Obama's Racial Ambiguity: A Blessing Or A Curse?


    Barack Obama’s head peers out of a black and white television screen in an Al Sharpton wig, his face sweating like a Baptist preacher as he shouts rap lyrics into a microphone, his full length white robe bearing the slogan “By Any Means Necessary”, the expectant congregation before him reverently chanting “holla if ya here me”…


This is one of the racial boxes that I imagine the staunch group of black holdouts who insist he is "not black enough" want to put Barack Obama in when they see him on the nightly news or the internet – his standard uniform of a plain blue suit and unobtrusive tie, it seems, is just one more piece of evidence that Obama is not really black.

Some of us have not full accepted his motives. Amazingly, there are those of us who will go so far as to suggest that Obama has used his embrace of African American culture as a shortcut to success. Some even feel Obama has been foisted upon us by the media and the powers-that-be. For these American blacks, Obama’s "fade to black" development raises serious questions about his ability to relate to the challenges and struggles of everyday black people.

What is it that forces us to demand fealty by our leaders to some unknown rulebook of acceptable black behavior? Is the racial ambiguity that a staunch minority of us imagine Barack Obama has used to his advantage throughout his life problematic for the masses of us who have no such leeway in how we are seen by mainstream America?

To really understand the disconnect between Barack Obama and those of us who are supportive of the idea of a black president, but wary of this biracial man’s claim to his African Americanness after being raised by a white mother and white grandparents, we have to take a step back and look at our history here in America.

Most black authored racial literature here in America has been about black men and women dealing with and entering a white world -- three classic examples are Frederick Douglass, Narrative and Life and Times, Richard Wright, Native Son, and Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.

Out of these three classic books, Fredrick Douglass, who was the real life protagonist of his autobiography, was the only main character able to successfully navigate life as an adult black male. In his recollection of his life story, Douglass was generous in his descriptions of those who helped him on his way to freedom, whether they were black or white.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man comes closest to echoing the undercurrents of the Obama phenomenon. Like Obama, Invisible has questioned the who, what, and why of his existence from a young age. There is a point in Invisible’s life, after he arrives in New York City, when he began to transform himself from a college dropout to a productive member of society, where he discovered that the world allowed him more latitude whenever he allowed those around him to see what they wanted to in him.

This year’s presidential campaign may be the true ending of the story Ellison wrote, but it was an ending even he couldn’t have imagined back when he wrote his novel. For Invisible, the point at which people stopped seeing him at all was the height of his existence.

And though we’ve had other models of self transformation by black men throughout our history, our image has become stylized, both by the media and by our own mythological reconstructions, as Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son – self hating, self loathing people who harbor latent criminal tendencies that we are prone to act upon if we are not properly supervised.

Bigger was bigger – bigger than the Chicago ghetto he was from, bigger than the manservant job he had, bigger than the crime he committed. He was all of black humanity, all of the perversities of us as a group distilled into the essence of one man, and even now, in the eyes of some Americans, he is the symbol of what a whole lot of us are today.

We have been striving since slavery to shake off the strictures of bondage and discrimination in order that we might fully inhabit all phases of American life. Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams From My Father, on the other hand, tells a story that is the exact opposite of our traditional tale of racial transformation – it is the story of a man of amorphous race dealing with and entering the black world.

A lot of the racial ambiguity claims about Obama have been manufactured by the overactive minds of professional pundits. And some of it is us, telling each other, "he’s not really black". But the reality of Barack Obama’s supposed ambiguity – an ability to traverse the boundaries between white and black worlds – is that he could have tried all he wanted to, but he could never have been anything other than black in America.

There is no ambiguity for him – he has always known he was different, ever since his eyes could focus on the image of his mother, ever since those same eyes were able to compare how she looked to how he looked, ever since he has understood what was in the eyes of the people who looked at him as if he was the one that didn’t fit in the picture they had of his family.
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3 comments:

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Brilliant comparison, Brown, when you wrote of Invisible Man that:

..."he discovered that the world allowed him more latitude whenever he allowed those around him to see what they want to in him... This year’s presidential campaign may be the true ending of [Invisible]," and

"But the reality of Barack Obama’s supposed ambiguity – an ability to traverse the boundaries between white and black worlds – is that he could have tried all he wanted to, but he could never have been anything other than black in America."

This post was great but I wish it was longer. It begs the question of what will Invisible Man Obama continue to do based on his strategy thus far of over-accommodating to the very policies that are repressive to the underdog. What he has done so far does not bode well for us.

I think you and your readers will find this black radio commentary quite interesting and it ties in with your post: Imperialism With A Black Face.

Brown Man said...

Longer?

Given the kind of country we live in, we have not ever been able to break new ground by going in with our metaphorical guns blazing.

That's pretty much the whole point of this series - to take a closer look at why Obama is who he is, not in relation to mainstream America, which has been covered ad infinitum, but in relation to us.

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Hey Brown, but have you listened to the radio link yet? It addresses us. Try it out if you haven't already; I'm tellin' ya, it's really interesting.

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