Was Obama About Race Or Ancestry?

March 1st, 2017 | M. Menuck
obama ancestry
Oh how quickly eight years go by. Just yesterday it seems like Barack Obama was being sworn in as the new leader of the free world, with a seemingly limitless amount of potential before him. Sadly, little of it was realized and what was is very likely to be undone in the coming months and years by Obama's replacement in office. Still, the now former president can console himself that he will still warrant a place in the history books on the basis of him being the first African-American President of the United States. Or can he?

To clarify, before going further, this is not some Birther-esque, crackpot conspiracy theory that Barack Obama is secretly a white man with a brilliant make-up team behind him. Rather, it is a genuine question as to whether he can claim to represent the first President of America elected from the African-American community. 

After all, it has long been understood that to be part of that community one has to be more than just of African ethnicity. The African-American identity is one that is also deeply tied to America's history of slavery and racism, and the experiences that this has imprinted on it as a whole. 

On this front, Barack Obama's father was from Kenya with no such connection either personally or ancestrally to this history, and he was almost entirely raised by his white mother and Indonesian step-father. Most of his formative years were in Hawaii, a state that hardly is marred by the legacy of such acts as Jim Crow or the Klu Klux Klan. If there is something unique about being African-American that goes beyond simply tracing ones ancestry back to Africa (which according to Darwin is a universal trait we all can acquire if we only go far back enough) it's hard to find much trace of it here.

On the other hand, are we simply defined by our ancestry and childhood experiences and nothing else? When one looks to the life story of Barack Obama, the student who attended Columbia University, and later the grown man who worked as a Chicago community organizer and later a civil rights' lawyer, the picture that emerges is one that very much is part of the African-American identity. Also, as Obama himself quite poignantly observed when he noted how Trayvon Martin "could have been my son", prejudice very rarely bothers to consider the finer distinctions of those who feel its ill effects. 

Just as valid to consider is whether the question in and of itself is relevant when considering Barack Obama's historical significance. Even if one can bicker over details, that Obama was the first non-white President of the United States is beyond question (unless one wishes to use 18th century standards and bestow that honour on the Irish Catholic John Kennedy). To draw a historical comparison, Benjamin Disraeli is still heralded as the first and only Jewish Prime Minister of Great Britain despite the man himself identifying as a devout supplicant of the Church of England.

If nothing else, the question should probably stand as an example of the twisted and thorny nature of identity questions in general. It is a rabbit hole that can lead to all kinds of strange places once one begins to venture down it. At the first and the last, it should be remembered, Barack Obama is an American and that is what counted at the end of the day. If we all could think that way, the world would likely be a far better place.