The Geographical Imagination of Barack Obama: Representing Race and Space in America

Article excerpt

It has been noted that the geographical work on race and space has often overlooked the geographies of individual African-Americans. This paper adds to the literature on race and space by focusing upon Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. Unusual in many ways, Obama offers the opportunity to combine two types of analysis in this paper. First, his memoir, Dreams From My Father, is treated as a geographical text through which we may gain insight into his geographical imagination. Second, this paper discusses the spatialization of racial identities, particularly whiteness, that have informed the public's impressions of Obama. Together, these discussions may help us to understand the point at which Barack Obama's personal geographies intersect with larger racialized landscapes that show increasing hybridity and permeability.

KEY WORDS: Obama, race, space, geographical imagination

Se ha notado que el trabajo geografico relacionado con raza y espacio usualmente ha pasado por alto las geografias de los afro-americanas individualmente. Este articulo aporta a la literatura relacionada con raza y espacio al enfocarse en Barack Obama, el 44to presidente de los Estados Unidos. Inusual en muchas maneras, Obama ofrece la oportunidad de combinar dos tipos de andlisis en este articulo. Primero, sus memorias, Dreams From My Father (Suenos de mi padre), es tratado como un texto geografico, a traves del cual podemos discernir su imaginacion geografica. Segundo, este articulo discute el caracter espacial de identidades raciales, particularmente "whiteness," que han hecho evidente las impresiones publicas de Obama. Juntas, estas discusiones pudieran ayudarnos a entender el punto en el cual los geografias personales de Barack Obama se intersectan con entornos raciales mas amplios que demuestran un creciente hibridismo y permeabilidad.


Issues of race and space have interested geographers for decades. Common themes include identifying spatial patterns of urban geographies (Cooke 1996; Johnston-Anumonwo 1997; Kaplan and Li 2006; Brown and Chung 2008), racialized symbols on regional cultural landscapes (Webster and Leib 2002), race and southern geographies (Hoelscher 2003; Inwood 2005; Alderman 2006, 2004), and spatial manifestations of racism (Flint 2004). In addition to quantitative and descriptive research on race and space, geographers and other scholars have attempted to expand the theoretical frameworks used to examine race within geography. For example, Nast (2000) has applied psychoanalytic concepts to issues relating to race and the "political unconscious." As long ago as 1993, 3ackson and Penrose noted that racial distinctions are social constructions derived from particular histories and geographies. Since then, social and cultural geographers have explored the ways in which race and space (re)produce each other. Summarizing the relationship between race and space, Gilmore (2002, p 17) identifies two assumptions characteristic of geographical work on race. First, "social formations are structured in dominance within and across scales" and second, that "race is in some way determinate of sociospatial location." While the works of some geographers may inadvertently reify racial classifications, more recently geographers have found that race and space are mutually constituting--that is, that spaces are racialized and races are spatialized (Delaney 2002).

Tyner (2006, 2003) has noted that much of the geographical work on race has overlooked the geographies of particular African-Americans. In his book, The Geography of Malcolm X, Tyner proposes to "ask Malcolm X about geography" (Tyner 2006, p 2). Similarly, in this paper I track geographical themes evident in Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father, and attempt to identify events and experiences that gave shape to Obama's geographical imaginary (Gregory 1994). In particular, I find that Obama's memoir shows some themes common to postcolonial geographies and, less explicitly, to postmodernism. …