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Obama: the Great African Hope or the Great African Hype? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi Perhaps, at no time in history have people of African descent all over the world been as collectively and contagiously ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Perhaps, at no time in history have people of African descent all over the world been as collectively and contagiously exultant—and hopeful— as they have been over Barack Obama’s historic election as America’s 44th president.

All across Africa—including the historic and contemporary African Diasporas—people are in a celebratory mood. They are ecstatic because a man sired by an African has been elected as the most powerful person on the face of the earth.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, in a congratulatory message to Obama, captured the emotions of many Africans when he said, “the election … carries with it hope for millions of your countrymen and women as much as it is for millions of people of ... African descent both in the continent of Africa as well as those in the diaspora."

And, writing in the Washington Post of November 9, 2008 in the wake of Obama’s election, South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu said, “Today Africans walk taller than they did a week ago,” adding: “If a dark-skinned person [never mind that Obama’s skin is anything but dark!] can become the leader of the world's most powerful nation, what is to stop children everywhere from aiming for the stars?”

But it’s not only the cultural and symbolic capital that Obama’s victory is sure to confer on Africans that is inspiring the mass excitement over his election; there is also an abiding optimism that this cultural and symbolic capital will somehow be converted to material capital for the continent and its people.

But is there a basis for this optimism? Is there any evidence in Obama’s previous and present relationship with Africa to inspire this hope? Or is this mere hype? Is his self-construal, in fact, in harmony with the way Africans see him?

Obama and his African identity
There are probably few international icons with an African ancestry who have been more forceful in asserting their African heritage than Barack Obama has been. He has so far visited Africa three times—first in 1987 as a bachelor while pursuing a law degree at Harvard, in 1992 after he got married and worked as a community organizer in Chicago, and in 2006 with his wife and two daughters as a high-profile U. S. senator.

And in every major speech he gave throughout his presidential campaign, Obama never failed to remind Americans—and the world—that he is part African. In fact, he once caused a little stir in the American rightwing blogosphere when he described himself during a TV interview as “an African and an American,” rather than just an American, or an African-American—the most fashionable self-identifying label that Americans with an African heritage embrace.

If his separation of “African” from “American” by a conjunction and an indefinite article rather than by a hyphen or a space was an unintentional slip, it was probably a Freudian slip that provides a window into Obama’s genuine self-construal of who he truly is: an African first who is also an American. I admit that I may be over-analyzing Obama’s innocent verbal miscue.

In his more careful utterances, Obama has sought to self-consciously portray himself as simultaneously American and pan-Africanist. That is, in his public self-definitions, he has been careful not to qualify, nay limit, his Americanness with his paternal Kenyan roots; he modifies it instead with an ecumenical African identity.

For instance, during his 2006 visit to Kenya, journalists asked him if he would describe himself as a “Kenyan-American.” He responded in the negative. "I'm an American and proud of it, and I'm also an African-American, which means I share a bond of struggle but also joy with people of African descent everywhere." Here, he simultaneously emphasized his American identity and his African identity, an African identity that embraces the geographic, cultural, and experiential diversities of peoples of African descent all over the world.

However, in asserting his pan-Africanist credentials, he has not failed to recognize that his membership of the whole is dependent on his membership of one of the parts that make up the whole. He is part African precisely because he is part Luo from Kenya. Nowhere is this awareness demonstrated more acutely than in Obama’s best-selling autobiography, Dreams from My Father.

In the book, Obama recalls an incident that compelled him to assert his “Luoness” forcefully. During his first visit to Kenya, while he was walking in the street with his half sister, Auma, an old woman fixed a gaze at him and remarked that he looked like an American—perhaps because of his light skin and curly hair.

Obama felt alienated—and a little pained—by the fact that his biracial physical features concealed, perhaps erased, his “Luoness” and caused a Luo woman to mistake him for a “foreigner.” Beating his chest, Obama writes, he promptly instructed his half sister: "Tell her I'm Luo!"

Obama is acutely aware that although he is American by birth and by upbringing, he owes his intellectual strength, his oratorical brilliance, his charm—and most of the things that make him tick— to the Luo blood flowing in his veins. He knows this because his mother told him that he inherited his brains, drive and energy from his Harvard-educated Kenyan father. As the Boston Globe wrote recently, if someone had said to Barack Obama’s father: "You know, your son might be president," he would have said: 'Well, of course. He's my son.'"

For Obama, though, being Luo is only a passport into the world of Africa; it is not an end in itself. When he visited the notorious Nairobi slum called Kibera, for instance, he sought to transcend the ethnic divisions of Kenya—and by extension of Africa—by embracing every African. "All of you are my brothers; all of you are my sisters," Obama told the slum dwellers who hailed from different ethnic backgrounds.

Nevertheless, Obama recognizes the limitations of pan-Africanism for a person hoping to lead not just the United States but the whole world. He once told the American media that although he is “rooted in the black community” he is “not limited to it.”
That was why before a mammoth crowd of over 200,000 people at the Victory Column in Berlin, Germany, in July last year, Obama said, "I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen -- a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world."

In other words, Obama is at once a Luo, an African, an American, and a citizen of the world!

What are Obama’s plans for Africa?
One can point to Obama’s unmistakably robust rhetorical and symbolic connections with Africa. But can one say the same of his passion to liberate Africa from the shackles of poverty, war and disease? What should Obama’s record—and promises— on Africa prepare us to expect from his presidency?

Obama’s record on Africa is at best a mixture of “tough love” and hard-headed pragmatism rooted in America’s national interest. Before his famous15-day 5-nation tour of Africa in August 2006, for example, Obama told newsmen in America that one of the messages he would send to the world during the trip was: “ultimately, Africa is responsible for helping itself."

