Saturday, January 17, 2009

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 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