BARACK OBAMA SETS A PRECEDENT OF UPWARD BLACK POLITICAL MOBILITY NOT ONLY FOR THE UNITED STATES, BUT ALSO FOR OTHER WESTERN COUNTRIES WITH WHITE MAJORITIES.
Barack Hussein Obama, as president of the United States, becomes the most powerful Black man in the entire history of civilization up to this point in time. There is no point in trying to compare him to Ramses II of ancient Egypt, who controlled mainly Egypt, the Nile Valley, and the surrounding areas of imperial Misr. There is also no point in comparing him to the mighty Shaka Zulu and his empire in southern Africa, or to Menelik I or Menelik II of imperial Ethiopia. None of those emperors of ancient and medieval Africa can compare with the sheer global scale of governance or military reach possessed by the American president in the twenty-first century. Although Obama will be subject to democratic controls and constitutional checks and balances, to all intents and purposes he will be the most powerful Black man in the annals of the human race when he assumes office.
By becoming a Black head of state of the most influential western country, Obama sets a precedent of upward Black political mobility not only for the United States, but also for other western countries with White majorities. It is now conceivable that the world may one day witness a Black prime minister of Britain, a Black president of France, or a Black chancellor of Germany. By breaking the glass ceiling against Black ascendancy in the United States, Obama has increased the probability of Black heads of government in other western countries before the end of this century.
Nobody had anticipated that America's first Black president would be a first-generation African American, somebody whose parents were not African Americans. Given that his father was a Kenyan and his mother was a White American, it took other African Americans a while to accept him as "Black enough." At a conference held to mark the 200th anniversary of the slave trade's abolition, held at the National Museum in Washington, DC, in January 2008, an African-American woman spoke passionately against Obama's presidential candidacy on the ground that he was not descended from survivors of the Middle Passage (the Atlantic crossing by slave ships from West Africa to the Americas). The majority of attendees were African Americans.
In my presentation, I referred to the days when White Americans regarded descent from the passengers of the Mayflower in the seventeenth century as a mark of nobility, the ultimate the status. I expressed the hope that African Americans would not regard ancestry from a slave ship as the ultimate elite status for themselves. Rejecting Obama on the grounds that his father had not arrived in America on a slave ship would be unnecessarily divisive and risk conferring on slavery the quality of nobility. In her response, the scholar used the culture card rather than the ancestry card. Claiming that Obama was brought up primarily by a White mother and a White grandmother, she said that he had not been endowed with African-American culture. He was Black in color, but not in culture. The lady and I agreed to disagree, but I wondered at the time if her position on Obama was typical of African Americans.
This concern of mine was deepened when I learned that Ambassador Andrew Young, a distinguished African American who served as U.S. Representative to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter, had been heard to say at a party that former President Bill Clinton was "at least as Black as Barack Obama." The Clintons were very popular with African Americans. Indeed, Toni Morrison, the African-American Nobel Laureate in Literature, had once described Bill Clinton as "the first Black president of the United States." Genealogically, Bill Clinton was not Black; Morrison was referring mainly to his underprivileged family background and gift of empathy with Black folks.
But those two qualities are abundandy shared by Obama, who was raised by a single parent and grew up in relatively underprivileged circumstances. He showed his desire to be accepted by the sacrifice he made after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard and being elected the first Black president ever of the "Harvard Law Review." Virtually the top Harvard law graduate in 1991, he could easily have obtained a job serving under a senior justice and inaugurated a spectacular legal career. Indeed, he stood a chance of evolving into the third Black justice of the Supreme Court (following Thurgood Marshall [1908-93; the first Black to serve on the Supreme Court] and Clarence Thomas [1948-]). Instead, he went to Chicago to serve in Black neighborhoods and mobilized the underprivileged to pursue their rights and civil liberties. That is how he got involved with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose friendship nearly destroyed his presidential bid.
The wider political opinion of African Americans about Obama changed when it became increasingly clear that he actually stood a chance of beating his White rivals for nomination as the Democratic party's candidate. In the primaries, Obama was competing against such famous White Democratic stalwarts as Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), who had served in the Senate since 1972 and was reelected in 1978, 1984, 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008 - the sixth-longest period among current senators and whom Obama later chose as his running mate. Indeed, nobody expected him to defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), the most famous woman in America and a former first lady. The Clintons had even become multi-millionaires by the time Obama was challenging her for the Democratic nomination.
America's Black population began to raUy in their millions behind Obama when it was clear that he stood a chance of breaking the glass ceiling against Black poUtical ascendancy. The thinking was that if he could raUy such large numbers of White people (especiaUy the younger voters), it was time for African Americans to support him more completely. The number of Black voters who finally embraced this son of a Kenyan father eventually reached record-breaking proportions.
Not many people realize that the United States has elected its first Black president before it has elected a Jewish president. In every field of endeavor apart from sports, Jewish Americans have outperformed African Americans. Obama has defied the odds by outperforming the Jewish genius in the bid for the White House. A Black David has triumphed, even if his adversary was not really a Jewish Goliath.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D/I-CT) attempted to get the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2004, but was left far behind. As Al Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000, Lieberman (a Jew) did not make it either as vice president. It is probable that Jewish Americans had avoided running for president for many decades out of fear of provoking Christian fundamentalists and other potential anti-Semites. Black candidates tried the waters of presidential candidacy sooner than did Jewish aspirants. But the fact nevertheless remains that an African American has been elected as the occupant of the Oval Office before a Jew.
Jews have been significant, however, in both the executive and legislative branches of government without holding presidential power. Indeed, many believe that from the second half of the twentieth century on, the power of Israel-aligned lobbyists on Middle Eastern issues has sometimes been greater than presidential power. First-term presidents, it seems, have been cautious not to offend proIsraeli lobbies. A big question remains about some of Obama's appointments. Some worry that these are a sign of "business as usual" on issues Like Palestine. It remains to be seen whether America's first Black president will develop a different orientation toward the Middle East and toward America's relations with the Muslim world.
Family Saga. The sad thing was the death of his White maternal grandmother, Madely Dunham, who died two days before her grandson was elected president. Fortunately, she had already cast her absentee vote for her grandson ... and her vote had been counted with conscious deliberation.
One wonders whether Obama's paternal grandmother, Mama Sara Hussein Obama, who still lives in Luoland, Kenya, and is in her eighties, realizes that her grandson was destined to be the most powerful Black individual in history at this point in time.
More than half a century ago an African, Hussein Onyango Obama, was arrested by Kenya's colonial poUce; he was imprisoned, tortured, and finally released two years later, a broken man. Some British are musing how this experience will reflect upon his grandson's outlook.
Ali A. Mazrui is chancellor, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Nairobi, Kenya; director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies and Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, State University of New York at Binghamton, NY; Albert Luthull Professor-at-Large, University of Jos, Nigeria; and Andrew D. White Prafessor-at-Large Emeritus and senior scholar in Africana Studies, Cornell University.…