Thursday, September 27, 2007

One African-American's Thoughts on Obama

Hathor, Luxor Museum, Egypt
(Image from Wikipedia)

My online friend Hathor, who maintains her own blog, Hathor-Sekhmet, wrote me an email a few days ago to give her thoughts on Barack Obama, about whom I've previously posted and whose book Dreams from My Father Hathor and I have both read.

I found the email very interesting because it clarifies a sense among the African-American community that Obama isn't 'black' enough, and Hathor has given me permission to post her email here at Gypsy Scholar.

Hathor begins with a reference to a recent incident that I've somehow missed, probably due to my living in Korea, which leaves me abstracted from a lot of American domestic news, but Hathor provides some links for international readers like me, and I've added some links of my own on other points (as well as some interjections):
I don't know if you have been following the news about the assault in Jena, Louisiana; here's a link an another link in case you haven't and commentary . Barrack Obama is being called to task by some in the black community for not being more involved with this issue. When you mentioned to me about Obama appearing to be an outsider, I thought about that now. Even though he understands how it is to be black and feels the rage, he doesn't have the history in his soul, not as a Kenyan or as an American black. I think he should have made a statement about Equal Justice. Personally, I would not have required that he go to Jena or associate with Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Regardless of what type leaders Jackson or Sharpton are, they do understand the symbolism of nooses. They both understand how quickly that symbolism can bring violence and Jesse had certainly seen enough during the 60's working with the SCLC.

I don't think growing up as a child Obama had the constant reminders of what not to do, the unspoken words of what had happen to an uncle or some distant relative in the past, or the stories or news of violence to blacks from some offense of forgetting. There has not been sorrow or the struggle passed down. I am not blaming Obama, because you could not expect that from his mother or her parents. Unfortunately his father didn't feel the need for his son to be with him. I sort of understand how he feels when he goes to Kenya and his other family explains to him about his father. The feeling I had when my mother's sisters were telling me about how my mother was before she got sick, which meant nothing to me, because her impact on me was only from the person when she was sick.
Allow me to interject some remarks here.

For those unaware of Obama's personal history, you should know that his father was a black African from Kenya, and his mother was a white American living in Hawaii. Obama's father returned to Kenya when Obama was very young and had little direct influence on Obama's childhood, and Obama's time in Hawaii and Indonesia sheltered him from the strong black-white racial division of the time but also cut him off from the black community in America, a separation reinforced by the fact that he had no black relatives in the United States.

Hathor's observations here clarify what I referred to in my prefatory remarks above, namely, that a lot of African-Americans sense that Obama isn't 'black' enough. When she says that she doesn't "think growing up as a child Obama had the constant reminders of what not to do, the unspoken words of what had happen to an uncle or some distant relative in the past, or the stories or news of violence to blacks from some offense of forgetting," I finally understand the point. Part of being 'black' in America means having a familial link and a personal family memory to those who suffered under the South's Jim Crow laws, or who suffered comparable discrimination outside the South, including racist attacks and even lynchings.

One reason that I understand better is because I know how profound an adult's words to a child can be. My own great-grandmother told me when I was five years old to always remember that I was part Indian and not to forget how the Indians had suffered. She didn't relate any personal stories, and I don't know if her husband, who was half-Cherokee, suffered discrimination (though their daughter my grandmother hinted that he might have encountered some prejudice in Oklahoma), but even without personal stories, the memory of my great-grandmother's words remains with me.

