" And so it came to pass, in the 40th year after Martin Luther, son of King, was martyred, Barack, son of Obama, went up to the mile-high city and was anointed flag bearer for the Democratic party, being the first African American to be so anointed. Yea, the gathering was greatly moved, and the hall was filled with joy and roar of the multitude that witnessed his anointment.”
The Book of Days 8:29
Many have commented on the religious fervor surrounding the Obama campaign. Watching the Democratic nomination from Lagos Nigeria, I was once again struck by the palpable emotions of the crowd at the Denver democratic nomination convention venue, which to me had all the elements of a good-old fashioned evangelical revival meeting. It has wrongly been suggested that Obama portrays himself as a latter-day messiah and his political opponents, stumped by the obvious adulation he receives everywhere, have tried to use his popularity against him. In fact, the reporting on Obama verges on the liturgical, which is why this post is preceded by the quasi-biblical passage above. I should state upfront that I am not aware of any holy book named “the book of days” but if there is one, I apologize for the fake reference. The text is entirely my own and it satirizes the reporting on Obama I have seen in some major newspapers.
For the record, I am not involved in the active politics of American elections. Obama’s candidacy is important to me for what it says about an emerging global order, in which parochial white supremacy is confronted with the changing color and ethnicity of the global population. I am tracking closely the politics of representation in the public reception of Obama’s candidacy and how being black in America is often presented as an indelible marker of difference. Of course Obama is black, but he is also white. In representing him solely as a “black” American, the public reception of his candidacy does grave injustice to him but also highlights the dubious socio-political constructs that sustain white supremacy in a multicultural country. The great thing about the USA is that all the human bloodlines meet here for the first time since human beings left Africa to populate the world. The misguided criticism of Obama as an exotic candidate who doesn’t look “American” or like the “boy next door” is very wrong. Obama is what true America looks like, a racial identity forged in a multiracial heritage. He is in fact the very essence of the boy next door if you place the USA within the racial context of global politics where whiteness is a minority ethnic and racial identity.
Obama has already made history by being the first African American candidate to lead a major American political party into the general elections. His political opponents savaged him en route to this historic event but he survived and in doing so, proved to be a wily competitor and master politician. The uniqueness of his ascendancy is one of the reasons why he is received with what seems like religious fervor. Obama carries the weight of American longing to engage its history of racial oppression and he promises the nation a process of reconciliation devoid of acidic recriminations. He has no choice but to do this: the mere fact of contemplating an African American occupant of the “White House” has some diehard racists apoplectic. Both those who criticize his “blackness” and those who consider him not black enough miss the mark. Obama has refused to let anyone lock him into a simplistic ethnic identification that limits his opportunities in the American political order. African Americans are limited precisely because their ethic identity is used against them as a binding obstacle. Whiteness confers obvious economic advantages in the global order of Western power and by defining black people outside of this ethnic and social identity the system ensures they can never claim any of the privileges or advantages deriving from whiteness. This poisonous political structure says nothing useful about racial identity—over 60% of white Americans have a multiracial heritage and almost all African Americans have white ancestry; it merely uses racial politics to ensure the advantage of a powerful political minority. In the history of the USA, many biracial African Americans have gone to court to contest their identification as “black”. Obama has succeeded in transcending this issue by the obvious fact of his multiracial identity while choosing to ethnically and politically define his causes as multicultural. His nomination to the democratic leadership is evidence of an astute management of charisma of the sort no one has seen in American politics since Bill Clinton, who subverted his whiteness enough to become identified as the “first black president” of the USA. This was mere supposition though: if elected, Obama will become the real first Black president of the USA. He will also be its first biracial president and first truly global president among many other firsts.
The groundbreaking nature of Obama’s candidacy is the main reason why many receive him with religious fervor. Most of America is literally projecting deep-seated anxieties on this man and looking to him for leadership. From his trip to Europe, it appears that many in the global context are also looking to him for some new form of leadership to right America’s faltering power in the world. During the primary campaign, I sometimes watched painfully as Obama appeared to buy into the Messiah mentality of this global adulation, worrying that the man was starting to believe in his own invincibility (to drink his own kool-aid as Americans say). But then, his opponents always cut him down to size as another crises emerges to be handled, from former pastors skirting close to lunacy to carelessly spoken words publicized by bottom-feeding, scoop-seeking “reporters”. Obama rode these controversies like a surfer, sometimes expertly cutting the waves, at other times, drowning in them. But he proved capable, and is now standing as the first African American leader of a major American political party. There is still the struggle of the general election against an implacable foe with demonstrated mastery of demagoguery. Hope says Obama will survive this too and win the general election. But as every reporter has surmised in recent times, the USA has to prove that it is ready to elect a black man to the White House. Will the candidate’s obvious mastery of politics, his charisma and personal achievements be enough to get over this last hump, or will the country pull back from this historic moment and elect another old white man to the white house. We’ll know soon enough. In the meantime, one hopes the candidate will continue to tamp down the messiah mentality of his supporters without draining their immense enthusiasm. Too often, (and I’m no longer sure where I first heard this statement), every time someone is proclaimed a messiah, sooner or later people will nail him to a tree to prove the claim.
I personally think that Obama’s charisma and devotion to change is not evidence of a messiah mentality: the candidate who emerged yesterday to claim the nomination of the Democratic Party is a very different person from the cocky young man who began the race for the nomination over one year ago. He has been tested and has grown immensely. It is not his fault that people are projecting their desires on him, and he should not be criticized for it: great leaders are often projections of the desires of their constituencies; the greatest actualize practical aspects of those desires and move society forward at the same time. Obama’s candidacy has black people psyched across the globe and especially in Africa where many hope the mere fact of an American president with living relatives in Kenya will cause a change in the Western exploitation of Africa. I am not holding my breath in this regard even though I hope the candidate’s talk of sensitivity towards the suffering of others will cause him to push for revisions to the marginalization of Africa in the global order. For five centuries, Africa was systematically deprived of her best in human and natural resources to fuel the emergence and growth of the Western ascendancy. At the same time, Africa was denied any credit for her contributions to this global order and to the human story in general. The continent however gave birth to the human race and sent humans out to populate the far reaches of the earth. When you come right down to it, every human being is of African ancestry. The attempt to limit Africans to the margins of the global order is thus one of the great evils of the last five hundred years. Obama provides hope to Africa that its contributions to the human story will be reevaluated and appreciated. Far from being an exotic specimen of humanity, he stands at the crossroads of history at a point in time where the diverse bloodlines of Africa’s children meet once again. It is a great story and Obama has always said that it is only in America that his story is remotely possible. But this story is yet unfinished; he still has a ways to go. This writer certainly wishes him well as he continues on his path.