Is Obama's Ancestor Frightened?

Article excerpt

Even many of the White Americans whom Obama might think he is impressing by staying mute about race, might ask: "If he can't be passionate and involved about his own race, how can he show passion about anything?" The Blacks would go further: "How can he pass up the opportunity to do something serious about race worldwide, when he still has all the power of an American president? He will never be in a better position to do so. The time is now!"

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

People are sometimes said to be afraid of their own shadows, not a pretty state! But it makes it easier to understand those who quail at the shadows of their ancestors: who, however close, are at least a step farther away than oneself. Melancholic as it would he for President Barack Obama to be afraid of his own shadow, big as that is in his position as the single most important human on earth, by the same token it would be worrisome if he were frightened of association with his ancestors. Or, to put it another way: his ancestry.

In 1965 I travelled all over the United States on a contract from Life magazine. It had somehow entered my mind to find out what the relationships in America were between Africans and American Negroes, as the latter were then called. The quest would almost certainly never have happened had I never set foot in that country. One had heard of these black folk of course, as an American sub-group of little importance, and once or twice of Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) who had obviously risen above the common herd to merit personal recognition!

But consider this: of Black activists like Frederick Douglass (1818- 1895), an escaped slave before blossoming into a notable writer and leader (in some pictures looking remarkably like our own Wole Soyinka!), of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), we were never told. Du Bois had presciently written: "... the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line" and indeed famously fell out with Booker T on how to solve it.

Washington favoured a more cautious approach where the Blacks were subservient to their White masters, but industrious and with some (but not competing) education. Du Bois had no patience with this. In many ways this foretold, a century later, the relationship between Rev Martin Luther King (1929-1968) and Malcolm X (1925-1965): one seemingly slower, the other faster. But both died before middle age, assassinated.

I arrived in New York and saw Negroes, spoke to some, and even ventured into Harlem, at that time a big area in New York inhabited by "People of Colour" (therein lay a wholly unintended compliment, by implication meaning that non-Blacks were utterly colourless, insipid!). Yearning grew in me to know them better. We looked so much alike--except noticeably in how many of them had tortured their hair to look different--and we moved and laughed the same.

And, don't tell a lie when you can tell the truth, it occurred to me that the subject might provoke a rewardingly beneficial contract; which it did! By the end of the trip, some spent in the Deep South, I had found out who I really was--for the first time--and how close I was to those I was studying!

In 1967 my article that came out in Race journal in Britain. I had failed to make Life's deadline because the political strife back home in Uganda had blocked my writing capacities! If you peruse my website www.onemansweek.com, you can see the result in the left-hand corner. Others came to radically different conclusions; for example James Baldwin, the Black author of the then stormy The Fire Next Time polemic, went to Ghana and felt not a tremor of recognition with its people; his loss in my view. How different from Du Bois, who moved to Ghana. aged 93, took its citizenship and died there a couple of years later: the work of his long life clone! To me, identity with my kin, so far away in America, bowled me over; to this day. Apart from anything else, they and all other non-white peoples of the world had been deeply wounded together for their race and colour, and thus psychologically must best fight back together to regain their self-recognition and respect. …