Volume 76, Number 39 | February 21 -27, 2007

Talking Point

Barack’s black dilemma: Figuring the funk factor

By Salim Muwakkil

The day after the national celebration of King Day, Senator Barack Hussein Obama (D-Ill.) announced he was forming a committee to explore a run for the presidency. Obama’s rapid ascent and the popular draft that has swept him into the presidential race would have amazed the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Less than 40 years after King’s assassination virtually killed the civil rights movement, many white Americans seem willing to back a black man for their leader. Even King dared not include a black president in his celebrated dream.

To paraphrase James Brown, this is a brand-new bag. Had Brown not died last Christmas, he might have written a song about it.

Obama’s announcement was met with the kind of media coverage that makes politicians’ mouths water. Such media adulation has accompanied the 45-year-old since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his election to the U.S. Senate that same year. Before that, he was an Illinois state senator who had earned bipartisan respect for his energy, intelligence and political acumen.

Obama won his Senate seat through a series of lucky breaks (i.e., both of his major political rivals were done in by damaging allegations from former spouses), as well as his political appeal. His Ivy League education and well-modulated eloquence wear well in the mainstream, but have sometimes provoked suspicion from the black electorate. This Hawaiian-born son of a black Kenyan and white Kansan is a brother from another.…

Representative Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) exploited those suspicions when Obama challenged him in 2000 for his First District congressional seat. Obama lost badly. In fact, Obama has had to deal with questions of racial authenticity since his initial foray into politics. Perhaps that’s why the line in his convention speech, that black parents must guard their children against the “slander that a black with a book is acting white,” resonated with such authority.

Some of the same qualities that make Obama alluring to white Americans (his affability, his seeming lack of racial grievance) are troubling to many African-Americans. They wonder if the senator feels as connected to the black community as he does to the educated elite with whom he spent so much of his formative time.

This is a skeptical tradition formed by generations of African-Americans who were betrayed by the slave masters’ favorite blacks. The logic seems simple: Be suspicious of those like you who are liked by those who dislike you.

Despite these suspicions, most African-Americans seem pleased with the Obama phenomenon, if also perplexed by the intensity of white Americans’ affection. All of this is new ground, which is why, aside from his political stance or ideological leanings, Obama’s public prominence will spark necessary discussions on race in American culture.

Obama’s racial hybridity is expressed as “black” in the United States only because “one drop” of African blood denoted blackness in a society dependent on racial slavery; this quality became a social taint with a devastating impact on the psyches of African-Americans. As late as 1968, James Brown sparked a minor cultural revolution with his song “Say It Loud (‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’).” It is one of Obama’s favorite songs.

Some who question Obama’s racial credentials raise the point that, unlike most African-Americans, his family history was not framed by generations of chattel slavery. Black Republican Alan Keyes raised that issue during his disastrous senatorial campaign against Obama. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh have also raised it. In fact, some conservatives are so distressed by his popularity that they’ve hinted he could be a “Manchurian candidate” for Islam, programmed during his short childhood stint at an Indonesian madrasa. Whew!

But his unusual ancestral narrative may also fuel the fervor of Obama’s white support, in that his lack of slave history elicits no feelings of historical guilt among whites. They love Obama because he doesn’t hate them, as they suspect blacks should. Another theory making the rounds on black talk radio proffers that some whites see Obama as a way to redeem America in the eyes of a world angered by the Bush administration — the multicultural Obama’s calming presence serving as a necessary balm.

But where does this great black hope of whites stand on issues of enduring interest to African-Americans? In Chicago, Obama won over many of his black critics by persuading them of his integrity, and with a legislative record that convinced them he had the black community’s interest at heart even as he cultivated alliances with other political forces.

For the most part, however, African-Americans understand that Obama’s bid for national office requires a more complex political calculus than the protest candidacies of the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They know it’s a brand-new bag — they just want it to stay funky.

Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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