Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Our first semi-honky president?

Joe Curl attempts to decipher the nomenclature of Barack Obama's ancestry:
Debra Dickerson, a contributing writer and blogger for the liberal Mother Jones magazine, said at the Salon.com Web site in January that Mr. Obama is not even technically black, defining the term "in our political and social reality" as applying only to "those descended from West African slaves."
This kind of stuff seems a bit nitpicky to me. It's much easier to apply what I call "the Sand Mountain test."

Sand Mountain is a region of northeast Alabama that has a legendary reputation for racism. So, whenever somebody asks if Obama is "black enough," just ask yourself, "Would he be called the n-word on Sand Mountain?"

I don't think a sociological research grant will be necessary to determine the answer.

1 comment:

  1. I think Curl's point is that Obama is not "Black" or "African American" within the meanings of those terms as descriptive of a distinct ethno-cultural group in the United States. White racists might very well apply the "n word" to a whole host of people who are not considered "Black," much less "African American" in this sense. I could see the folks in Sand Mountain applying the "n word" to VJ Singh, or an Aborigine from Australia, and so on, as well, of course, to most Africans. But the terms "Black" and "African American" are not normally used, or defined, in this way.

    The term "African American" was specifically promulgated to deal with this issue. Lots of different peoples, all over the world, might be said to be "black," based on their skin color (or "race," if one accepts that term). But only a small subset of that world-wide group has the distinct historical-cultural heritage of Americans who can trace their ancestry to slaves of African origin. Just like Irish-Americans or Jewish Americans, perhaps even more so, African Americans have a unique, shared history, culture, literature, set of folkways, vernacular, and so on, that distinguishes them from the members of the Eastern Hemispere cultures to which they trace their origin.

    What does all of this have to do with Obama? Plenty. Obama's mother was a white (Caucasian, European) American. His father was a Kenyan. Some would say that even his father was not "black," but part-black and part-Arab, but, in my view, it isn't even necessary to get into that. As I said, Obama's father was a Kenyan, an African, not an African American. How can Obama be an African American if neither of his parents were African Americans? None of his ancestors had the history of enslavement, forced trans-oceanic travel, discrimination, Jim Crow segregation and so on, nor the literal, linguistic, artistic and cultural background, that goes with being an African American.

    One might say, what about immigrants from Africa, aren't they, and their descendants, African Americans? First of all, Obama's father was not an "immigrant" from Africa. He was a foreign student in the US. He was no more an immigrant to the US than an American student at the Sorbonne is an immigrant to France. Obama's father never had any intention of staying in the US permanently, and did not do so; he simply was not an immigrant. Secondly, when the term "African American" was first proposed there were those who raised just this question (what about post-slavery immigrants from Africa? aren't they the "real" African Americans), but that claim was rejected. Such persons are typically called "Angolan Americans" or "Senegalese Americans" and so on, rather than "African Americans." In this sense, Obama is a "Kenyan American," not an "African American."

    Nor does any conceivable combination of "American" and "African" necessarily produce an "African American," unless one buys John Kerry's wife's claim to that title!

    One might argue that "blood" isn't everything, that culture isn't a matter of genetics, but of practice. The problem is, that even under this theory, Obama is still not an African American. If Obama had been put up for adoption, and had been raised by an African American family, this argument might carry the day. But, he wasn't. Obama was raised by his white mother and white grand parents. He was brought up as a priveledged, ex-patriate American in Indonesia, and as a mixed-raced person in Hawaii, where such persons are not exceptional in any way. Obama was not raised in an African American family or milleau, he did not attend predominantly African American schools or churches, or live in an African American neighborhood.

    By his birth, by his family history, and by his upbringing, Obama is simply not an African American.

    After Obama left Hawaii, he went to college at elite, liberal, and mostly white, institutions in California and New York (Occidental College and Columbia University). It was only after Obama graduated from college, and was well into his '20, and moved to Chicago, that he took the steps that have allegedly "made" him an African American (joining the Afro-Centric church of Rev. Wright, living and working in an African American community, and marrying an African American women).

    According to Obama, he had been suffering from an "identity crises" for years (although no one else, not his friends, family, or classmates, seemed to notice it), and, in Chicago, he resolved it by embracing his "Black" self. Another, less charitable, view, is that Obama was planning his political career, and a change of "race" was part of his plan.

    He was already working as a "community organizer" in an African American community. Obama was laying the groundwork for a run for office from that neighborhood. It would hardly do for him to present himself as half white and half Kenyan American. No, Obama would have to be a "Black" man, an "African American," if he hoped to win office in this community. Notice too, that this particular African American community, with its widespread poverty and lack of educational attainment, would be a very fertile field for a Black man with degrees from not one, but two, Ivy League institutions, including the world-famous Harvard Law School. In my opinion, Obama cynically adopted an African American identity, because he knew that would serve him well in his political career on the South Side. And he chose to begin his career in that community because its members would be more impressed by his academcic credentials than any middle or upper class constituency would have been.

    But, even if this is not the case, and the so-called "identity crises" is the reason for Obama's attempt to pass himself off as an African American, it still does not mean that he really is one. Nor, sad to say, does the embrace that Obama has recieved from an African American community deperate for success and hungering for a chance at political power change anything either. Just like the U of Chicago retroactively claiming that Obama really was a "professor," the decision of African Americans to accept Obama as one of their own does not make it so.

    I realize that this is America, and people are told that they can be anything that they want to be. But, I do not beleive that this applies to one's ethno-cultural background. One can change one's religion, one's politics, one's residence, one's profession, and so on, but one cannot change who one's parents were, how one was raised, or one's family history.

    For example, a person born to and raised by the children of Polish immigrants can renounce the Catholic faith he was brought up in, he can refuse to learn the Polish language, can claim that his Polish ancestry is not important to him, can loudly proclaim his dislike of the traditional Polish foods he was fed as a child, and so on, but he can't claim some other ethnicity (such as, say, Irish American) as his own.

    I believe this is what Obama is trying to do. But, he is not "Black," or "African American," and nothing anyone can say or do can change that.