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Obama Drama: When Racial Identity Goes Wrong

Submitted by on October 30, 2008 – 4:20 amNo Comment |

Editor’s Note: The following piece appeared as a cover feature in the Atlanta Voice No.43 Issue 32

Obama Drama: When Racial Identity Goes Wrong

By Edward M. Garnes Jr.

There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.–James Baldwin


Real change is often met with reluctance; and sometimes layered in resentment. Such is the case of the new America before us.

In the past, rubbing elbows with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or claims to have some sort of connection with him and/or the Civil Rights Movement– even if meager or grossly exaggerated– was a prerequisite for leading black America.

According to Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy, the rise of Barack Obama threatens to redefine not only preconceived notions of leadership, but also the delicate framing of ” blackness” as a organizing principle.  Why? Because Obama is his own man, one not beholden to the whims of traditional leaders accustoming to having an unquestioned monopoly on black public opinion. But more importantly, his support from white folks and people of mixed heritage have the identity police wondering if Obama is on the right side of black or a mischievous racial turncoat; an alluring sell out in disguise.

Mired in treacherous territory, racial identification has long divided the black community’s loyalties. Know one knows that better than Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, who authored Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, which garnered great criticism, earning him the label, “Sellout.”   He has added fuel to the fire with his latest tome Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, which explores how the polarizing term “sellout” truncates necessary dialogue and serves as a racial barometer for who is down with the black community..or not.

For Kennedy, the Obama debate is rooted, simply, in fear.  “Quite frankly some people are afraid of success.  We all come habituated to expectations.  There are black people whose psyche is simply not ready to accept a black man who might rise to the highest office in the land. They are actually made afraid by the prospect. In my experience, it’s been older people by in large…younger people (say) why not.”  Oftentimes, blacks are so socially conditioned to losing the very thought of winning is unfathomable.

Kennedy further asserts that due to the heavy burden of historic inequalities many in black America feel attacked on all sides.  And while organizing against “the man” was once a source of group solidarity, new opportunity and advancement has created a state of racial paranoia.

“Some black people feel really besieged. White supremacists policies, segregation, etc, buttressed black solidarity.  For some people, this anxiety about racial abandonment has become greater in the current period precisely because people have choices today that they didn’t use to have. There is fear that blacks will choose to identity with others outside the group.”

Besides igniting fear, Obama’s successes also changes the face of what constitutes a “Black” leader.  Obama is not as racially obscure as Justice Clarence Thomas or as radical as the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. But, he occupies a curious public space where his “Blackness” is palatable across race and class fault lines.  A trait many Black ‘leaders’, who are all too often campaigning to be the H.N.I.C., can only dream of.   A point Kennedy is sure to underscore.

“We have a black American who is seriously contending.  This is not a symbolic run.  This is not a guy who is putting on a campaign because he wants to be the president of black America…that is not what this is about…this about a person who thinks he has the wherewithal to occupy the White House… (and) is  being taken very seriously by everybody.”

With everyday folks still navigating the inconveniences of black life, Kennedy is quick to point out one of the greatest achievements of Obama; restoring internal belief.  “Whether he wins or loses on of the great consequences of his campaign is that he has expanded the sense of the possible.”

If anything, Obama has proven black identity is far from static and provided a much needed ideological remix to contemporary discourse.  For Kennedy, accepting our rich diversity is essential to true liberation.

“You can disagree with somebody in a profound and vigorous way and after you disagree you can still eat dinner…and maybe after dinner you may find something on which you agree.  If however in the course of disagreement, you call me a sellout, we are no longer just ideological antagonists/foes…we have now become enemies.  In our community, we should be careful of making enemies of anyone especially; other black people.”
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ed-train Award winning writer, educator, counselor, and activist Edward M. Garnes, Jr. is the founder of From Afros to Shelltoes, a nationally acclaimed series of cultural productions bridging generation gaps between elders and hip hop heads. The Atlanta Tribune Man of Distinction holds a B.A. in English Writing from DePauw University and a M.A. in Counseling from Michigan State University . His seminal essay, ” Sweet Tea Ethics: Black Luv, Healthcare, and Cultural Mistrust,” currently appears in Not In My Family: AIDS in the African American Community, a 2007 NAACP Image Award nominated collection edited by Gil Robertson. (www.afrostoshelltoes.com).

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