I joined in a conversation in Second Life about Obama’s speech in Ghana over the weekend. Due to some technical snafus, I had trouble participating in the panel early on, so one of the basic reactions I had to the speech didn’t really come into play. Ta-Nehisi Coates expresses a good deal of what I was thinking at his blog, though.
It was a fine speech, delivered with Obama’s typically crisp and efficient demeanor. Aside from the historic dimension of the speech being delivered by an African-American President of the United States to an African audience, however, the content was pretty much a tour of contemporary middle-of-the-road orthodoxy concerning African politics and African economic development. I teach a class every three or four years where one of the major themes is African-American encounters with and visions of Africa. Obama’s speech struck me as being pretty far down the list of emotionally and politically momentous episodes in that history, almost a coda rather than a milestone.
Some of that has to do with the content of the speech, which aside from Obama’s discussion of his personal connections to Africa could largely have been delivered by George Bush. I don’t mean that as a critique, I just mean that it was very much a shared governmental perspective steeped in of-the-moment policy initiatives, the Washington Consensus 2.0. Obama didn’t even really take a strong side between some of the contending factions within development circles, instead making little grace gestures towards various pet projects or arguments.
Ta-Nehisi suggests that some of the commentary on the speech saw Obama as more able to scold Africans for their failures in the same way that some prominent African-American spokesmen are allowed to critically address black fatherhood or other issues. Maybe, but the basic message that in the 21st Century, the structural consequences of the colonial era or Cold War geopolitics are less consequential than the internal dynamics of African societies is something you’ll hear from Western politicians across a pretty wide political spectrum. It’s heard as having a different significance, or a different authority, when it’s seen as coming from a racial insider.
I also think, however, that Obama demonstrated that younger political leaders in the African diaspora have less and less of a sense of having travelled through the same historical trials that African leaders of the same generation have experienced. The older generation still has some of the cadences of a pan-African nationalism rolling around in their heads. That imagined sense of a shared project is what produced so many misrecognitions between Africans and African-Americans from the 1960s to the 1980s, but even confusion creates a connection. Even given his personal history, you can feel a distance between the historical evolution of Obama’s political moment in the U.S. and the diverse political moments that many Africans of his generation are experiencing in different nations. Even his father’s involvement in Kenyan nationalism recedes into a prologue to Obama’s journey into an American identity. Which is, again, fine: that’s an ur-narrative of American immigration, which often kicks over the traces and contexts of the political and social histories of the immigrant generation, turning them into heritage rather than ongoing experience.
The upshot, though, is that Obama’s speech struck me as a standard address by a Western leader to Africa that happened to have a big footnote. As far as truly unusual Presidential speeches in Africa go, Bill Clinton’s apology for slavery (to a somewhat bemused audience of Ugandans, a country with little historic connection to the Atlantic slave trade) was more notable.