A month or so back I watched Tavis Smiley’s Black State of the Union on CSPAN…I watched Al Sharpton and (the always cool) Cornel West warn Barak Obama that he cannot count on Black America’s vote…he had to demonstrate his loyalty (or his worthiness?) through paying attention to the needs of the African-American community. In short, he was not necessarily “the” African-American candidate (Obama was not at the event in Williamsburg, VA as he was announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Il…Lincoln’s birth place…I’m sure that contributed to some of Sharpton’s tone).
Following that event, media debate about Obama’s “blackness” (or at least “African-American-ness“) ensued. I saw it on CNN, I read about it in The Nation and I heard it on Air America. Obama’s mother is white, his father in Kenyan and (according to Chris Matthews on MSNBC) he thus has “no history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, of slavery.” Top it off with the fact that (according to Senator Joseph Biden) Obama is “articulate and bright and clean” and we magically have a debate about how “white” Obama is…this is, of course, complicated by past discussions about how “black” Bill Clinton was (does this extend to Senator Clinton?)
Air America’s Rachel Maddow pointed out the contradictions on a brief CNN appearance–on one hand Obama has to prove he has broader America’s interests at heart if he is to become a mainstream candidate…on the other hand if he does not pay enough attention to black issues he may alienate African-American voters (as Sharpton warns).
Here I am reminded of Carter Woodson’s discussion of the tensions between black folks who have been educated and “equipped for a life in White America”. . .”he must be both social and bisocial at the same time. While he is a part of the body politic he is in addition to this a member of a particular race… While serving his country he must serve within a special group (Woodson 1933:4). This dilemma seems the same for Obama as it was in 1933 for Woodson (In fact, a recent lecture at SAU by Dr. Walter Kimbrough, President of Philander Smith College, touched upon this tension as well).
First, let’s dispense with the”Obama without history” quote (with all apologies to Eric Wolf). Were Abner Louima or Amadou Diallo (both immigrants and, in the case of the Guinean Diallo, without a history of American racial prejudice) asked for their papers before they were shot and/or tortured by the police? One’s own identity is only a part of the manifestations of American racism. The problem is not with Obama, but with the cultural memories and expectations of Joe Biden Chris Mathews and, perhaps, Al Sharpton.
Patricia Williams takes this point in an unexpected direction when she points out (in The Nation of March 5th) that “at a more complex level…American identify is defined by the experience of the willing diaspora, the break by choice that is the heart of the immigrant myth” and African-Americans, by and large, have been excluded from the “essential page of the American narrative” (p.13). Obama is a black American that can be counted among the willing immigrants.
There are lots of discussions about how Obama will “transcend race”…this is usually read as “transcending blackness”…but Obama must also (as Williams alludes to) “transcend” his whiteness and the increasing narrow expectations and contradiction of what makes a leader and “a black leader.”