By Andrew M. Mwenda
On November 4, Americans go to the polls to elect a president in what USA media has been calling a ‘historic election.’ Of course, there is nothing ‘historic’ about it except for the fact that one candidate ‘ Barack Obama ‘ is referred to as African American (used interchangeably with being ‘black’) although he is of mixed racial heritage.
The obsession with Obama’s racial identity is a troubling statement of the racial undertones that characterise American politics. A woman at a rally asked Obama’s opponent, John McCain, whether it was true that Obama is an Arab. ‘No mum,’ McCain answered, ‘he is a descent human being.’ Does this mean that Arabs are not descent human beings? On many blogs, Obama’s opponents call him a Muslim to discredit him as if being Muslim disqualifies one from running for president.
But why is a person of mixed race called ‘black’? It all goes back to slavery which was built on racial identity. For it to work, Europeans in America systematically devalued and rejected everything African. People of African origin were constructed as sub-human. Inter racial mating/marriage was criminalised. Every drop of African blood was enough to push someone out of the category of human (defined as white) into sub-human (defined as black). In the process, the European half of racially mixed off-springs was denied acknowledgement.
It is this ugly history that Obama, his admirers, opponents and the mass media accept without question when they call him ‘black’. Yet in spite of this history and its many faults, America is a functional society that offers its citizens many opportunities. Obama realised this and will therefore become an inspiration to many people of African descent.
In his book, Dreams from my Father, he demonstrates the social obstacles that stand in the path to personal development in the US by African Americans. Yet he expresses an admirable resolve to overcome them. His key message is that seeming liabilities can be worked into advantages; and that although the circumstances of our birth can impose immense obstacles in our path, how we traverse our life’s journey is more important.
I was attracted to his message of personal responsibility ‘ the courage to look within oneself for one’s success, the refusal to attribute one’s life’s failures to others ‘ whatever their contribution to your disadvantage. Obama shows that even in a bad situation, opportunities abound, however limited and that a keen person should be able to take advantage of them. This, more than any policy proposal he has put forth, makes Obama an interesting candidate to look up to.
During his growth, Obama writes, he sought inspiration by reading the works of leading African American intellectuals ‘ W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin etc. They sounded like prisoners, held in America’s social jails ‘weary, resigned and exhausted by the very social injustices they were supposed to fight. Obama was not willing to accept this defeatist mentality that led to self contempt. He wanted inspiration and he found it in Malcolm X who rejected the attitude of defeat and resignation without ignoring the immensity of the challenge before him.
Obama felt that the attitude of defeat among African Americans was rooted in a historical power equation where they played on ‘the white man’s court… by the white man’s rules.’ Those who succumbed to this illogic spectre of race withdrew into personal rage until being black in America meant only the knowledge of one’s powerlessness. Yet even those who refused defeat and lashed out at their oppressors did not do well either because they were quickly labelled ‘Angry’, ‘Militant’, ‘Violent’, etc.
Although attracted to Malcolm X’s militancy, he rejected his mentor’s anger against white people ‘ while understanding its origins. Malcolm X had white ancestors. Apparently his great white grandfather had raped his black great grandmother. So he was a product of hate and crime. Obama is an offspring of a love affair between a black Kenyan and a white Kansas woman, brought up in the loving care of white grandparents.
Although Obama understood Malcolm X’s rejection of his white ancestry, he also realised it could not fit him either. It is in this experience that constructs the foundational philosophy of Obama’s politics ‘ of reaching across the Isle to the other side. For him, life does not have only one defining moment, one beginning or one end. He sees many possibilities, different courses of action and different outcomes.
I discover early in his book that his message of ‘change’ is actually not new ‘ it is a slogan he wrote in his 1996 publication Dreams from my Father. But then, can Obama really change America? This is where he is likely to disappoint many admirers. For the United States has entrenched interests that stand above and beyond what any president can do. We can take just one example ‘ the military industrial complex. Its largest client is the US government. It will therefore always push any president to war. Obama will therefore have to find some country to bomb in order to stake his claim to being an effective commander in chief.
Yet it is not so much what the president of the US does but rather how he does it that shapes how the world takes him. Bill Clinton bombed as many countries as George Bush ‘ Afghanistan, Sudan and Serbia and invaded Haiti. Yet Clinton has not attracted the kind of hostile reception that Bush has encountered ‘ well because he recognised the views of others. Thus, if he wins on November 4, the challenge for Obama is how to work with other nations without making America appear like a bull in a China shop.
Obama’s proposed reforms ‘ in healthcare, in education and in social security ‘ will meet resistance from vested interests and get bogged down in congressional gridlock. Thus, the greatest contribution his victory will bring will not be in changing America. Rather it will be in inspiring African Americans and Africans generally to aim higher. Quite often we resign ourselves to defeat on grounds that white society imposes innumerable social obstacles in our path. If one defined as African can win the highest office in America that excuse will have been dealt a devastating blow.