There’s a road that stretches from Kenya to Kansas, through Indonesia on its way to Illinois, where we find Barack Hussein Obama, its sole traveler. He arrives in Chicago from an Ivy League perch to mingle with common folk (yous and mes), as much to identify with them as to find an identity for himself. His is an illusion with a no-place disease so he tries to ground the myth in street cred - in the African American experience. However, he’s not African American in the traditional sense of ancestry.
In fact, it’s because he’s not Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton (or maybe even MLK or Malcolm X) in style and experience that his appeal spreads more widely. It’s an exoticism that attracts us to him. Who is Barack Obama? He seems to stand on stilts, heads taller than former cracker white presidents with bigotry down their pockets and a snub on their nose. Let’s face it. All of our presidents were born and bred in the United States. Obama represents a departure.
Perhaps we know more about who he isn’t than who he is. And that makes him intriguing, mysterious and perhaps enough on-the-edge to revive interest in our democracy. He’s the pin-up president who rivals Hollywood for attention and represents a changing world - viral and borderless. He’ll text message and YouTube you, buy whole cable channels and likely hologram himself into CNN’s Anderson (I hate that guy) Cooper. In an age of techno tricks and reality TV, Obama fits the bill (and may wind up on one someday).
We are the generation of Reagan and the tearing down of walls. We are products of the legacy hunter in Clinton who looked at the next eight years before his first day was done. We’ve stuttered around with Bush II, making up words that filled in for stagnation and freedom by force.
We want a legend and we’ll paint him in Romantic terms. Obama’s election is historic. His blood carries Africa’s heritage and promotes a color that American history enslaves, ghettoizes, crows JIM, and makes invisible. But his pigment allows the deceit (much better than Steve Martin, aka The Jerk) of a close affiliation to a marginalized group.
I don’t think the election says one thing about how whites feel about the race issue, as pundits keep pontificating. (I wish it did.) Obama hardly spoke of race during the campaign, and used more inclusive language instead. He certainly influenced black voters to vote by simply representing the idea of “deliverance,” as one black commentator noted. But, of what or whom have they been delivered? Is Ralph Ellison now void? Has Obama produced a new context?
Yes we can... do what? Change is on the way... to who’s benefit? We can get there... where abouts is “there?” True, this rhetoric invites hope and hope is the commodity America is built on. For that renewal, I am grateful. However, if it means another march around the Great Society’s May Pole (think FDR and LBJ), I’m afraid BHO will become a good-for-nothing BEAU, tooled by others and not finding new tools.
Have we seen a rendezvous with destiny? Maybe, but I don’t think it’s related to blackness or whiteness. Obama is both - half white and half African. The news channels would like us to think he’s African American because it suggests a radical step into post-racism - where ethnicity, nationality, wealth and religion live in ignorant unity because there is no “other.”
But will Obama’s presidency simply enhance a global identity run amuck. We are thin on the whys that define us and our shrinking world demands ever increasing pounds of flesh. Inside, we remain a divided country that can’t get free from the past nor promote change or exchange between inner-city and suburban strongholds. Perhaps a leader that sits outside our historic norms is the dose we need - to help maneuver America past its divisiveness.
I want Obama to find a measure of success. I also want to be honest about what he represents and what he doesn’t because I believe we’re still a long way off from being one America. To get there we need more than props and three-word chants.