Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Why Did Obama Want to be Black?

Kevin Drum asks a simultaneously naive and interesting question:

None of which is to say that Obama wasn't confused and uncomfortable with his racial identity for much of his first three decades. In fact, that's the whole point of the book. What's more — and this is the part of Dreams [From My Father] I found most peculiar — it's never really clear why. In language that's often florid and overwrought, but also oddly artificial, he tells us how he feels, but the circumstances of his life are never drawn starkly enough to make it clear why he feels the way he does.

For those not familiar with Barack Obama's memoir, he grew up with his white liberal mother and maternal grandparents. As a child, he accepted their ideal of color-blind universalism. As he emphasizes (in his thirty-something authorial voice), his life as a teenager in Hawaii in the seventies was as close to racially-idyllic as anywhere is ever likely to be. The incidents which lead to his racial consciousness -- a necessity in this type of memoir -- are totally lame, particularly when compared with slave narratives or even The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The authorial Obama is perfectly aware of this lameness, and draws it out well. (I disagree with Drum that the language is florid and overwrought. I also disagree with the target of his post, Steve Sailer, that Obama shows no sense of humor. Rather, he shows a Prairie-WASP sense of humor, dry to the extreme.)

The question is naive because it implictly imports the liberal assumption that racial consciousness is caused by oppression, an assumption Obama almost breaks free from. What Obama's story shows is that racial/ethnic consciousness is natural. The sixties liberal/nineties neoconservative desire to destroy it is about as likely to succeed as any other attempt to extirpate natural emotions. As a thoughtful person, Obama recognizes that black racial consciousness, like any other form of nationalism, can be destructive and intellectually limiting.* He hopes that it might -- tied to Christianity -- link the black bourgeoisie with the black underclass, to the benefit of both. But the principal point that leads him away from a post-ethnic liberal universalism of the Trudeau type is that it fails to meet a deep human need.

Obama's position even allows him to celebrate Midwestern WASP identity and values, something few white writers would be able to do -- at least in ethnic terms. I've already quoted his perfect observation of his liberal anthropologist mother's horrified reaction when Obama-the-boy starts to assimilate Indonesian fatalism and cynicism. Maybe there is some hope for the "left" here. The right seems to have completely accepted the left's traditional dislike of particularist loyalties. The left are more willing to accept such things, but only for the "oppressed," but the logic of their position may bring them to be the "side" better able to acknowledge this part of human nature.

*In my own humble opinion, the real problem with Sailer's review, is that it fails to acknowledge the complexity of Obama's thoughts about black nationalism. It still has many points of sharp observation.

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