Published by The Freeman Center
The Maccabean Online
Political Analysis and Commentary
BARACK OBAMA\'S OBSESSION
America strives for racial healing. She wants a "post-racial" messiah who will absolve her of her racial "guilt" and wounds. And she thinks she found him. His name is Barack Hussein Obama.
But is he really the man he wants everybody believe he is? Or is he the one who himself is quite obsessed with the race? Nobody can answer these questions better than Barack Obama himself. And actually he answered them, answered fully in his book "The Dreams From My Father" written in 1995.
But did we really listen to the answers?
Born to a white mother and an African father whom he did not know Obama was struggling with his identity from the early years. With his mother away in Indonesia and far-away Kenyan father the main role in his upbringing went to "the street", to his friends. They had a great influence on the young boy.
One of them was Ray to whom Obama devoted a lot of time in the book. It was on the basketball court where he met "Ray and the other blacks close to my age, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own. \'That\'s just how white folks will do you,\' one of them might say when we were alone. White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first. Later, when I was alone, I would try to untangle these difficult thoughts. Ray assured me that we would never talk about whites as whites in front of whites wthout knowng exactly what we were doing. Without knowing that there might be a price to pay." (80-81).
Born to a white mother, a black looking boy felt certain guilt toward Ray whom he adored and whose both parents were black. At times Ray\'s hostility towards whites did not make a lot of sense to Obama but he kept playing on this court in order to remain friends with Ray.
"Our rage at the white world needed no object, he seemed telling me, no independent confirmation; it could be switched on and off at our pleasure. Sometimes, I would question his judgment if not his sincerity. We were not living in Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren\'t consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii. We said what we pleased, ate where we pleased; we sat in front of the proverbial bus. None of our white friends, guys like Jeff or Scott from the basketball team, treated us any differently than they treated each other. \'Well, that\'s true,\' Ray would admit.
Maybe we could afford to give the bad-assed nigger pose a rest. Save it for when we really needed it.
And Ray would shake his head. A pose, huh? Speak for your own self.
And I would know that Ray had flashed his trump card, one that to his credit, he rarely played. I was different, after all, potentially suspect; I had no idea who my own self was. Unwilling to risk exposure, I would quickly retreat to safer ground" (81-82).
It appears that Obama was constantly under a pressure of an inner collision between as he put it "his black and his white worlds". To the extent that an absolutely innocent remarks or events where putting him on the edge. He describes a characteristic episode when by Ray\'s insistence he invited to an all black party his white basketball friends. He writes: "the presence of Jeff and Scott seemed to make no waves. \'But I could see right away that the scene had taken my white friends by surprise. They kept smiling a lot. They huddled together in a corner; they said \'Excuse me\' every few minutes. After maybe an hour, they asked me if I\'d be willing to take them home. In the car, Jeff put an arm on my shoulder, looking at once contrite and relieved. \'You know, man\' he said, \'that really taught me something. I mean, I can see how it must be tough for you or Ray sometimes, at school parties being the only back guys and all." (84)
If Barack Obama was an ordinary person and not one with self-created abnormal psychic constantly concerned with his identity this episode would not have stuck in his memory, but it did. This is how he reacted to Jeff\'s seemingly innocent words: "I snorted. \'Yeah. Right.\' A part of me wanted to punch him right there" (84).
Moreover Jeff\'s and Scott\'s, as he saw it, uneasy behavior brought in him an ocean of hatred and desperation. "By the time I had dropped my friends off, I had begun to see a new map of the world, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications. We were always playing on white man\'s court, Ray had told me, by the white man\'s rules. If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher wanted to spit in our face, he could because he had power and you didn\'t. If he decided not to, if he treated you like a man or came to your defense, it was because he knew that the words you spoke, the clothes you wore, the books you read, your ambitions and desires, were already his. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motives and inclinations, any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning. In fact you couldn\'t even be sure that everything you had assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self had been freely chosen by you. At best these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing that you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger" (85).
Obama\'s fixation on black\'s powerlessness was nurtured in him by many people. One of them was Frank [late communist Frank Marshall Davis] whose advice he thought before going to college. Frank told him that for African American the real price of admission is "Leaving your race at the door." He explained: "You are not going to college to get educated. You are going there to get trained. They\'ll train you to want what you do not need. They\'ll train you to manipulate words so they do not mean anything more. They\'ll train you so good, you\'ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They\'ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you\'re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they\'ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well trained, well-paid nigger, but you\'re a nigger just the same.\' (97).
Davis told Obama to be vigilant, to "stay awake". The task was hard, as Obama put it: "Keep your eyes open, he had warned. It wasn\'t as easy as it sounded. Not in sunny L.A. Not as you strolled through Occidental\'s campus, a few miles from Pasadena tree-lined and Spanish-tiled. The students were friendly, the teachers encouraging." (98).
