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Is Obama’s ancestor frightened?

Is Obama’s ancestor frightened?
  • PublishedOctober 24, 2013

Even many of the White Americans whom Obama might think he is impressing by staying mute about race, might ask: “If he can’t be passionate and involved about his own race, how can he show passion about anything?” The Blacks would go further: “How can he pass up the opportunity to do something serious about race worldwide, when he still has all the power of an American president? He will never be in a better position to do so. The time is now!”

People are sometimes said to be afraid of their own shadows, not a pretty state! But it makes it easier to understand those who quail at the shadows of their ancestors: who, however close, are at least a step farther away than oneself. Melancholic as it would be for President Barack Obama to be afraid of his own shadow, big as that is in his position as the single most important human on earth, by the same token it would be worrisome if he were frightened of association with his ancestors. Or, to put it another way: his ancestry.

In 1965 I travelled all over the United States on a contract from Life magazine. It had somehow entered my mind to find out what the relationships in America were between Africans and American Negroes, as the latter were then called. The quest would almost certainly never have happened had I never set foot in that country. One had heard of these black folk of course, as an American sub-group of little importance, and once or twice of Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) who had obviously risen above the common herd to merit personal recognition!

But consider this: of Black activists like Frederick Douglass (1818- 1895), an escaped slave before blossoming into a notable writer and leader (in some pictures looking remarkably like our own Wole Soyinka!), of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), we were never told. Du Bois had presciently written: “…the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line” and indeed famously fell out with Booker T on how to solve it.

Washington favoured a more cautious approach where the Blacks were subservient to their White masters, but industrious and with some (but not competing) education. Du Bois had no patience with this. In many ways this foretold, a century later, the relationship between Rev Martin Luther King (1929-1968) and Malcolm X (1925-1965): one seemingly slower, the other faster. But both died before middle age, assassinated.

I arrived in New York and saw Negroes, spoke to some, and even ventured into Harlem, at that time a big area in New York inhabited by “People of Colour” (therein lay a wholly unintended compliment, by implication meaning that non-Blacks were utterly colourless, insipid!). Yearning grew in me to know them better. We looked so much alike – except noticeably in how many of them had tortured their hair to look different – and we moved and laughed the same.

And, don’t tell a lie when you can tell the truth, it occurred to me that the subject might provoke a rewardingly beneficial contract; which it did! By the end of the trip, some spent in the Deep South, I had found out who I really was – for the first time – and how close I was to those I was studying!

In 1967 my article that came out in Race journal in Britain. I had failed to make Life’s deadline because the political strife back home in Uganda had blocked my writing capacities! If you peruse my website www.onemansweek.com, you can see the result in the left-hand corner. Others came to radically different conclusions; for example James Baldwin, the Black author of the then stormy The Fire Next Time polemic, went to Ghana and felt not a tremor of recognition with its people; his loss in my view. How different from Du Bois, who moved to Ghana, aged 93, took its citizenship and died there a couple of years later: the work of his long life done! To me, identity with my kin, so far away in America, bowled me over; to this day. Apart from anything else, they and all other non-white peoples of the world had been deeply wounded together for their race and colour, and thus psychologically must best fight back together to regain their self-recognition and respect.

Back to President Barack Hussein Obama. His mother, to whom he was very close and with whom he lived in different parts of the world, was White, mostly of English stock. His father was Black. They hardly lived together as a family, except for the first seven months of Barack Jr’s birth. He next saw his father when he was 10, when the father came to visit for about a month and then returned to his native Kenya, where in 1982 he died in a motor accident. Nevertheless usage rules that President Obama is Black, in the divide-up between Black and White. Does he feel Black?

Years later President Jimmy Carter, 39th to Obama’s 44th as US president, told him: “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president… I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American.” Carter agreed there had been some changes.

Interestingly, Obama did not appear to agree with Carter’s line on racism, although probably of his race, as described above, 99% would have sided with Carter. In fairness to Obama, the strongest of the problems facing him as US president at any one time is not necessarily race! But neither was Carter limiting it to racism.

Obama is the president of all the United States, including the recalcitrant Republican Party (the GOP). That Party has sunk to new levels where everything brought up by the Democratic Party and its leader, Obama, must be torpedoed, hopefully ensuring the GOP’s return to power.

However this unpatriotic GOP behaviour might bring about the reverse, ordinary American voters are becoming increasingly weary with Tea Party negativism, and the Republicans having decided to wear many of its garments. It is a case of the tail wagging the dog! By a strange twist of history, most Black Americans now favour the Democratic Party: in the time of the original Black activists they preferred the Republicans: an interesting subject for another day.

Race is still one of the most divisive issues in the world today, as when Du Bois mentioned it. It still divides, perhaps more subtly, how nations behave towards each other. I still remember the White American, saying, when I told him about China’s rising power, “In the year 2050 we will still be sending our laundry to China!” This was in 1965, when most US washing-by-hand laundries were operated by Chinese-Americans. This reactionary would have been greatly bewildered at China keeping America afloat now with its loans! Probably he would have philosophised: “What did I tell you: Beware The Yellow Peril!”

The “Black is Beautiful” slogan was all the rage, and Black Power, however falteringly, seemed more than mere dreaming. Blacks were becoming more sure of their identity, rather than what others thought of them. It is arguable that these strong feelings proved transitory in the fullest sense. But surely those who were active then, and those who followed, profited from this awareness, becoming the stronger for it.

When it comes to Obama, his unique position as president decides he must tread extra-carefully amongst the mines of world diplomacy. Sometimes being the biggest puncher around can be inhibiting. America is acutely aware of this, none more so than its president. If you add that as a Black, very many, and not only from the opposition, will be waiting to trip him up at showing any seeming favouritism to his race, he will be hanged on the cross for it: regardless that he was merely practising equality.

In his recent African trip, Obama visited South Africa, Tanzania and Senegal, but not Kenya, the country of his father. Kenyans, and more so his extended family, and the Jaluo ethnic group from whom they sprang, felt themselves grievously snubbed. Was he attempting to distance himself from this family, and ethnic group, and Kenya itself, and ultimately his race? Or was it merely expedient, in that some of the Kenyan leadership, including now Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Jomo) had been accused of political murders brought by the International Criminal Court in faraway Europe? Many dub it the Native Court because it tries only Black Africans!

Imagine a scroll of all the pantheon of civil rights activists right from the beginning, who fought to bring dignity to their Black race: and among them: Barack Hussein Obama, US president, who did not leave the fight to smaller folk! It will also be worthy recognition of The Creator who saw it fit to create Obama for this crowning achievement. Senator John McCain, no less, the Republican presidential candidate whom Obama trounced, referred to Booker T Washington’s contribution a century earlier as the seed that blossomed into Obama’s election as the first Black to be elected US president!

Interestingly enough, even of the White folk whom Obama might think he is impressing by staying mute about race, many of them might ask, “If he can’t be passionate and involved about his own race, how can he show passion about anything?” The Blacks would go farther: “How can he pass up the opportunity to do something serious about race worldwide, when he still has all the power of an American president? He will never be in a better position to do so. The time is now. Let’s go!”

Written By
John Nagenda

John Nagenda writes about the dynamics of Africa's business, economy, lifestyles and politics. Candid, compassionate, critical, humorous and provocative all describe his style of writing. Nagenda is a leading columnist in East Africa as well as an honorary member of the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda. He is a Senior Media Advisor to H.E President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda. Mr Nagenda is the only indefatigable fighter / writer on behalf on the movement... - H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

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