The facts aren't in question. Barack Obama's father was a black Kenyan, his mother a white Kansan. The old southern word for this genetic mixing was "mulatto." In the peculiar classification of American society, where your ancestry is sometimes more important than your actual skin color, Barack Obama is clearly identified as African American, or (as we used to say in the sixties), black, despite the fact that I've known Indians who make him look like Michael York. The issue, of course, is that Kenyan father, a man who grew up a free man in a reasonably free country and came to the U.S. to attend college. A man, in short, with no personal connection to the American experiment in slavery, or the Jim Crow laws.
Obama's run for the presidency, however, has sparked this sort of reaction:
Some African American leaders came out against Obama because he announced his candidacy Feb. 10, the same day as the State of the Black Union, an annual event organized by Tavis Smiley to gather prominent African Americans. It drew 10,000 people and would have been a perfect venue, those leaders said.
Author and Princeton University Professor Cornel West said Obama's decision to announce in Illinois instead shows he "speaks to white folks and holds us at arm's length."
The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, who ran for president in 2004, was also upset.
"We cannot put our people's aspirations on hold for anybody's career, black or white," said Sharpton. "Just because you are our color doesn't make you our kind."
I don't know what has the "black leadership" more annoyed, the fact that Obama grew up either in Hawaii (known for its cosmopolitan race mixing) or outside the U.S. altogether, thereby missing out on the essential racial injustices which everyone else had to put up with, or the fact that he's the first black candidate for President in the history of the country who actually has a sporting chance to win it. Or could it be because he never talks about the issues of black America, but only about the issues of America? I assumed he announced his candidacy in Illinois because that's where he was elected to the Senate. The people of Illinois are his employers; they have a right to know he's applying for a new job.
No one has mentioned this, but I wonder if the traditional black leaders also resent the fact that, when you hear Barack Obama speak but can't see him, you can't tell he's black. You certainly can't say that about Rev. Sharpton. Obama speaks pure midwestern American, without the "black accent" that even many well educated African Americans have. I'm not talking about "ebonics"; just a distinctive, not quite southern twist of pronunciation and phrasing. Not all blacks have it; northern blacks in particular have northern accents; but almost all the people who have it are black. People underestimate how much they are judged on their speech patterns.
I thought that both Professor West and the Reverend Sharpton did themselves a disservice with these public remarks. They sounded envious; they sounded petty. They sounded like children bullying an unpopular new kid. I wonder what they will say when President Obama takes the oath of office, as I'm quite sure he will one day, whether it's in 2008 or later. He has plenty of time; he's only in his middle 40's.