For Obama, by that time sufficiently infected by the virus of racial obsession, behavior of other black students was troubling. As he wrote: "Most of the other black students at Oxy didn\'t seem all that worried about compromise. So why couldn\'t I let it go? I do not know. I didn\'t have the luxury, I suppose, the certainty of the tribe" (98).
Obsessed with the loyalty to the tribe Obama was extremely critical of those black students who were ready to assimilate. He writes: "I had nothing to escape from except my own doubt. I was more like the black students who had grown up in suburbs, kids whose parents has already paid the price of escape. You could spot them right away by the way they talked, the people they sat with in the cafeteria. When pressed, they would sputter to explain that they refused to be categorized. They weren\'t defined by the color of their skin, they would tell you. They were individuals (99)."
And what was wrong with been individuals? For bi-racial Obama there was a hidden threat of "leaving his race at the door." The following episode with Joyce, whom Obama saw as an African American based on the color of her skin, puts in doubt today\'s Obama\'s pronunciations about post-racial America. "One day I asked her [Joyce] if she was going to the Black Students\' Association meeting. She looked at me funny
\'I am not black,\' Joyce said. \'I\'m multiracial.\' \'It\'s not white people who are making me choose. No it\'s black people who always have to make everything racial. They\'re the ones making me choose. They\'re the ones who are telling me that I can\'t be who I am. (99)
In the next paragraph Obama makes again his obsession with race clear: "They, they, they. That was the problem with people like Joyce. They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people. It wasn\'t a matter of conscious choice, necessarily, just a matter of gravitational pull, the way integration always worked, a one-way street. The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not other way around" (99-100).
Obama\'s recurrent concerns with the assimilation into the dominant culture played a key role in his life. Here is a story that he tells his sister: "Well there was a woman in New York that I loved. She was white. One weekend she invited me to her family\'s country house. The parents were there, and they were nice, very gracious. ...The house was old, the library was filled with old books there was this tremendous gravity to the room" (200-211).
Knowing Obama\'s previous outbursts one should not be surprised with his reaction that followed: "Standing in that room, I realized that our two worlds, my friend\'s and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together I\'d eventually live in hers. After all, I\'d been doing it most of my life. Between two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider" (211)
On his sister\'s question, "So what happened?" Obama answered: "I pushed her away. We started to fight. One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, she said that anger was a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn\'t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn\'t. She could only be herself, and wasn\'t that enough" (211).
It should not be surprising that Obama felt that way. Davis\'s warning "not to leave his race at the door" dominated his conscience and sub-conscience. After recalling in the book the episode with Joyce, who in his mind was betraying the black people by not affiliating with them enough, he writes: "The truth was that I understood her, her and all the other black kids who felt the way she did. And that\'s exactly what scared me. The confusion made me question my own racial credentials all over again, Ray\'s trump card still lurking in the back of my mind. I needed to put distance between them and myself, to convince myself that I wasn\'t compromised - that I was indeed still awake. To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxists professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. But this strategy alone couldn\'t provide the distance I wanted from Joyce or my past. After all there were thousands of so-called campus radicals, most of them white and tenured and happily tolerated. No, it remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names" (101).
Understanding Obama\'s obsession with race one must realize that it did not come only as a result of him been influenced by his friendship with Ray, Frank, and many others with similar views (reverend Jeremiah Write being not last among them). A huge role in his views played self-education. Immediately after the episode with Jeff and Scott that draw in his mind "suffocating picture" of white dominance over the black people, Obama embarked on the research of the subject. He writes: "Over the next few months, I looked to corroborate this nightmare vision. I gathered up books from the library - Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois. But there was no escape to be had. In every page of every book I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. . Only Malcolm X\'s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; And yet, even as I imagined myself following Malcolm\'s call, one line in the book stayed me. He spoke of a wish he\'d once had, the wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border. And too: If Malcolm\'s discovery toward the end of this life, that some whites might live beside him as brothers in Islam, seemed to offer some hope of eventual reconciliation, that hope appeared in a distant future, in a far-off land" (85-86).
Obama invokes Malcolm X later in the book again when he talks about the black nationalism trying to explain its role for the black Americans. "Ever since the first time I\'d picked up Malcolm X\'s autobiography, I had tried to untangle the twin strands of black nationalism. In talking to self-professed nationalists like Rafiq [black nationalist, former gang leader who converted to Islam], though, I came to see how the blanket indictment of everything white served a central function in their message of uplift; how psychologically, at least, one dependent on the other" (198).
And to what conclusion did Obama come after his conversations with Rafiq? "In a sense, then, Rafiq was right when he insisted that, deep down, all blacks were potential nationalists. If nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence" (199-200).
In case one says that a lot of water has flown under the bridge since the time when Obama wrote his first book, one should be directed to the second Obama\'s book "The Audacity of Hope" written in 2006 where he unequivocally stated: " My views [now] are not so much more refined than they were when I labored in obscurity as a community organizer."
Numbers in parenthesis correspond to page numbers from the book: Barack Obama \'Dreams From My Father\'; Published by Three Rivers Press, New York, New York, 1995; 2004 version.