Ever since Barack Obama was first elected president, the dominant narrative about his historic term in office has run something like this: the 44th president won two elections because he was "post-racial". He didn't see red states or blue states. He didn't see black or white. He only saw one America- a country brimming with potential and void of race and ethnicity.
The United States, so the story went, which embraced slavery at its founding and practiced Jim Crow segregation at the time this young President was born, had seemingly moved beyond its racial disharmony by electing it's first African American president.
This narrative may well emerge alongside other political myths, such as the youthful George Washington confessing to cutting down his father's cherry tree. And like that myth, the one surrounding Obama's ascension and its relationship to race, will be just as nonsensical.
Why? Because rather than transcending the peculiar racial dynamics that have bedeviled the country for more than 400 years, Obama is the logical extension of a long tradition in the African American community. Like so many historical figures in black America, Obama has been transformative because of his unusual experience at the intersection of the black and white communities. The child of a white mother and an African father, he signifies a long tradition of privileged blacks- either bi-racial or bicultural- who have changed the face of American democracy.
Indeed, Obama, like so many African Americans from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B Dubois to Malcolm X and Angela Davis, is one of those African American change agents who has broken new ground in the nation’s march towards equality. Looking at the president with this lens helps us understand that rather than an anomaly, Obama is the logical extension of a privileged and educated bicultural American that has used his proximity to the "white man's ways" to advance African American's march towards freedom.
In 1961 the United States was a nation in transition. African-Americans were demanding an end to the system of racial apartheid that still prevailed in the South. Southern whites organized, sometimes violently, to maintain that system. And across the country, in the tiny state of Hawaii, a future American President was being born to a white mother and a black father.
Like Obama I was born in the 1960s to a white American mother, and Kenyan father who was a foreign exchange student. He and I are part of a tiny fraternity of sorts. This fraternity has existed throughout the course of American history, and has been raised on the sharp edge of a boundary between tribes that hate one another. Some of in this fraternity have been biracial. All have been bicultural.
And while we have been a part of the black community, it has always been with an asterisk. Legally, we’ve been subjected to the same constraints imposed on all black Americans. But we’ve been unofficially exempted from some of the rules. During slave times some of us were taught to read. Others were given their freedom. These extra crumbs have always made us the targets of derision and suspicion in the black community. This is the historical framework that gave rise to a President Obama.
Reconciling a Double Consciousness:
W.E.B. DuBois famously ascribed a “double consciousness” to black Americans in his seminal tome The Souls of Black Folks:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
DuBois, himself of mixed European and African ancestry, could just as easily have been referring to the double consciousness that comes from existing in both the black and white worlds. Being American, in fact, has always been a euphemism for assimilated “whiteness”. So this double consciousness exists in stark relief for those black Americans like Obama who are biracial or bicultural. Part of reconciling this paradox includes knowing your place in these communities. We could succeed in the white community but could never really be a part of it. In spite of our light skin or presence in the white community, we are nevertheless “too black.” We had been slaves after all. We did have to drink from separate water fountains. In many ways we were “just like the rest of them.”
The visceral tension that keeps one outside of both groups and inside neither is combustible. It can lead to spectacular failures or remarkable success. It also provides an unexamined narrative in African-American history whereby those black people with the closest proximity to white power such as DuBois, are often the most likely to instigate transformative change.
The Bi-racial, Bi-Cultural Revolutionary:
Frederick Douglass, one of the country’s great abolitionists, was a half-white slave who was taught to read and write by his owner’s wife. But he was not content merely to read for himself. He secretly gathered slaves from other plantations for weekly tutorials where he taught them to read and write. Douglass’ early desires to uplift other slaves, inevitably led to tension between him and his master. So much so that Douglass ultimately escaped, securing his freedom in an abolition house in New York. His quick mind and astonishing oratorical skills made him a favorite amongst northern abolitionists. Soon he was on the circuit advocating for emancipation. In fact Douglass spent most of his life as a free man working in the white community to push for emancipation and equal rights for black Americans. His ability to seamlessly cross the boundaries that separated black from white, was the essential element in his success as a freedom fighter.
Even the most radical members of the Black Power movement often had formative experiences in the bosom of the white community. Angela Davis is best known as a black-nationalist. Her dubious arrest for the murder of a white judge and three jurors (charges on which she was ultimately acquitted) landed her on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. To many white Americans she was the embodiment of unhinged black violence. But her biography is far more complex and intriguing. She was born to two college-educated parents loosely affiliated with the Communist Party. She moved from her family’s home in Birmingham, Alabama to attend high school in Greenwich Village. From there she was awarded a scholarship to attend Brandeis University and spent a year studying at the Sorbonne. She earned a PhD in Philosophy at the esteemed Humboldt University in Berlin. Her radicalism was not inspired at the end of a hoe in a cotton field. It was inspired in classrooms by such venerated white intellectuals as Herbert Marcuse. Her world view was shaped by her experiences in both the black and white worlds.
Malcolm X is one of the more controversial figures in American history. And while his black bona fides were well established, even he had privileges and proximity to the white community rarely afforded to African Americans. His mother, for example, was so fair skinned that she could pass for white. This gave her access to resources that were denied to most black people. Malcolm himself was the only black student at his middle school in Lansing, Michigan. He excelled academically and was so popular with his classmates that he was elected to be their school president. This success gave him confidence. When he became a public figure, you could see Malcolm’s unusual confidence in the presence of white detractors when he was giving speeches before audiences at places such as Harvard and Oxford. His logic was so fine-tuned that he often had his skeptics applauding before the end of his remarks. He showed the same zeal when he was speaking before black audiences. He was a man so comfortable in his own skin that the composition of his audience didn’t matter. He felt he was worth being listened to.