To be continued next week


  1. This is a wonderful article. I can't wait to read the next installment.

  2. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream
    Is it really Barack Obama or has the dream yet to come?
    Who are the Negro People?
    Dr. RaDine Amen-ra Harrison-Pitts

    As the new U.S President B. Obama touts about being the embodiment of the late DR. Martin Luther King dream for America, I can‘t help but wonder, who are the people DR. King is talking about when he speaks of the Negro People? Who are the Negro people?

    Has anyone taken the time to read and comprehend Dr. Martin Luther Kings I HAVE A DREAM speech, if they did they will notice there is no mention of African people, African struggle, African Americans.

    I Have a Dream states “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

    He only mentions the condition of the Negro people in their homeland of America and their relationship with the new nation of the United States. At some point in time a person reading this speech should want to clarify, “Who are the Negro People- the blacks as they are identified?” To answer these questions one needs to identify some facts.

    What does the term Negro signify? The term Negro people signify the Indigenous American people or Amerindians the colonial term used to represent them is Negro The Negro American race or black Americans represent the continuation of the remaining natural linage and bloodlines of the indigenous American People belonging the land of America before European invasion born from American Indian women. The founding father of the U.S established a new form of society on American soil. In this new society American Indian women and her descendants are used to SERVE as human commodity (slaves) people living in freedom(without their natural rights to self determination) but not being free (collective self determination) in the United States. Negro people represent the descendants from American Indian women or enslaved American Indians of America.

    He continues and speaks about the full citizenship promised by the U.S to all Negro people in their homeland, and reveals the fact the U.S has not kept its promise; he states the Negro People have received a “Bad Check”.

    “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds”

    What is the deal the United States made with the Negro leadership for the Negro people 1868. The U.S. promised “Citizenship” to the Negro people? If a person would do their research, they would find that the 1868 treaty with Abe Lincoln established the Union of the American Indian people as Negros with the United States and the continent of land belonging to the American Indian people was put in a land trust to be governed by the United States in exchange for American Indian people born from American Indian women were to receive full citizenship meaning the same rights as the people who enslaved them and self determination to develop themselves under this new nation umbrella.

    Understanding past U.S history explains why Dr. King ‘s dream of seeing an integrated society’s Negro and Euro-American people working as equals in this nation? The big secret is - The Negro People are the people who are allowing the Nation to exist, without their land there is no Nation, with out there peace there is “no prosperity of this Nation” He also threatened the Negro race of people will not rest until they have justice. In other words “NO Justice, NO Peace” All black American people can attest we are not treated equal nor are we treated equally or regarded as citizens,. In 2009 our people still languish on the out skirts of Euro-American society and the Marjory are captured and living in Prisons, our children live in extreme poverty, we lack collective employment as a nation we are on the brink of extinction. The difference today is Negro people as black American for generations have been forced and influence to assimilate into European attitudes and culture they have lost their connection to their ancestral American Indian culture and connection to their Natural homeland. As a result they lack respect, dignity, hope or direction.

    Now that some facts have been revealed, the question to ponder is how did the new elected African president become the ideal of DR. Martin Luther King and the Negro People? Or better yet Why is President Barack Obama a European and African decent immigrant being used to personify the dream of Martin Luther King for the Negro people in the Negro Homeland instead of a Negro president for the country that has yet to give them a GOOD check, Wouldn’t a Negro president show the world, the dream of Martin Luther King has for his people finally came to pass? The answer is President B. Obama does not represent Dr. King’s dream he had for the Negro People. President, B Obama represents a distortion of the Dream, and the Negro people are being Con out of their pants again by the Euro- American (U.S) society and (U.S) media at large.

    So exactly what is the semantics around Barack Obama? A European and African decent immigrant who is now a Negro Person, or are Negro people becoming Africa immigrants to their homeland thru identifying themselves with Barack Obama. Is there a national identity switch going on? Are the Negro people being duped out of the dept the United States owes them, the one DR. Martin Luther King spoke about? Are today’s Negro people being setup to be permmentily homeless people, with no place to be fruitful and multiply on the planet? If Negro or black American people become immigrants don’t they lose all there human and inalienable rights to live in the U.S, and lose their civil privileges by becoming immigrants to there homeland through identifying President Barack Obama as one of them? Yet he is a Kenyan African not an American Negro? Will this enable the U.S to destroy the dream of Martin Luther King and remove any claim the Negro people have in the Negro Homeland?

    As a result, Negro people are being bamboozled again with a new perception that racism has stop in America against them, when in fact the systematic extermination of Negro people are filling up the jails and the graves, the only difference now is that they have a man named Barack Obama to cover over the crimes being committed against them and keep the people invisible and confused. It is a fact most black/Negro people lack education in their heritage, history, and most Negro women have been educated to have little respect for understanding their collective purpose as creators of the race and the sacred Grace we hold- it is woman that nature in trusts to continue their humanity as a valuable part of nature to the planet If they did they would not say they are black and they would understand B Obama is not the first Negro president and recognize and respect Michelle Obama is the first Negro woman in the White house and stand proud because her presence in the White House is a huge strike against the stigma from colonialism of Negro women as inferior woman, while our people understand that the struggle of equality represented by a Negro Man as president has yet to come part of Dr. Kings dream has started but yet to be completely fulfilled. It is up to us not to lose site of who we are and represent, our struggle is not over. It is time to recognize your indigenous identity.
    Don’t be fooled by the Hype


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