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Black Man in the White House: Can Obama Make it? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi This is a dizzyingly exciting period in American politics, a period in which Barack Obama, a man of part African ancest...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This is a dizzyingly exciting period in American politics, a period in which Barack Obama, a man of part African ancestry, looks poised to rupture age-old racial barriers and become America’s first nonwhite president.

Two enduring questions that many Nigerians have asked me are: Can Barack Obama, a black man, be president of the United States given the history and nature of race relations in that country? Can he even win the nomination of his party? My straightforward answer is, to inflect Obama’s own campaign slogan, yes he can.

It is, of course, presumptuous, even arrogantly self-indulgent, for anyone, not least a sojourner like me, to be this declarative and cocksure about the political fortunes of a candidate in a political climate as notoriously kaleidoscopic as America’s. But my optimism is informed not by mere instinctive racial solidarity with an amazingly dazzling brother, but by my assessment of the objective, material realities of contemporary American politics.

Needless to say, like most people of African ancestry all over the world, I am profoundly emotionally invested in Obama’s presidential candidature. I have followed, and continue to follow, the highs and ebbs and the frissons and anxieties of his presidential bid with more zest than I have ever committed to any political contest.

When Obama visited Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church (the church in which the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached when he was alive) on an oppressively frigid day in January this year, I persuaded my wife and my daughter who had paid me a visit at the time, to brave a subzero degree temperature, drive several miles, and wade through thick crowds of animated people just to see him.

In spite of our best efforts, however, the church had filled up to capacity before we got there. But we watched him speak on wide screens erected outside the church premises amid a vicious and unforgiving cold that literally deadened our bodily sensations and rendered us immobile.

There are several reasons why it is safe to assert that the prospect of an Obama presidency has transcended the realm of wishful thinking to a real, graspable possibility, but I will only discuss a few here. For starters, it is almost certain that Obama will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. Not even a bleeding cynic will dispute that. His lead in the delegate count is practically insurmountable and there is not the faintest inkling that the Democratic Party will countermine the will of the people and hand over the nomination to Hillary Clinton.

Now, what are his general-election chances?

One of Obama’s greatest strengths or, if you like, appeals, ironically, is his race. Or, to be sure, the intricate tapestry of racial identities that he so amazingly and powerfully embodies. American conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh once satirically called him a “Halfrican American”—at once a play on the phrase “African American” (the term by which many, perhaps most, Americans of African ancestry like to be called) and a reference to the fact that he is an American (by virtue of being born in America—by a white American woman) who is half African on account of being the biological son to an absent Luo father from Kenya.

It also hints at the fact that he is not historically African American since none of his ancestry is even remotely traceable to the legion of West Africans enslaved and brought to the Americas in the 16th and 19th centuries, although he is “black” by America’s racial typology, is married to a historic African American, and has immersed himself in the African American cultural universe as an adult (thus, he is “half” African American—and “half” white American).

What this all means is that in Obama many white Americans desirous of assuaging the historic guilt of the enslavement of Africans, and the attendant ill-feeling it has spawned in Black America, see an opportunity for racial reconciliation. Here is a man who is culturally white, having been raised by his white grandparents, but who self-consciously chose to reconnect with his paternal black roots and has now become the most important black American today.

What is more, although he has now been accepted as black (after initial, largely media-induced, reservations in Black America about whether or not he is “black enough”) he defies, even subverts, the stereotypical construction of the American black male in the typical white American imaginary—perpetually angry, congenitally slothful, wracked by debilitating feelings of low self-worth, underachieving, prone to violence, etc.

So a majority of white Americans find him to be a safe, non-threatening black male whose distinctive cultural and biological exceptionalities endue him with the capacity to serve as a bridge between white and black America. Added to this is the seemingly insignificant but nonetheless remarkable fact of Obama’s genetic relationship to many ex-American presidents from his maternal genes.

A recent analysis of his DNA showed that he is distant cousins with more past American presidents than any living American president—or presidential candidate. His distant cousins include Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry S. Truman and James Madison. Other Obama cousins include British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and Civil War General Robert E. Lee. (Obama is, in fact, the 11th cousin of current President George Bush and the 9th cousin of Vice President Dick Cheney!). That doesn’t hurt a black man one bit.

Obama himself is acutely aware of his racial singularities. That’s why he has run on a “postracial” platform, a platform that was severely, if briefly, threatened when video clips of his pastor’s controversial, incendiary, and racially tinged sermons became public knowledge sometime ago.

I think, in the final analysis, it is a testament to the phenomenal strides in racial tolerance in the American society that a man sired by an African father even stands a chance to be president in a country whose constitution once called Africans “three-fifth of a man.”

But it will be overly simplistic and unfair to limit Obama’s acceptability to white America to historic guilt over slavery or to the fact of his remote ancestral linkages with the icons of white America. I am only bringing this up because many people tend to think that Obama’s race is, or will be, his major encumbrance. I am not, of course, discounting the fact that there are still many Americans who will never vote for a nonwhite person as president, but such people are, in the main, becoming endangered species in America.

I also think that many Americans believe electing Obama as president will send a strong and clear message to the world that America not only evangelizes the gospel of democracy to the rest of the world but also practices and lives it.

I have heard many Americans say that a “power shift” to Obama on January 2nd, 2009 will have the same kind of historic and symbolic significance as the March 4, 1797 handover of power to John Adams, America’s second president. On that day, George Washington, America’s first president, became the first person in the world to effortlessly hand over power to someone who was not his blood relation.

More importantly, Obama’s entry into America’s national politics has inspired an unprecedented number of hitherto apathetic, apolitical young Americans to get involved in politics. These new entrants into American politics, often dubbed “the Obama generation” by the American media, will be crucial in deciding who gets elected as America’s president in November this year.

Conservative Republicans have dominated the U.S. presidency largely because young people, who tend to be liberal and Democratic, don’t vote. But courtesy of the unexampled ways in which Obama’s entry into national politics has electrified and energized American young men and women, for the first in several years, the youth may turn out to vote in large numbers in the November presidential elections. And this bodes well for Obama.

It was Winston Churchill, Obama’s distant cousin, who once famously said that “a young person who isn’t a liberal has no heart, and an old person who isn’t a conservative has no brain.” This is obviously a broad stroke, but it essentially captures the connection between age and political affiliation.

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