The Obama phenomenon

The Obama phenomenon
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First Published: Wed, Jun 11 2008. 11 56 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Jun 11 2008. 11 56 PM IST
When Halle Berry won the Academy Award for her performance in the film Monster’s Ball in 2002, she was described as the first black actress to have won the honour. Critics immediately said she was half-white, and in Britain, where I live, where the consensus among the chattering classes is that America is a deeply divided, racist society, many said Berry simply wasn’t black enough.
There was deep-rooted paternalism in that comment, as though black women could only be entertainers, champion athletes, single moms with children by different fathers, or scholarship students at elite universities resented for being quota princesses, and that Americans would not have honoured her if she were all-black. Blackness implied certain traits, and Berry challenged those notions.
Something similar is going on with Barack Obama, perhaps America’s most astute politician since Bill Clinton, in his being described as the nation’s first black candidate from a major party. Obama looks black — his father was from Kenya. His mother, we are quickly reminded, is white.
Does Obama’s white heritage dilute his black experience? Can he represent the “authentic” American black experience, if there is such a unified thing?
As the candidates pause before the real campaign begins, these questions will become more important. Some will devalue Obama’s blackness, saying an Ivy League-educated lawyer is too white; others will remind us of the bizarre reverends in his life and pin him to an imagined blackness.
Does it matter? Black experience in America is seminal, with slavery always forming an undercurrent, and that’s not part of Obama’s story. Blacks suffered incalculable indignities, brought in slave ships and being forced to work on plantations. Courts did not ensure the freedom of slaves who fled to the north. Jim Crow laws separated blacks and whites in the south until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Someone representing that background would personify those injustices, but that person is not Obama.
Obama’s father was not enslaved; he came to America as an exchange visitor, met the white woman who became Obama’s mother; they married, later went separate ways. She married another Muslim man, in Indonesia (where Obama went to school), and moved to Hawaii. This is not the deprived existence of urban ghetto, of growing up surrounded by crime, of difficult encounters with the police, or a lifetime of discrimination.
The black experience is not monolithic: Colin Powell, son of Jamaican immigrants, is black; Condoleezza Rice, who worked herself through academia without quotas, is black; Richard Parsons and Stan O’Neill — both black — headed Time Warner and Merrill Lynch; and like Obama, the ace golfer Tiger Woods is half-black. These icons are exceptional and exceptions; but there is a black middle class which defies the fossilized view the world has of black Americans.
Obama is an extremely interesting candidate, successful in projecting an image of innate decency. The ease with which he has transcended barriers dividing a multi-ethnic society is remarkable. Some of my Clinton-backing friends talk of Obama’s unsigned pact with America: you let me run for the White House, I won’t make you feel bad about being white.
Obama’s former preacher Jeremiah Wright understood what was going on, so he emerged, like an unwelcome relative gate-crashing a party. Wright wanted to reclaim Obama for the “authentic” black experience. Shrewdly noting the danger, Obama jettisoned the reverend. It is still a surprise why it took him 20 years to realize that Wright was a false prophet. There was no shortage of churches for Obama to choose from — inclusive ones such as Unitarian and Quaker immediately come to my mind, though maybe those are “too white and too New England.”
Obama chose his black church. Identity is what we choose to be and not who we are or look like. Describing her blackness, Berry told an interviewer: “My mother…reinforced (the view) that…people will not know when they see you that you have a white mother unless you wear a sign on your forehead. And, even if they did…people (will) believe that (if) you have an ounce of black blood, then you are black. So, I decided to let folks categorize me however they needed to.”
Obama will never be able to escape Rev. Wright and how others see his “blackness”. That experience is not exclusively black; his mother’s whiteness plays as important a part. That may make him less black for some. But it also makes him more American, in the melting pot sense. It would be sad if people vote against him because he is black, and just as sad if large numbers vote for him because he is black.
It was said — let Reagan be Reagan. Ditto, let the senator be what he wants to be. Like Martin Luther King wanted, judge him not by the colour of his skin, but the content of his character.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at
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First Published: Wed, Jun 11 2008. 11 56 PM IST