Who is Obama’s ‘Cousin Pookie’?

by Dax-Devlon Ross


  ImageIn remarks at Brown Chapel in Selma, Ala., Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama made reference to the mysterious Cousin Pookie. (Photo by Linda Stelter)

[Selma, AL] — In his sermon Sunday at Brown Chapel in Selma, Ala., Barack Obama declared: “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.”

It wasn’t the first time the Illinois senator and presidential aspirant has invoked “Pookie” in gently scolding terms, and his mention was met with affirmations of recognition at the church.

But for those not in the know, the question remains: Who is this Pookie?

The Obama campaign didn’t respond to requests for details. But Newhouse News Service asked some of America’s best minds on black culture, language and politics.

In their interviews and e-mails, Pookie emerges as a stock character of the black popular imagination, a name that has come to personify the kind of layabout kin who, if endearing, is also a source of some embarrassment and consternation to his more successful relations. 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,” said Kevin Gray, a South Carolina writer and activist. “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.”

Obama was the keynote speaker at Brown Chapel on the 42nd anniversary of the historic voting rights marches in Selma. One of his themes was the need for succeeding generations to keep faith with those who marched, and were beaten bloody, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.

Angela Dillard, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, 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. Some Bill Cosby-ish undertones, perhaps, and interesting in the context of a celebration of what was such a black working-class movement” in Selma.

Indeed, Dyson, who wrote a book challenging 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.”

To Mark McPhail, an expert on rhetoric at Miami University of Ohio, “This is the type of appeal that reveals Obama’s willingness to play on the worst type of stereotypes.”

Maybe, McPhail e-mailed, Pookie doesn’t vote because he doesn’t think there is a reason to, or because he was “disenfranchised by Clinton’s anti-crime bill.” Maybe Pookie lives in Florida or Ohio, “and did vote, but didn’t get counted.”

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.”

That’s how the Rev. Joseph Lowery heard it.

The contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr. introduced Obama at Brown, and smiled at the mention of Pookie — not because he was familiar with the reference but because he knew, in context, who was being talked about: any of the hundreds of thousands of unregistered African-Americans in King’s and his own home state of Georgia.

Kitwana agrees. What’s more, he thinks that Jethro is Pookie’s white counterpart, and that by including him, Obama was making a cross-racial appeal to get off the couch.

Dyson, at Penn, thinks Obama’s Jethro is merely Pookie’s black country cousin.

Is Jethro white, like Jethro Bodean, the irrepressible bumpkin son of sudden fortune on the Beverly Hillbillies?

The only other clue is that Obama referred to “Cousin Pookie” and “Uncle Jethro.” And in the senator’s case especially, those relations aren’t necessarily black.