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Breaking With Tradition: Why Two Young African American Professors Support Barack Obama - Think Piece By Salim Faraji and Jahi Issa, Guest Commentators

As “Black” men who are ethnically, culturally and historically African American, meaning persons of African descent indigenous to the United States, Faraji from Philadelphia and Issa from St. Louis, we have traditionally supported, without question, veteran Civil Rights leaders and their unyielding demands that African Americans support the Clintons. We now believe that they are unwittingly leading us down the wrong path of political misfortune when they say that the masses must support Hillary in her bid to be the next president of the United States. We are supporting Barack Obama and here are the reasons why.

What is most impressive about Barack Obama is that he is not “Black” by racial or cultural inheritance, but simply because he has chosen to be. Most of America is well aware that Barack Obama’s racial and ethnic cultural heritage is rooted in Africa through his black Kenyan father and in Euro-America through his Caucasian mother. These facts alone suggest that Barack Obama is not “Black” nor is he African American in a historical and cultural sense. In other words, Obama is not a descendant of enslaved Africans in the United States.

In light of these observations, it seems then that the sensationalized preoccupation, since the announcement of his bid for the Presidency, of whether Barack Obama “Is Black Enough” among media pundits, political commentators and certain segments of Black America, equates to an exercise in irrelevant race talk - that is, a political discourse that is constricted by American racial categories.

Barack Obama is a biracial, multicultural person of African descent who has chosen to identify with both Black America and the broader American populace in a manner that resonates with multiple constituencies. African Americans must be reminded that Barack Obama was not under any social mandate or moral obligation to identify with Black America - that is, to attend a Black church, marry an African American woman and situate his civil rights activism within predominantly Black contexts. Being the son of a black immigrant father and a white mother he could have, in all fairness, disassociated himself from African Americans. He would not have been wrong, especially considering the number of American born Blacks who sever cultural and emotional ties to the African American community without the excuse of “I’m not really ‘Black,’ I’m a biracial African immigrant.” In other words, for less genuine and racial reasons such as “I’m an individual and cannot be forced into the box of pseudo-blackness.”

Obama could have made the decision, like many other biracial Blacks from the African continent or Caribbean, to exclusively identify with his mother’s culture and ethnic heritage or to squarely situate himself among other African immigrants. Many Caribbean Blacks living in the U.S. feel constrained by identifying with a “narrow” American Black identity. Some African immigrants living in the U.S. suggest that “Blacks like Obama” represent a group within America that does not fit easily into the American rubric of blackness - you know, those “typical” African American “traits” of racial animosity, anger, excessive protest and intellectual mediocrity. Considering that some immigrant Blacks from Africa and the Caribbean, especially among the elite, unnecessarily view African Americans as repulsive as whites do, why would Barack Obama a biracial, multicultural son of an African immigrant and American White mother decide to identify and situate himself, although not exclusively, within the African American community?

The fact that he speaks from Black America at all is a sign of integrity, character and courage, considering that some American born Blacks are incapable or unwilling publicly to align themselves with the interests of Black America. For us, this also shows that Barack Obama has studied, appreciates and respects the unique and distinct legacy of African American social, cultural and political traditions. So we must ask the question, according to whom is Barack Obama Black enough? Does Black America use a barometer of “blackness” to evaluate Obama’s ability and willingness to speak to and represent African American interests? Some leaders within the old Civil Rights guard suggest that Obama is too young or does not possess the necessary racial prerequisites such as immersion into America’s racial hypocrisy toward African Americans. This is ridiculous, considering that over the past 40 years, along with vying for camera spotlights and occasional strategic cameo demonstrations, the “old guard” (Black Elite) has done very little to enhance the quality of life for the majority of African Americans. Barack Obama’s commitment to the betterment of life for inner city Chicago youth is an impressive one. His activism shows that he is committed to the original agenda of Dr. King and others Civil Rights icons who gave their lives to make this country better. Also, anyone familiar with the historical role that the Black church has played in forging the best of humanistic values to the forefront would know that Obama’s twenty year membership in one of the most progressive churches in Chicago proves that his commitment to Civil Rights is genuine and that he is, indeed, “Black enough.”

This leads us to remark on the lack of genuine commitment from the Civil Rights old guard. Their inability to question and critique Hillary Clinton’s misleading attempts to portray herself as a student and supporter of the Civil Rights Movement is a slap in the face to those of us who know better. According to Senator Clinton’s own remarks, she was a “Goldwater girl.” It is a historical fact that Barry Goldwater was one of many segregationists who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Why didn’t the "old guard" challenge her when she spoke at the 42nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday in

Selma, Alabama in March of 2007? Many of them were also there and should have been amazed and perplexed when she stated that she had always been a supporter of Civil Rights. Yet this makes sense in the warped logic of “old” Civil Rights icons who, although supposedly “joking,” state that former President Bill Clinton is more “Black” than Barack Obama.

We cannot ignore, however, that Barack Obama explicitly acknowledges the role of African American spirituality and the Black Church in shaping his commitment to social justice - something to which he alludes in his book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. Obama’s alignment with Black America is conscious and intentional, not a passive submission to historical happenstance or uncritical adoption of “black” uniformity. It is a deliberated choice he has made through sound judgment and social practice. This should signal to mainstream White America the worthiness and dignity of the African American experience as a vital contributor to expanding and redefining notions of democracy and human equality. He reminds us that the African American tradition is one very important aspect in guiding American political conscience. In fact, this is what is meant by "Is Obama Black enough." Does he take the African American experience as a primary point of reference (among others) in how he frames his vision for leadership and change? Let not the contemporary, one-sided projections of black villains, criminality, underachievement and now corporate-controlled “hip-hop thuggery,” for the past 25 years, nullify the previous 360 years of African Americans’ noble quest for freedom and human decency. Obama also demonstrates that affirmation of African Americans need not be viewed as mutually exclusive to advancing the interests and agenda of other ethnic groups in America.

Obama’s political maneuvering, in some respects, parallels the African American Humanist philosophy of Howard Thurman, Paul Robeson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, Obama may not uphold the mysticism of Thurman, the Pan African socialism of Robeson, or the radical civil protest of King, but what he shares with these leaders is an unflinching commitment to the progress of global humanity, while at the same time affirming the struggle and legacy of Black humanity. When Whites and other ethnic groups embrace Obama, they also, in part, embrace the legacy of African American humanist and freedom traditions. Obama, too, mirrors this legacy in his personal life and familial connections by his ability to connect with Americans from a diverse backgrounds, as well as diverse international contexts, without separating himself from African Americans. His skills are unique, his intellect keen, his vision compelling. This is why we are breaking with tradition and putting our support behind Barack Obama for the next President of the United States of America. Guest Commentator Salim Faraji Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills and Jahi Issa Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of History at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Click here to contact the authors.

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January 24, 2008
Issue 261

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Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
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