In parts I, II & III we looked at Obama’s background, his life in Hawaii and his feelings toward himself and his father. We also outlined the difference of direction his political rhetoric took from the like of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton thus underlining the rift between Obama and the African American establishment.
In Part 4, we look at his wife, the first lady, Michelle Obama and her role in Barack Obama’s search for an African American identity.
Don’t call me Whitey…
One might argue that Michelle Obama is perhaps the type of black person that Barack Obama wishes he was; born and raised on the streets of South Side of Chicago; a predominantly black neighbourhood. The city is famed for its own style of Blues, dubbed simply, ‘Chicago Blues’, and one can safely surmise that is a hotbed of African American culture.
Not only is Michelle Obama ingratiated into this black community, she can also trace her ancestry right back to slavery. According to an article in The Washington Post, her great-great grandfather was a man named Jim Robinson who was born around 1850 and “lived, at least until the Civil War, as a slave.” Although the article points out that Michelle Obama only became aware of this fact back in January 2008, it does not invalidate the fact that Obama’s choice of partner is someone whose ‘blackness’ is not, unlike his, open to question or debate. The media and the general public are in no doubt as to Michelle Obama’s colour. She is black in every cultural sense of the word. As The Washington Post puts it:
“Michelle Obama’s family history…connects her to the essence of the African American experience.”
Interestingly, it is also well documented that Michelle Obama went to the same high school with none other than Santita Jackson, the daughter of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, which allies her culturally and socially – although not personally – with the man who it seems her husband is so at odds with.However, according to Barack Obama, Michelle’s cultural background makes her even more American: “[Michelle is] the most quintessentially American woman I know,” he said. “I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners.” He champions her and allies her race with that of being a true American. This interesting as it alludes to the premise that to be an authentic African American, to trace your family back to slavery is, according to Barack Obama the sign of a true black American. This then raises the following pertinent question: Does marrying Michelle make him even more black? If he hasn’t lived the same life as her, how can he know for sure that the statement “when your name is Barack Obama, you’re always the underdog. That’s a given,” carries any kind of truth to it? It appears as though Barack’s apparent need to feel black stems from the fact that the blacker he is, the more American he is.
What can also be construed as Barack’s quests for his own identity is his search for faith. Back in 1988, Barack became baptised at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side. It was the Reverend Jeremiah Wright who turned Mr. Obama into what Time called “spiritual outsider to enthusiastic churchgoer” in a sermon entitled, “The Audacity of Hope.”
“Inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones,” Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father. “Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story.”Jeremiah Wright was and still is a leading figure in Chicago. He single-handily took TUCC from 90 members back in 1972 to over 8,500 regular churchgoers today. The Reverend is highly established within the black community and is held in high regard by all. He has served on the Board Directors of Evangelical Health Systems, The Black Theology Project, The Centre for New Horizons and The Malcolm X School of Nursing. A friend of Obama’s told Newsweek, “Reverend Wright and other male members of the church were instrumental in helping him understand the black experience in America.”
The church itself is also not without immense cultural significance. It was formed shortly after the death of Martin Luther King as many black Muslims began to operate within Chicago. It was an attempt to preach Christianity through black liberation theology so as to win back those who were being told that it was impossible to be both Black and Christian by black Islamic leaders.
Jeremiah Wright and Trinity Church aside, religion itself always has played a fundamental part in black culture ever since the emancipation of the slave trade. When blacks were granted their freedom back in 1863 – or more precisely 1865 with the ratification of the thirteenth amendment – many black people created their own churches and their own ways of practising religion.
The church enabled/s blacks to rise to prominence in society, and the reverends and pastors often acted as a buffer between races on a socio-political level. As Professor Emeritus Gary Marx author of the 1969 book, Protest and Prejudice states in an article entitled, “Religion: Opiate or Inspiration of Civil Rights Militancy Among Negroes?”
“The relation between religion and political radicalism is a confusing one. On the one hand, established religious institutions have generally had a stake in the status quo and hence have fostered conservatism. The other-worldly orientation of the masses, particularly as expressed in the more fundamentalist branches of Christianity, has been seen as an alternative to the development of political radicalism. On the other hand, as the source of both universal humanistic values and the strength that can come from believing one is carrying out God’s will in political matters, religion has occasionally played a positive role in movements for radical social change.”
So is Barack Obama’s acceptance of religion not only him stepping closer to God, but him stepping closer to black history; to authenticity as a black male?
However, as Ronald Williams II writes, “there are, in fact, multiple African American experiences, defined by variables such as class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, skin complexion, and experiences of entry into the polity.”
Following on from that point, in the introduction to Audacity of Hope, Obama calls himself “a prisoner of my own biography” and admits that he “can’t help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives.” It is as though Obama is almost apologetic here. It reads like a man saying sorry for what he is not rather than for what he actually is. It is perhaps contradictory that later in the book he says that America must not be looking back at the oppression of old and using it as an excuse, as Obama excuses himself at the start of the biography by basically saying ‘sorry I’m not as black as you’.
It seems that he cares too much, tries too hard to not speak above his station and does not want the black community to think that he is speaking out of turn in terms of how black he is. It is as though there is an internal black hierarchy in play and Obama doesn’t want to step out of line. US social satire show “Saturday Night Live” parodied this notion by having Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson rating Obama on the blackness scale, where the partial transcript reads:
“[Jesse Jackson]: ‘The age of a black president is indeed upon us. … Tonight we want to talk to you personally, Mr. Barack Obama, because in America, unfortunately, there are degrees of blackness … which is why we came up with this chart. It’s our blackness scale measuring degrees of blackness in the eyes of others.’”
The two then go on to move a slider up and down – up being more black – as they read out events in Obama’s history:
“Jackson: ‘You married a black woman.’
Sharpton: ‘Moving up.’”