A Black President. . . .Barely!
It has only been a couple of days but I am already tired of hearing about Barack Obama skin colour.
He did not run a campaign which used the race issue to get votes. In fact, Afro-Americans did not flock to his side until he was readily accepted in large numbers by white Americans. Then ,and only then, did Afro-Americans think there just might be a chance to see one of their own elected President. Even then, Obama did not do anything special to garner their vote. He did not surround himself with Afro-Americans with long standing political and social activist credentials. I thought at the time, "How the US has matured". Could the US have moved beyond it racist roots. Perhaps, I should change some of my thinking.
The fact is, Barack Obama hardly qualifies to be Afro-American. His American mother was white. His father was not American but an African. He does not carry in his soul the stigma of slavery. This is not his cultural narrative. He was raised in an white household. His schooling was largely in societies that did not pay much attention to skin colour, in Hawaii and Indonesian. He got an education in large white Universities and went to a presitigous Law school at Harvard. This is not a background that many Afro-Amercians can identify with. It would be a more accurate description to say that Barack Obama is white. He is culturally white and only his skin colour makes one call him black. How superficial is the race designation!
(It has turned out that he is was the perfect candidate to be the first Black President: whites were not threatened by him and black accepted him as one of their own.)
I have seen this up close. I had a cousin who was adopted and of mixed ethnicity. She was part Jamaican and part white. She could be called an Afro-Canadian, although she had little or no cultural contact with the black community, going to school in a small rural town and later at a private girls school. She was culturally white. ( The only "black" problem was my aunt never knew how to cope with her hair)
At the time in her life when she wanted to know about what it meant to be Black, she came to see me. I was the closest person she knew who knew what it was to be culturally black. I had lived for 10 years in American inner city neighbourhoods. I had been part of the civil rights struggle, I had read extensively the literature, from Frederick Douglass, to WEB Debois, to Frantz Fanon, to Richard Wright and many in between. I talked to her at length. In the end she seemed satisfied but did not go on to identify with the Black community by taking part on Black culture in the city.
I also had a close black friend, who lived with us when we were in Seminary. He was from Jackson, Mississippi and advanced in life by always having a white benefactor: his white minister in Jackson (who survived a shooting there during the civil rights struggle) a wealthy Boston lady, myself, our denomination (which wanted black minister to demonstrate how liberal they were )and others. (On graduation a special ministry was created for him in Cleveland.) This conflicted him at the time of the black power struggle.
He was not comfortable in his own skin. Publically he was very vocal and black espousing Black Power. Privately, he just wanted a quiet parish where he could be a humble pastor. I was one of the few friends who could tell him he was a fraud; Like the time he revealed how he was an habitue at a fancy dinner club at the top of the Prudential Center in Boston at the same time he was a black power agitator on the streets of Roxbury.
And then, there was the time, in Cleveland, when he was trying to talk a black couple into including a "African Dance" in their wedding which he claimed to have learned from a Nigerian. After he demonstrated the dance, the man slowly commented, " Looks like the Mississippi shuffle to me!" I don't know who was more embarassed; me, for him, or himself.
Cultural identity, which is part of our core Self, is so much more than skin colour. Barack Obama culturally is more upper middle class white than black. This is how he dresses and presents himself in public. He does not speak "Black English" or argue through parables like a black preacher. He is disciplined, rational, articulate and uses proper formal English in making his arguments. Interesting, it was his minister, Reverend Wright, who epitomized the black culture, from his preaching style, black slang right down to wearing a dashiki. Could Barack Obama been a cultural voyeur in Wright's church.
I recently read Barack Obama went to work in Chicago as a community organizer because he wanted to understand better he plight of the urban Black poor. Could it have been an effort at self discovery?
The Black Community has unquestioningly embraced Barack Obama, as one of their own. He has had few Black critics of his cultural presentation of himself, with the exception of Jesse Jackson getting caught in a ungarded moment threatening him physical harm for daring to lecture the Black community to take responsibility for the state of the Black family in American. It is time the men to stepped up and be men and take responsibility for their children and their families. (As truthful as this may be in depicting the plight of the urban Black family, his judgement is that of the middle class white culture). He may come to be judged more harshly by the Black community if he does not deliver the goods as President. I think their judgement is supended for now.
I, for one, am waiting to see how many well qualified minorities, including women, make it into his administration in powerful positions. How much change will we really see. So far he seems to be surrounded by the usual bunch of white male power brokers. Time will tell.
Barack Obama has a daunting task. His white benefactors, his white constituents, his Black constituents and other world politicians are expecting a lot from him. I trust he will find his own voice and continue to speak for himself and achieve what he feels called to achieve. Otherwise, he will be pulled in all directions. I hope he get beyond always being the first Black President. If he is judged by his skin colour he may have trouble pleasing everyone. In any case, I, for one, am getting tired of it.