Obama and Blackness

The worst job interview I ever had for an academic position included among its memorably difficult moments an interrogator with extremely strong Afrocentric views. She started by asking me what books I had read recently that I found useful or interesting. I mentioned Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House, knowing that I was likely to provoke a response. (I had already decided it was the only position that I wasn’t interested in taking, based on hearing that it was a 5/5 load with average class sizes of 200 and no T.A.s., with all but one of the classes being sections of Western Civilization.)

She grunted and said, “Are there any African authors that you like?” I said that I was under the impression that Appiah was. She said, “No, he’s not African, and he’s not black. You know who’s a real African? Walter Rodney”. (I decided not to take it further by insisting that Rodney was from Guyana, in South America.)

I was thinking about this conversation in the context of discussions about Barack Obama’s “blackness”.

Some of this conversation is coming directly out of the political vision of some of the black leadership floating that trial balloon. A part of doing so is pragmatism: they’re trying to send a signal that Obama will have to earn their support rather than assume it. That’s fine: all constituency politics operates that way. But a part of it is also reflective of the quasi-nationalistic narratives that underwrite at least some organized African-American political power.

It’s true that the historical condition and consciousness of recent Afro-Caribbean and African immigrants to the United States is different from that of African-Americans whose roots go back to the slave systems of the Atlantic world. One of the side effects of that difference is a complicated tension between those historically different populations within the United States. One of the repeated claims of identity politics is that dominant power structures within American society enforce and inflict a common racial ideology on all people who fall within a certain racial structure: that “blackness” is enforced on all black subjects, “Asian-ness” on all Asian subjects, and so on. In part, I take that claim to be part of trying to mobilize all constituencies named as racial subjects behind common political and social projects: “same struggle, same fight” and so on. It’s meant to remind people not to attempt to opt out by distinguishing themselves from racial compatriots, in this case, to suggest to African or Afro-Caribbean immigrants that they have nothing to gain by trying to be “model minorities” whom white leaders can praise and use to demonize other black subjects.

Fine, but if it turns out that dominant racial ideologies do in fact make relatively fine-grained distinctions between different historically-shaped communities, if “blackness” is a complex historical condition and the African diaspora not a single community or subject position, then the political point may run aground somewhat on lived experience. More importantly, it is then hard to turn around and say that Obama (or Appiah) aren’t really Africans, or aren’t really black. You can’t say that one hand, a inflexibly enforced experience of racial discrimination creates a need for unified political action, and then say, “Well, if you don’t signify as ‘truly’ black, you aren’t black.”

Ken Warren has written about “misrecognitions” in the African diaspora, and Jim Campbell’s fantastic new book on the history of African-American engagements with Africa extends Warren’s insights. (I’ll also note Ibrahim Sundiata’s excellent book on Garveyism and Liberia.) This is an old problem in the diaspora. African-Americans have a long-standing interest in Africa, and a wide range of intricate engagements with and travels to the continent. But that interest, as often as not, gets tangled up in paradoxical desires to see Africa as an indistinguishable extension of the African-American experience and with strong attempts to reject or exclude the reality of Africa and Africans as having any legitimate place in the African-American imagination. Either one of those extremes is a problem, and they have something to do with the situation that Obama now finds himself in, dealing with some political and intellectual figures who insist that blackness within the African diaspora and Africa can be one thing and one thing only, and that they are the people who have a monopoly on its distributions and definitions.

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3 Responses to Obama and Blackness

  1. Matt says:

    On Appiah, I once heard an African-american philosopher who writes on race who strongly disagreed with Appiah’s view on race say that ‘he’s not really black’, but here he went on to say that it was because Appiah’s father was really east Indian, not the man he claims to be his father, and that this explained why Appiah believes what he does about race. It was really a pretty gross display. This topic can bring out some pretty unpleasent garbage from people.

  2. jpool says:

    It’s interesting that Appiah’s attracted this kind of vehement response from Afrocentrists in a way that Paul Gilroy, who espouses the same anti-essentialist position, has not (he’s attracted criticism, but I haven’t heard anyone question his Black/Africanness).

    There was an interesting discussion of all this on Talk of the Nation Wednesday that you may have heard. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7402914 Debra Dickerson made the good points that Obama’s candidacy both offers the opportunity for a fuller discussion about different kinds or experiences of Blackness (she suggests that this category will likely decline in significance in the wake of this demographic expansion of non-American slavery descended African-American populations) and that his early success may be something of a bitter pill for some African-American since they know that he would likely not be experiencing this same kind of success/acceptance among Euro-Americans if he were of the above mentioned American-slavery descent, and yet his success will also likely help to lift barriers for other Americans of African descent.

    Annecdotally, I was flipping around a friend’s cable access channels and saw two relavent discussions in the space of a few minutes, neither of which fit with the media’s gloss of these discussions as “Is he black enough?” One was a neo-Garveyite individual arguing that Africans should under stand that Americans do not want African-Americans in this country and positing that Obama, despite his qualifications, would never be elected as evidence of this. The other was a conversation between two African-American women in African dress. One of them was saying that she didn’t know what the solution to bringing African-American and new African immigrant communities closer together was, but that it would require more effort and understanding from African-Americans to bring it about.

    Thanks for the cites. I knew that Sundiata’s book was out but haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. This is really rich and nicely evolving field.

  3. owna says:

    As a black small business onwer selling antique maps of the African diaspora (www.africa-maps.net), I understand the ambivalence many African-Americans have about Africa. When I try to sell my maps, I invariably get a look of why would I want that on my wall, I’m not from Africa. But as I’m trying to sell the maps, I emphasize the history which comes through on the antique map and the sense of pride from owning a genuine antique map which is comparable to other art when framed.

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