Column: Undercurrents: Some Thoughts on Sen. Barack Obama’s Presidential Run

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday February 23, 2007

The serious presidential run of Senator Barack Obama—son of a Kenyan father and white American mother—has given the country an opportunity to hold an adult discussion on the issue of race. Here’s hoping. 

A major portion of that discussion has quickly begun to settle on the question of whether or not African-Americans consider—or should consider—Mr. Obama to be one of our own, considering that what African-Americans have meant, historically, when we call somebody “African-American” is somewhat different than the offspring of an African and an American couple. 

Some of that debate has occurred between and among African-Americans ourselves, in many cases using the mainstream press as a vehicle. And so, on the one hand, Roland S. Martin, the executive editor of the African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender, recently used his column in the non-African-American Detroit News to note that ‘because [Obama’s] mother is white and his father is Kenyan, and because he grew up in Hawaii (that's still the United States for the map-challenged folks) and Indonesia, his blackness is somehow under review.” Mr. Martin goes on to conclude flatly that “this is offensive because anyone who has ever sat down and listened to Obama can tell that he fully understands what it means to be African American—because he is!” 

The opposite position, however, has been taken by conservative black columnist Stanley Crouch. In a column written for the New York Daily News last November entitled “What Obama Isn't: Black Like Me,” Mr. Crouch writes, in part, that “when black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about. In his new book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama makes it clear that, while he has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own—nor has he lived the life of a black American.” Writing a couple of months before Mr. Obama formally decided to enter the presidential race, Mr. Crouch concluded that, “if [Obama] throws his hat in the ring, he will have to run as the son of a white woman and an African immigrant. If we then end up with him as our first black President, he will have come into the White House through a side door—which might, at this point, be the only one that's open.” 

In the past, such a debate would have worked its way out within the African-American community as an entirely African-American discussion, through the pages of the black press, or on stoops or porches in black neighborhoods, in bars, or barbershops, or out in the yard following church services. But America has opened up a bit since the days of segregation, and so the African-American discussion to define and determine what is African-American has quickly been picked up in the non-African-American press. 

Most recently, this week in the San Francisco Chronicle, staff writer Leslie Fulbright writes in an article “Obama's Candidacy Sparks Debates On Race—Is he African American If His Roots Don’t Include slavery?” that “people across the political and racial spectrums started discussing presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's race after he spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Some insist he is not African American and is unsuited to be a black candidate, because he is not a direct descendant of slaves and hasn't had what they see as an authentic African American experience.” One can only assume that the “some” refers to African-Americans. Ms. Fulbright, who writes on general topics for the paper but often focuses on African-American issues, does a credible job on the subject, drawing on a wide variety of African-American voices from activist leaders to politicians to college professors whose focus in Black Studies. 

And there is great temptation to join that debate within this column. I’ll resist that temptation, however, for the reason that while I understand that at least insofar as it determines whether or not African-Americans embrace the Obama candidacy, the greater nation has a great stake in how African-Americans define what it is to be African-American, to paraphrase the old Bessie Smith song, it really ‘tain’t nobody else’s business how we do it. 

That’s how we treat other races and ethnicities, after all. 

Scattered throughout the multi-cultural milieu that is Oakland, there are large numbers of ethnically-based community centers: Chinese, Vietnamese, Pacific Islander, Latino. How do the people who run these centers determine who is eligible, and who is not, to partake of their services? Is it based upon a level of percentage of ethnic heritage? Is it based upon appearance? Self-identification? Or are these centers open on a whomsoever-shall-let-them-come basis, on the theory that there will be so many Chinese-Americans at the Chinese Community Center, for example, that the few non-Chinese won’t matter or make a dent. I have no idea, because those types of discussions, which certainly must take place, take place out of the eye of the general public. 

Meanwhile my Jewish friends, for a couple of millennium or more, have been hotly debating the issue of who is a Jew and who is not, without asking for or needing our help in drawing their conclusion. It is right and proper for them to do so. 

Sadly, however, leaving the business of self-determination up to those particular selves to do the determining only seems to become an issue when it involves African-Americans. 

There is a sordid history to this. The first national discussions on what we would now call the “African-American question” involved the issue of slavery, and in that debate those most affected—the enslaved Africans and their free brethren—were uninvited bystanders. None of us were asked to come to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to speak to the assembled delegates when the Constitution was hammered out, and with it the decision made both to let slavery remain “Constitutional” and the Congressional voice and vote of the slavemasters bolstered by counting their disenfranchised bondsmen in the apportionment.  

During some of the later national debate over slavery, even some of the staunchest opponents of slavery did not think the enslaved themselves were capable of speaking or deciding for themselves. The great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was happy to have Frederick Douglass—escaped from slavery—speak against the institution at gatherings, but fell out with Douglass when Douglass decided that he wanted to get out his ideas, unfiltered, in his own newspaper, The North Star. 

While all of this was going on, however, African-Americans were busy, on our own, defining and deciding the meaning of who we were. Logic easily tells us that there was no such thing as “African-American” before the first enslaved black folk were brought here, but it is not generally understood that at the time of the beginning of the slave trade, there was no such people as “Africans,” either, if by that we mean people who self-identified in that way. At the time of the slave trade, those who were stolen into slavery identified themselves not as one people—Africans—but as members of the various kingdoms and tribes and kinship groups from which they came. Most were purposely divided and separated by the slavetraders on the slave ships during the Middle Passage, so that few of the black captives in the passage-groups even spoke the same language, and most came from different cultures and religious beliefs. It is out of this diverse, boiling pot into which black captives were dumped that what we now know as African-Americans was forged, not at the dictates of the slavemasters, but almost entirely by the decisions and practices of the enslaved themselves. 

One of the first great debates in the slaverytime Quarters—the cabin communities where the enslaved Africans lived—was how to treat the children of enslaved African women and the white slavemasters. Thomas Jefferson represented the overwhelming slavemasters’ opinions and actions by adamantly and consistently refusing to acknowledge his children by Sally Hemings (a refusal immortalized in Gore Vidal’s novel “Burr,” in which Mr. Vidal has Mr. Jefferson pointedly deny one of his own grandchildren, remarking that “that is a child of the place. A Hemings, I believe.”)  

Though there was considerable disagreement within the Quarters on this issue, leading to class and color distinctions the echoes of which exist down to this day, the captive African communities eventually accepted the children of these white-black unions and made them their own, for the most part, so that the color and features of those considered by African-Americans to be African-American now range from Scotch-Irish-white on the one end of the spectrum to Congolese-black on the other. 

And while Ms. Fulbright in her Chronicle article includes the paraphrased opinion of an Assistant University of Maryland African American Studies professor that “a personal connection to slavery and Jim Crow laws is still a common measure of who is and who isn't African American,” the fact is that the self-definition of African-American has always included numbers of blacks who came to the Northeast as free people, and were never put into slavery. 

My guess is that, left to our own devices, African-Americans will make a similar inclusive decision about people whose ancestry resembles that of Barack Obama, bringing them into the fold and expanding the meaning of African-American. But that is not guaranteed and it is, after all, and respectfully, our decision to make. 

Meanwhile, I do have some thoughts as to why Mr. Obama’s candidacy is playing so well among the white brethren, and if you’re interested, I will be glad to share them. But that will have to wait for another column.