Barack's Barren Night Table

Where are fiction's black presidents? Is there a book or two you wish you could put on Barack Obama's night table? What would make a good read...

Where are fiction's black presidents?

Is there a book or two you wish you could put on Barack Obama's night table? What would make a good read for the prez-elect-something he could dip into after a long day appointing Cabinet members and writing thank you cards?Inside Higher Ed columnist Scott McLemee polled some smart folks to see what they thought the next president should read. Several recent articles explored the subject of presidents and books, from a New York Times essay on those McCain and Obama call their favorites to a National Book Critics Circle poll of great election-themed reading.All these lists are thin on imaginative literature. Histories and non-fiction clutter the recommendations, but few novels, poems, or plays make the cut.Since fiction is my bailiwick, I got to thinking about novels I would suggest to prez-elect Obama. Taking into account the he is insanely busy, I tried to think of books he could get into easily (I wouldn't want him to start the latest Roberto Bolaño only to put it down 1/900th of the way through.) What could he read that is relevant to his new post? Perhaps a book that, say, imagined how a fictional alter-ego-someone like him, someone black-managed the highest office? So, I set out to search for a novel that would allow him to experience that mixture of narcissistic and intellectual pleasure that comes from empathically identifying with a character similar to one's self.I came up with nada. Not a title.Obama's rise to presidency, it seems, has outrun our fictional imaginings. How many times have we heard sentences starting with "I never dreamt…" in the past week? More things on Heaven and Earth, indeed.I took to Google. There have been a few movies and television shows depicting black presidents. There was a comic strip, Treasure Chest, that some say takes the prize for the first depiction of a black presidential candidate in 1964. I unearthed one novel about a black president: The Man by popular author Irving Wallace, also published in 1964. It tells the story of Douglass Dilman, president pro tem of the Senate, who, after a series of accidents that befall his higher-ups, is elevated to the presidency. He is eventually impeached on trumped-up charges. The book was no critical darling, but in 1972, James Earl Jones played Dilman in a movie version. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the eminent literary critic, wrote a moving article on Obama's win that includes his memory of seeing The Man, and his pleasure at watching a black president on the screen. ("Imagine that!" he recalls thinking.)Could The Man really be the only American novel depicting a black president? If so, shame on us for allowing reality to outpace fiction. It seems we need to daydream more diligently (and more diversely), for we should not be caught falling so short again. Perhaps we need to regroup and work a bit harder to imagine more implausible plot turns and unlikely protagonists.We need more literature that tells stories that would never really happen. Just in case.[youtube]