Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thinking about Obama

So, I'm listening to all the stuff about the inauguration and am very excited about Tuesday. But it's interesting to me that Obama is consistently referred to as African-American and with reference to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. I find it interesting because in a very significant way (at least I think it's significant) Obama is not part of the African-American legacy in the United States. He does not have ancestors who were slaves, who were threatened by death when they went to vote, who were educated in segregated schools. Even though (I think) everyone knows that his mom was white (Kansas-white) and his dad was Kenyan, he's talked about he's an average African-American kid who grew up in South Central LA (not Hawaii, probably our most diverse state) and made good.

How would things be different if both of his parents were alive? What would those images have done to our understanding of Obama as "Black"?


Carmine said...

Regardless of whether Obama's ancestors were slaves or "part of the African-American legacy" he is still colloquially "Black" in America, and accepted as such by the community. I believe it was WEB DuBois who said something to the effect of, a drop of black blood makes one a Black American. Furthermore, SO WHAT?!

What is 'THE' African-American legacy? In Louisiana, under French rule, the Code Noir allowed slaves a certain amount of protections and freedoms, and the 'Octaroon' Creole(ie 1/8 black) were part of the aristocracy in New Orleans. Situations where poor white Cajuns, (Arcadians exiled from French-Canada during British rule and therefore 2nd class citizens), indentured themselves to service those of the Creole aristocracy. Point being, there exists no definitive "African-American legacy," it is as fractured as the European-American legacy (ie Irish Italian) or the American-Woman legacy.

Moreover, some of the greatest contributors to the egalitarian goals of our country have been "White," take the NAACP's work, for example. The organization started with funding from a rich white blue-blooded Protestant New Englander, William English Walling, whose family owned slaves.

Assuming there is such a legacy,Does being the product of it make one more qualified to represent those affected by it or more dangerous considering their grievances? More often than not, brutality, hate and violence produces not the venerable Dr. Martin Luther King, or the brilliance of Frederich Douglass; they are anomalies in any society, and much more so in one systematically oppressing their race. Unfortunately, the "African-American legacy" manufactures more militant personalities attuned to Tupac Shakur or Malcom X. Tupac created a telling acronym--T.H.U.G.,meaning 'The Hate U Gave.'
One does not need to be a product of an atrocity to be able to identify with those affected by it, they simply need to be human. However, those affected by the atrocity have naturally developed a distrust of those they feel are not 'one of them'. Hence the NAACP's choosing of Black lawyers during its heyday (ie Thurgood Marshall) to gain respect, trust and to empower the African-American community, not necessarily because they were better lawyers (I don't mean to suggest that they were not). Indeed, choosing white lawyers might have quickened their cause, however the NAACP wanted more than a win in the court room, they wanted the image of an educated intelligent Black American challenging the status-quo.
How would things be different if both of Obama's parents were alive? What would those images have done to our understanding of Obama as "Black"? In short, nothing. I feel what Obama IS NOT becomes more important than what he IS. Obama is not part of a blue-blood lineage going back to colonial America (ie Bush and most all presidents except Kennedy, whose family made their fortune on illegal sale of alcohol during Prohibition period).
If both Obama's parents were "white" and by chance of his gene pool lottery Barak turned out black it would not make him any more or less understanding of the Black American socio-economic experience, but it Does make him more easily accepted by the African-American community, understandably.
The image of Barak Obama, and the acceptance of him by the black community (90%+ voter poles), makes him a leader in the African-American community, as well as in the egalitarian movement in general. Whether his past coincides with the African American legacy matters less than if his future actions are considerate of all the atrocious minority legacies in our country.
In the long run, the idealistic fiction we create around Barak Obama might prove to be more powerful than himself, inspiring the unimaginable tomorrow.

JMc said...

Part of my point (or all of it) is that it is an idealistic fiction which was made possible by the absence of his parents and the serious down-playing, it seems to me, of his growing up in Hawaii.

I'm not questioning at all the extent to which he is a recipient of racism but I do question the extent to which he may have internalized racism having the background and upbringing that he's had.

I think it is a fiction and one that is double-edged. I wonder to what extent Obama's success has been made possible by the extent to which he has been able to place himself outside of the consequences of being in a family and an environment that has weathered racism for centuries. I'm not sure that Obama's success is an indication of MLK's dream having been fulfilled (as some are claiming). Though I certainly can see the merit in pointing to his success as a harbinger of what is possible for others to do.

Similarly, I don't see GW Bush's ability to run a baseball team, become governor of Texas and become President as evidence of what a poor white boy from an impoverished West Virginia coal mining town can do. Nor do I see it as evidence of the American dream being alive for all in this country.

But, more than anything my point was that the absence of his parents and the identification of him with Illinois instead of Hawaii led to a particular story being told. And I wonder how different facts being highlighted would have changed/messed with folks' views. I think that folks being constantly confronted by his mom being "white" would have messed with many people's conceptions of race and his father being Kenyan would have led to much more "hold" to the claim that he isn't "really" American. Further, the highlighting of Hawaii would have really made him "other" in a way that I think may have hurt his chances in becoming President.

I agree that nothing about him would be different but I don't really think that people make decisions entirely upon facts but upon the stories that are told. A very different story could have been told and I think it would have had a very different impact on the voting public.

Carmine said...

'If another story would have been told...'
Such is politics!
Power perceived is power achieved.

I would argue his lack of internalizing racism might advantage him, having less grievance and motive for reciprocation. Again, most brilliant poetic products of racism (Tupac, Malcom X) are not desirable leaders, they are one step shy of the technical definition of what makes a terrorist terrorize (grievance + charisma + means + political ends + military training = terrorist, or those willing to use less than peaceful means by objectifying peoples). People like MLK, Frederich Douglass, WEB DuBois, Thurgood Marshal might be desirable leaders, but lacked the idealistic fiction--the perceived power--necessary to maneuver through our obfuscating politics.

MLK's dream is far from realized, but our political machine consistently reinvents hope (fictional, false or otherwise), which was precisely Dr. King's message--keep hope.

I missed your GW reference. When I mentioned his lineage before I was talking about his great-grandfather being a tax collector for the British during the Colonial period. Barak may not have grown up in south Chi-town hoods, but the "facts" of his background differ greatly from previous presidents' backgrounds; which reek of cronyism, nepotism, and, in some cases, generations of racist elitism, none of which have surfaced in Obama's background.

What we have witnessed with the Obama phenomena is a possible shift in status-quo without a complete shift in regime, which means we have some control; this reinforces legitimacy in government, and increases participation.