Editor’s Note: Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said he was “shocked” that former Tennessee GOP leader Chip Saltsman sent committee members a CD featuring a 2007 parody song called “Barack the Magic Negro.” The ditty was written by comedian Paul Shanklin, who since 1993 has been featured on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show as the “Man of Many Voices,” with songs lampooning public figures.
This story is based on an interview Shanklin gave Newsmax earlier this year.
Paul Shanklin figures, at best, his songs make people laugh, and perhaps think a little. So he was largely unprepared for the firestorm sparked by a parody tweaking critics of Barack Obama.
Shanklin got the idea for his controversial tune “Barack the Magic Negro” in March 2007 after reading a column titled “Obama the Magic Negro” by David Ehrenstein in the Los Angeles Times. In the column, Ehrenstein compared Obama to the stereotypical shallow black movie character that exists only to aid the white protagonist.
“Magical Negro” is an offensive Hollywood term that has been applied to characters played by the likes of Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman and Will Smith, to name but a few. Almost as soon as Ehrenstein’s column ran, Rev. Al Sharpton joined the anti-Obama chorus, saying the Illinois senator hadn’t done enough to champion black causes.
“I started humming it around the house after I read the column,” Shanklin told Newsmax. “But I seriously questioned whether it was appropriate for the show.”
For one thing, Shanklin knew the issue required a lot of explanation up front. “It’s a horrible thing to say about Barack,” Shanklin said. “The guy earned his way. For people on the left to try to attack him and shoot him down early, it was amazing.
“When Sharpton jumped on board, I thought I had to do something with it. I figured if people understood what this is about, it was going to be good.”
The resulting parody quickly rose in popularity on the Limbaugh program, playing repeatedly through March and April. In it, Shanklin imitates Sharpton shouting through a bullhorn to the tune of Pete Yarrow’s classic “Puff the Magic Dragon,” with reworked lyrics such as:
Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C.
The L.A. Times, they called him that
‘Cause he’s not authentic like me.
Yeah, the guy from the L.A. paper
Said he makes guilty whites feel good
They’ll vote for him, and not for me
‘Cause he’s not from the hood.
But the song’s popularity created a backlash for Shanklin, who said mainstream media reporters saddled him with coining the “Magic Negro” moniker for Obama and branded him a racist.
“The funniest thing I had was a request from the Today show to go on and explain myself,” Shanklin said. “I knew these guys were not my friends. I wasn’t going to go on there and have Matt Lauer asking me, ‘How long have you been a racist?’ They love to make people cry on that show. I didn’t want to be the guy crying in front of Matt Lauer.”
On the advice of a friend, Shanklin declined the Today show invitation and issued a simple statement: “The song speaks for itself. It’s a parody of David Ehrenstein’s column in which he called Obama the ‘Magic Negro.’ Go read it.”
That didn’t stop Today from covering the story, or from referring to Shanklin in most references as “the white comedian.”
“That’s why you’ll hear Rush refer to me as ‘white comedian Paul Shanklin’ on the air now. It’s a leftover from that whole affair,” he told Newsmax.
While he tries to stay lighthearted about the incident, Shanklin says he was hurt by the way the story got twisted. “I’m from Memphis, which is probably the most racially polarized city in the country. I take this issue pretty seriously.
“This was my first experience in being a part of a story and everybody got it wrong. It was kind of scary and kind of enlightening too. It’s frustrating to be on the business end of the media’s slant.
“Rush is the one who gets the slings and arrows for the most part. This time it was my turn.”
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