But let's return to Hathor's remarks:
I wish he could express his earlier self, while running for president. He needs to express his vision with passion. Also he needs to get rid of some of his campaign advisers. I think the people can deal with more openness and honesty. I don't really worry about his experience in government. He has had to make decisions in life and in other positions, which I think prepares any one to govern. I thought one of the few new things this country was meant to abolish was a ruling class and dynasties. Quite a few people in their lifetime will have to act on a life and death decision, and 9/11 wasn't so extradinary that one would have to be groomed in order to make decisions. Sometimes, the event can bring out the brilliance and other times it brings out a response in fear. We never know.
I know what Hathor means. Who, for example, would have expected Mayor Giuliani to be a hero and a healer? Yet, there he was, on 9/11, an unexpected source of comfort and courage who said exactly the right things when so many others did not.
That quote in your post, in which Obama described his feelings as a youth, isn't resolved in this book. I think it is pushed back into the unconscious. His actions as a representative and his ideas about race are probably determined by his upbringing. In some ways his upbringing clashes with his own reality. Unfortunately he was not light enough to be perceived as something other than black. Being African was a problem because there were no African relatives he could spend time with, family outings, etc. Hawaii and Indonesia were not places where that was a lot of black-white conflict and not a lot of rhetoric pertaining to race, so his mother's views would be internalized more. This is just my opinion.
It's my own view, too, as I've noted above. But Obama had his own 'black' experiences, as the quote from Obama that Hathor refers to makes clear:
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 the white man's court, ... by the white man's rules. If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher, ... wanted to spit in your 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 -- the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass -- had been freely chosen by you. At best, these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing 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. (Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, page 85)
Such was Obama's reaction as a young black man to some experiences of racial difference even in multiracial Hawaii of the 1970s.

At any rate, Hathor concludes with an explanation of her previous, lengthy silence about Obama:
I had intended to post about him, but I've been really too lazy to follow his campaign. Since Pennsylvania is one of the last primaries, the candidates who lose early hardly stay in the race till they get here. I think Obama has enough money to stay in. This is not to say I would vote for him, but it is too early for me to get engaged or hopeful about a candidate.
I also don't know enough about Obama's position on issues to know if I'd vote for him or not, but based on his extraordinary book, I rather like him personally.

Oh, one last remark from Hathor:
You are really disciplined, to be able to post everyday.
Thanks, Hathor, for the kind words, but I suspect that I post daily not from discipline but from an insane obsession to raise my voice in the wilderness, as if it could be heard among the some 200 million other bloggers out there in the same, tame, overcrowded wilderness.

Anyway, there it is, Hathor's email providing her interesting thoughts on Obama.

Thank-you, Hathor.

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At 10:35 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

You're welcome!

I didn't proof read my email and now I see all the misspellings.

Like your great grandmother, my grandmother never told me any stories either. Her mother was born in slavery and I asked about it. I did get some cryptic story about my grandmother's brother's death. I think there was a lot of shame associated with slavery, but still her feelings about race were made known to me.

At 3:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks again, Hathor.

As for typos, everybody makes them. I teach a writing course and find myself repeatedly embarassed by my own mistakes -- in a class where I'm emphasizing PROOFREADING as the best policy for an error-free essay, I fall rather far short of perfection myself.

On our great-grandmothers, all I can say is that here we are living in the 21st century, yet we have these powerful links to the mid-1800s, so there should be little wonder that the past can still be so present ... even when the stories are vague.

Interesting, your remark about the shame of slavery. I had thought of it as a shameful thing for America, and especially the South, but I had never thought that African-Americans might feel shame for having been slaves. I imagined anger, but not shame. Shame is harder to comprehend, but I realize that feelings of shame are independent of responsibility. Rape victims often feel shame. So do abused children. I can remember feeling shame at things that happened to me, such as being slapped by a teacher in the first grade. It's a powerful emotion, hard to overcome.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:40 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I am not sure that I speak for black people, it is just the impression I got. There were many very old people around me and I never heard any mention of slavery in a personal way, that's why I thought that maybe they were ashamed.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Still, you may be right ... though I guess that you'd have to ask other African-Americans to know for sure.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So blacks should be able to beat whites unconsious with out facing charges???

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

This post is from five years ago, so I don't recall the context well and thus have no idea what you're referring to, Mr. Grey.

Jeffery Hodges

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