Barack Obama and the cry about hue

2008-01-12 00:00

To put it squarely and bluntly, is it because he is or is it because he isn’t? To phrase it another way, is it because of what he says or what he doesn’t say? Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is the beneficiary of a tsunami of drool.

He sometimes claims credit on behalf of all Americans regardless of race, colour, creed, blah blah blah, though his recent speeches appear also to claim a victory for blackness while his supporters — most especially the white ones — sob happily that at last we can have an African-American chief executive.

Isn’t there something embarrassing about this emphasis on shade? And why is a man with a white mother considered to be “black” anyway? Would we accept, if Obama’s mother had also been Jewish, that he would therefore be the first Jewish president? The more that people claim Obama’s mere identity to be a “breakthrough”, the more they demonstrate that they have failed to emancipate themselves from the original categories of identity that acted as a fetter upon clear thought.

One can’t exactly say that Senator Obama himself panders to questions of skin colour. One of the best chapters of his charming autobiography describes the moment when his black Republican opponent in the Illinois Senate race — Alan Keyes — accused him of possessing insufficient negritude because he wasn’t the descendant of slaves! Obama’s decision to be light-hearted — and perhaps light-skinned — about this was a milestone in itself. But are we not in danger of emulating Keyes’ mistake every time we bang on about pigmentation?

Last week happened to be the week that the nation of Kenya — birthplace of Obama’s father — was convulsed by a political war that contained ghastly overtones of violent and sadistic tribalism. It would sound as absurd to a Kenyan to hear praise for a black candidate as it would sound to most of my European readers to hear a recommendation of a “great white hope”. A white visitor to Kenya might not be able to tell a Kikuyu from a Luo at a glance, but a Kenyan would have no such difficulty. The time is pretty much past, in our country, when a Polish-American would not vote for a candidate with a German name or when Sharks and Jets were at daggers drawn, but this is all because (to borrow from Ernest Renan’s definition of a nation) people agreed to forget a lot of things as well as to remember a number of things. So, which are we doing presently?

Many Democrats go completely quiet when Senator Obama chooses to give his allegiance to a crackpot church with a decidedly ethnic character.

The unspoken agreement to concede the black community to the sway of the pulpit is itself a form of racist condescension. The sickly canonisation of Martin Luther King Jr. has led to a crude rewriting of history that obliterates the great black and white secularists — Bayard Rustin, A Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther — who actually organised the March on Washington. It has also allowed a free pass to any demagogue who can manage to get the word reverend in front of his name.

The white voters who subconsciously make the allowance that black folks sure love to hear their preachers are not only patronising their black brothers and sisters but also helping to empower white ministers or deacons who make the same pitch, from Jimmy Carter to Mike Huckabee. The Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses of 2008 were not the end of our long national nightmare about race, but another stage in our protracted national nightmare of piety, “uplift” and deceptive optimistic windbaggery.

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