side to the American black community by kicking off the show playing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on his tenor saxophone. Casually and with sunglasses. Almost like another member of Hall’s band. The rest became history. Hall’s amicable and subsequent interview with Clinton effectively served to endorse the Democratic candidate, on a predominantly black show with a predominantly black audience, for president in 1992.

And so, what would also turn out to be a controversial appearance on Arsenio Hall literally set the stage for Clinton to clinch a supermajority (83%) of the Black Vote in November of that same year.

The Black Vote

On November 8, 1992, Bill Clinton received a greater percentage of the black vote than any president to win a U.S. Presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Data Source: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research (Cornell University)

After winning the election, Clinton also appointed a number of black American citizens to serve in his administration, including but not limited to:

  • Mike Espy, Secretary of Agriculture (1993)
  • Ron Brown, Secretary of Commerce (1993)
  • Hazel R. O’ Leary, Secretary of Energy (1993)
  • Jesse Brown, Secretary of Veterans Affairs (1993)
  • Alexis Herman, Secretary of Labor (1997)
  • Rodney E. Slater, Secretary of Transportation (1997)
  • Togo D. West, Jr., Secretary of Veterans Affairs (1998)

In fact, Clinton appointed more black Cabinet Secretaries than any U.S. president in the nation’s history, including Barack Obama. Doing so gave the Clinton the appearance not only of better representing black people in the nation’s highest office, but also of rewarding black voters for turning out to vote for him with real change at the highest levels of administration.

And in 1999, towards the end of Clinton’s presidency, the Clinton White House sought to commemorate such real changes with a web page titled “Working on Behalf of African Americans.”

This page mentions over 80 initiatives that the Clinton administration advocated for and took part in during their time in office, including but not limited to (and these are line-items lifted directly from the page):

  • Closing the Book on A Generation of Deficits.
  • Real Wages Are Rising for African Americans. 
  • Addressing HIV/AIDS in Minority Community with an Historic $130 Million Effort. 
  • Extended Health Care to Millions of Children with the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
  • Hosted the First-Ever White House Conference on Africa in July 1994.
  • Launched the President’s Partnership for Economic Opportunity in Africa Initiative. 

But the ultimate event that that made Bill Clinton America’s “first black president, was the stroke of Toni Morrison’s pen in 1998 during the sex scandal that shook Clinton’s presidency to the core.

Toni Morrison Calls Clinton “our First Black President”

Noting the heightened political rhetoric of impeachment coming out of Washington in wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Toni Morrison wrote a short, slightly miffed column for The New Yorker that would make history in October of 1998.

In her column, Morrison called attention to the news media’s unrelenting coverage of the sex scandal, as well as its similarity to the all-too-American narrative of covering America black men with unrelenting bias and surveillance.

 

Over the years, and especially since Barack Obama was rightfully heralded as the United States’ first black president, Morrison has received substantial blowback for calling a white president “our first black President.” Most of this blowback, however, stems from the assumption that she was praising Clinton, when she in fact was

[D]eploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated […] like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.”

In other words, the reasons why Clinton was called “the first black President” are myriad, but they had less to do with race than they had to do with representation.

— Joshua Ryan Jackson

Works Cited

“Bill Clinton on the Arsenio Hall Show (1992).” YouTube, uploaded by The Arsenio Hall Show, 15 January 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vaj8iCCZFhM.

Morrison, Toni. “Comment.” The New Yorker. October 5 1998, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1998/10/05/comment-6543, Accessed 28 April 2018.

Wickham, Dewayne. Bill Clinton and Black America. One World, 2004.

Beloved: Reconciliation and Re-memory


Beloved. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Toni Morrison, inspired by runaway slave Margaret Garner, tells the story of Sethe, a runaway slave that kills her daughter to save her from being taken into slavery. Years after Sethe pays the price for her crime, a mysterious girl, Beloved, comes to stay with Sethe, her daughter Denver, and her lover Paul D. Upon Beloved’s arrival, her new family feels content and for the first time, happy. Yet, as Beloved’s stay is extended, Denver and Paul D suspect that she is not who she appears to be and for Sethe, Beloved forces her to reconcile her past in order to survive the present.

Although Beloved was published in 1987, the novel had a significant impact on the 90s. The novel helped catapult Morrison into the mainstream and depicted a story of slavery that had not been previously told before. Beloved takes on the complex idea of re-memory and reconciliation. Throughout the novel characters experience re-memory (or what many just believe to be “remembering”) and attempt to reconcile the memories of the past. Sethe and Paul try to keep their slave experiences locked away, yet have to eventually face them head on. Interestingly, while Sethe fights to keep re-memory at bay, Beloved cannot recall her past. The longer Beloved stays Sethe relives more of her past. It is not until Sethe lets go of the past that Beloved disappears and she is allowed to heal.

The idea of re-memory in the novel provides context to the black experience in the 90s and presently. Tricia Rose’s Black Noise (1994) and Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) both hypothesize that black people are disenfranchised and frustrated because they are still dealing with the lasting effects of slavery. In turn, blacks turn to music or other forms of expression to reconcile slavery’s effects. According to Rose and Gilroy, re-memory permeates rap, movies, texts, and in general, black culture. Essentially, black people are facing re-memory and we won’t be able to move on until we reconcile our past. The question is: how can we escape re-memory or are we destined to stay in its grasps? What has to “disappear” in order for black people to move on?

Beloved also shocks, incites, and questions humanity. Sethe firmly believes that she is justified in killing her baby and sees it as a side effect of slavery. Slavery made Sethe into the monster the others believed her to be. Slavery created a desperate mother that did not want her children to endure the agonizing injustices of slavery. Slavery forced a mother to make a gut-wrenching decision: she would rather her children die than be enslaved.

Slavery’s effects were seen in the 90s and even today. Going back to scholars Rose and Gilroy, black people are facing decisions and creating art that perpetuates those effects. There is the realization that slavery inflicted more damaging effects that probably were not even conceived of. It is no wonder why Sethe struggles to reconcile her actions and even her life. By the end of the novel, Beloved becomes imposing, dangerous, restrictive, and burdensome—just like slavery. During the reconciliation process, Beloved drains Sethe of life while she grows pregnant with it. Again, Sethe cannot thrive until she escapes Beloved or re-memory, or slavery. Black people cannot thrive until we escape re-memory, or slavery.

Toni Morrison poignantly says of the novel: “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, or better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”[i]

The 90s was a decade that spawned black consciousness, and Beloved was no exception. The novel succeeded in creating what Morrison wanted to do; thus it goes without question that Beloved is significant to the 90s and continues to be relevant today. B. Stewart


[i] “A Bench by the Road.” UU World. Unitarian Universalist Association, 11 Aug. 2008. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.