It’s worth examining Davis and Malcolm more deeply in order to understand how a biracial/bicultural experience allows one to engage with a hostile audience, and to begin the process of turning that hostility into understanding. When Angela Davis sat in a jail cell, indicted on capital murder charges, she was interviewed by a Swedish journalist, who questioned her advocacy of violence as a form of self-defense. Davis responded:
“Is that the question? You ask me whether I approve of violence? I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama- I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street from me. When the bombing of the church occurred, my mother and my neighbor went down there and what did they find? They found limbs and heads strewn all over the place. My father and the men in my neighborhood organized themselves into armed patrols because they did not want this to happen again. That’s why when someone asks me about violence, sir, I just find it incredible. What it means is that the person asking the question has no idea what black people have gone through.”
Similarly Malcolm X debated with a white detractor on a Chicago news show called “City Desk” in 1963. The detractor asked Malcolm:
“What is your real name?”
“Malcolm. Malcolm X.”
“Is that your legal name? Have you gone to court to change your name?”
“As far as I’m concerned it’s my legal name. I didn’t have to go to court to be called Jones or Murphy or Smith.”
“Would you mind telling me what your father’s last name was?”
“My father didn’t know his last name. He got his name from his father who got it from his grandfather, who got it from the slave master. The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery.”
“Was there any point in the genealogy of your family when you did have to use a last name and if so what was it?”
“The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves.”
“You mean you won’t even tell me what your father’s supposed last name was?”
“I never acknowledge it.”
It wasn’t just the airtight logic of their arguments or the syntax of their speech. It was the way the said it. They were not crazed, gun toting zealots. They were calm and clear, perhaps even convincing to the white critics to whom they were speaking. That is what made them so different from many other black leaders. They told the painful stories of black Americans to white critics in a language both sides could understand. And Obama culled these lessons to cultivate his detractors in the black and white communities.
The Black Backlash:
In 2007, when Obama announced his improbable run for the White House, one after another, black public figures questioned whether or not Obama was sufficiently black.
Civil rights hero and former US Ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young quipped that even Bill Clinton was blacker than Obama because, “Clinton has been with more black women than Obama.” Young’s taunt was a familiar one: the biracial black man is sexually inadequate. He is not a real man. He’s not really one of us.
Jesse Jackson’s fury at this perceived interloper simmered throughout the Democratic primary. It finally boiled over when his threats to castrate Obama were caught on tape.
Perhaps no black figure has been as vitriolic in his depictions of Barack Obama as a supplicant outsider, as the iconic scholar Cornel West. In one of many tirades against America’s first black President, Dr. West opined:
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context...he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening...he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.”
The Neo-Confederate Backlash:
Predictably, Obama was seen as too black by some in the white community. Early on, he was depicted as a Manchurian Candidate. According to the “birther” mythology, Obama’s pregnant, 18 year old mother flew to the other side of the world to birth her son in Kenya so that 50 years hence he could ascend to the highest position in America, all while flouting the US Constitution. As fantastical as this theory sounds, a poll conducted by CNN confirmed that only 42% of Americans thought that Obama was “definitely born in United States.”
Evidence of Obama’s supposed black radicalism exploded into the mainstream in March, 2008. A video surfaced of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his long-time pastor, damning America from the pulpit of his church. The video was evidence for some white Americans that the polished, unthreatening version of Obama they saw on the campaign trail was a carefully cultivated fiction. Many feared that when the cameras were off, he was an America-hating black radical.
Obama was undoubtedly accustomed to this dichotomy: not black enough for black people. Too black for white people. And four and a half decades of addressing this paradox came together in one seminal speech.
On March 18, 2008 Obama stepped in front of a microphone in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and delivered on of the great speeches in American political history. Forced by the Rev. Wright imbroglio to address the subject of race head on, he delivered a speech that only someone with his nuanced understanding of the black and white communities could give. He was able to speak to both black and white Americans in languages they understood. But more importantly, he was able to place each into the shoes of the other, to build empathy around a common goal of improving a country they shared. It was probably a speech he’d been rehearsing his entire life. And it was after that speech that I knew he would win the election.
Power Birthed through Paradox:
The frustration that comes from occupying the middle rung of a racial hierarchy is a powerful motivator. Some in the white community misinterpret this motivation as a desire to shift the rungs on the ladder and push them down. Some in the black community assume that the Obamas of the world enjoy their position above them. There is a crucial goal that black leaders born from a bicultural experience have tried to impart. The Obamas, the Frederick Douglasses, the Angela Davises and even the last incarnation of Malcolm X, recognize the racial hierarchy for what it is. But they don’t simply want to rearrange it. They want to blow it up.
By empowering himself on a foundation of biculturalism, Obama is giving us a look into the future of our country. The slave quarters are gone. The Colored water fountains and the white water fountains are a memory. That much is apparent. What’s less apparent is that the lines between our ethnic communities are blurring. When I was growing up 30 years ago, I didn’t know a single peer who dated outside of their ethnic group. Go to a high school dance today. The change is obvious. Our nation is becoming trans-cultural. And Barack Obama is the face and the voice of this New America.