Saturday, February 10, 2007

Black Like Me

When Senator Biden made his gaff about Barack Obama he hit on the unsettling subtext in the American psyche; was Barack Obama really 'black'.

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Well of course he is. But what is really being said is that Obama is not the N word.

African Americans are openly asking whether the first-term Illinois senator is "black enough."

But in order to court the black vote he will need to win the Democratic nomination, he must be careful not to raise any flags among a white electorate, which so far feels unthreatened by him.

"When you hear about his background, you hear Hawaii, Kenya (where his father was born), or Kansas (his mother's home state). You don't hear Alabama," says Ronald Walters, president of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "It's not strange at all that blacks would view him with a little suspicion. When somebody presents themselves, you want to look them over and if they don't share your background you might withhold judgment."

Debra J. Dickerson, a black author and essayist, broke the "not black enough" debate into the open in, last month, arguing Obama would be the great black hope for president, except he isn't black.

She argues that "black" in U.S. culture means those descended from West African slaves.

Biden's choice of words clean, ( a slip of the tongue he probably meant to say clean cut) articulate, knowledgeable, mainstream etc. all could be referenced back to Americas popular culture of racism.

Obama is middle class he represents those class values regardless of race. Or because of it, since race politics in the United States has been dominated by the grievances of the ghetto.

The N word is the new iconography of pride of current hip-hop black gangsta rap culture which currently dominates the cultural self-image of blacks in the United States.

It is the same issue with Tiger Woods, who is Thai and Black. His blackness was questioned like Obama's is. But it wasn't really about his mixed race it was because he was light skinned he was not N enough. Until his father started making his presence seen.

You never saw his Thai mother of course, ostensibly because she was the little woman at home and not a golfer. You saw his father who was a golfer, but one who didn't make it in the white segregated golf world because he was 'black' an African-American, despite also being of mixed race.

Tigers dominance and race breakthrough in golf was his fathers goal and victory, and it was a victory for all black's whether grandchildren of slaves or newly arrived from the Caribbean. But his race was still used against him no matter how light his skin.

Like Tiger, Obama is also mixed race, so he is lighter skinned, and he was brought up in Hawaii and abroad. He is not N enough, for some American blacks. He has not suffered their ghetto life is the subtext of their comments.

Well neither has Rev. Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. But they speak for those folks, you see. That's their politics, the politics of the disposed, the politics of the ghetto. And the resentment of slavery deeply underlies that politics.

Like Quebec's Nationalism, the resentments run deep, and the old grievances of reparation underlie pre-Obama politics of blackness.

In reality Tiger and Obama are the beneficiaries of the Great Society, they are part of the rising black middle class that has benefited from affirmative action, equal rights, voting rights, civil rights.

They represent the new generation of middle class blacks seeking to assimilate into American culture. They are the post Colin Powell, Condi Rice generation, just as they are the post Jackson/Sharpton generation.

It was Oprah, the black multimillionaire media mogul and voice of the black middle class that pushed Obama to run. He speaks for her generation and class.For a different kind of blackness in America, one that leaves behind the grievances of the ghetto and looks towards integration into the American melting pot.

Tiger and Obama cannot say they fought to get where they are. But they can appreciate the fight that got them where they are. Hence Obama's announcement today from the hometown of Abraham Lincoln.

Republican Lincoln, emancipator of the slaves, in one fell swoop Obama takes out the Republicans, who no longer are the party of Lincoln, in Democrat country, felling the Dixiecrats and Tammany Hall Democrats, and uses the great iconography of the Great emancipator and the emancipation to launch his campaign.

Lincoln was not a conservative or a neo-con, he too was a an anti war activist and pro labour, a social democrat. This is often forgotten by the current crop of Republicans that refer to him as if their party is His party. It isn't.

And Obama can appeal to both Democrats and Republicans as he can independents with his message of a politics of hope. That is why the Democratic establishment is wary of him. As they are of his populist base and politics.

His campaign will coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Robert Kennedy's run for the presidency. His campaign is grassroots, being driven by a popular push to have him run just as Kennedy's was.

The younger Kennedy's presidential bid in 1968 was a wild, people-driven ride, and it is not surprising that reporters who cut their teeth on it now look back on that summer with awe.

On the surface, Obama's embryonic campaign has some qualities that Kennedy's had. He too has hesitated publicly before subjecting himself to the fray. He too attracts vast audiences, full of hope, because he promises the future not the past. He has an ease with the language that sets him apart. And, merely by joining the race, he is rewriting the odds.

The race echoes 1968 too. Then, as now, a failed war dominated an anguished national campaign. Then, as now, the war compelled candidates, not least Kennedy, to get off the fence and adapt to anti-war concerns. Back then, though, it was the Republicans who had the last laugh. The hopes of the Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy campaigns ended with the election of Richard Nixon.

As for his blackness, it has nothing to do with skin colour or race but more to do with how Democrat black politics has played out in the United States. No major black American candidate for the party's leadership has had such a broad base of public support.

To some it is disconcerting that he appeals to white voters, to women, to other ethnic minorities and yes to blacks.He appeals to the fictional self-identified American middle class and their myth of the American Dream. So did Robert Kennedy. The similarities are striking.

He truly is a black man running for President, as the cheering crowds in Kenya attested to. He is more African, than those who criticize him as an Uncle Tom.

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McGuire said...

First off I think you mean Tiger WOODS, not the old NHL enforcer ;)

As for your post, it's excellent. I find the whole "is he black enough??" debate sad & depressing. There are thousands of bi-racial kids who are struggling with identity issues & this isn't helping.

eugene plawiuk said...

Oops, heh, heh, thanks for that tip I have changed it from Tiger Williams to Woods. Don't know how I missed that I thought three cups of coffee and two cigarettes were enough to keep me awake. And hey when are you gonna post my blog in your daily read column.