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Authentic Obama

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

ORANGEBURG, S.C. -- Is Barack Obama "authentically" black? Come on, be real. Is the pope Catholic?

Obama made his first campaign trip to this early-primary state over the weekend, drawing about 3,000 people to a rally in Columbia, the state capital, and 2,000 to a "town hall meeting" here in the city where I was born and raised. If those who rose early Saturday morning to attend the Orangeburg event constitute a representative focus group, black voters will want to weigh Obama's policy positions against those of the other candidates before deciding whom to support. But they won't spend a lot of time pondering his identity.

Among the dignitaries with front-row seats in the auditorium at Claflin University (where my mother used to be head librarian) was state legislator Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an African American, who had no patience for the "blackness" question that reporters kept asking.

"People talk as if this is, like, some kind of option for him," Cobb-Hunter said. "When Obama looks in the mirror in the morning, what do you think he sees? There is no way that he has any confusion about being a man of color. I think this issue is being manufactured by people who want to get us off focus. I don't hear the national media questioning Hillary Clinton about being a woman."

But what about the argument, posed by a couple of contrarian black columnists, that since Obama is not the descendant of slaves (white mother from America, black father from Kenya), he's a different kind of African American? "As time passes, very few people are going be able to say they marched in the civil rights movement," Cobb-Hunter said. "Are the people asking this question saying that if you didn't live through the Civil War, you can't understand slavery?"

Most of those in Obama's audience here had some past or present association with Claflin or nearby South Carolina State University, both of which are historically black colleges. Making my way through the crowd of old friends and neighbors, I wasn't able to find anyone willing to qualify Obama's blackness with an asterisk.

Henry N. Tisdale, Claflin's dynamic president -- the institution was failing when he took over in 1994 and now is firmly established in U.S. News & World Report's annual list of America's best colleges -- was less blunt than Cobb-Hunter, but no less dismissive of the question: "I think that in today's global and multicultural society, we will find persons such as Barack Obama becoming not the exception but the rule, and giving hope to all who want to live the American dream."

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, whose district includes Orangeburg, rearranged his schedule so he could be here to introduce Obama. "I thank him for giving new hope and inspiration to a new generation," Clyburn said. "Obama is able to run today because Rosa Parks sat down. . . . He is able to run today to give hopes and dreams to all of us."

I should make clear that none of these kind words added up to a formal endorsement. Almost a year remains before the South Carolina Democratic primary, scheduled for Jan. 29, in which African Americans will cast about half of all votes. Both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards hope to win significant black support in this state; I would advise them, and others, that trying to convince people that Obama somehow isn't black enough would be a poor use of precious time and resources.

Obama was comfortable in the town hall format, pacing like a talk-show host without notes or a lectern. His first big applause line was a call to fix "a health-care system that's broken." Someone in the audience yelled, "We want you to fix it!" and Obama yelled back, "We're going to fix it."

There were more cheers when he reiterated his opposition to the Iraq war, but he really got the crowd going when he talked about the national hunger for "a new kind of politics." People "want something new," he said, and the crowd enthusiastically agreed.

One woman, asking a question, mangled his name into "Barama." The candidate picked up on it immediately, saying that "they call me 'Alabama,' they call me 'yo' mama,' " but all that matters is that "I have your vote."

One of his biggest applause lines -- perhaps predictably, in a college town -- was a call for black Americans to "get over this anti-intellectualism we see in our community sometimes." And when he ended with a rousing "Yes, we can!" set piece, he exited the way every candidate wants to leave any room: with people on their feet, cheering for more.


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