I have just recently finished reading Barack Obama's first book: "Dreams from My Father". Which is as honest a book as you are likely to find written by a politician. In it he catalogs his earnest quest for identity, the Son of a Black African father and a white mid-west American mother. In it he makes a choice very early on. Barrack sees himself as a Black man. This choice is made all the more easier by a white mother who reaffirms his black identity in the absence of his black father. With his own identity resolved Obama has a perspective on the world and himself as a Black man in it, that is afforded to very few black men.
The racial divide is propagated by myths each side tells itself in an attempt to reconcile their own history. These myths can be paralysing, preventing us from seeing the people on the other side of the racial divide for what they really are: Just people.
Black people are just as guilty of these myths as whites. For blacks, the myths focus on the heart of the white man. The central theme being that the white man is heartless and some kind of devil not to be trusted. Now this myth doesn't survive intellectual inspection, but at an emotional level it does make sense. If whites were human, then how could they enslave us the way they did? And how can they still oppress us in the way they do?
I have just started reading Obamas second book: "The Audacity of Hope". Towards the end of his first book, Obama talks about him coming to terms with his Kenyan family and his African family history. In his second book he chooses to focus on his American heritage and the values and dreams of the American people. I get the impression that Africa taught Obama a valuable lesson. That people can be cruel to other people, irrespective of race. That there is no nirvana void of the white man, where black people live in loving harmony. Cruelty and injustice exists in Africa too.
So after not finding a pot of gold at the end of an African rainbow, it appears that Obama came back to the US and decided to settle down to real politique.
Race is not the only fission in American society. There is a more pervasive fission over values and culture, with liberals on one side and hard core religious conservatives on the other. I think that Obamas own life experience and his need to fish through myths to reconcile his own identity has prepared him well to deal with the gamut of myths Americans propagate about each other, whether about race or cultural values.
For black Americans, the need to dispose of myths and engage with reality is greater than most. Blacks are the only American tribe who did not come to America under their own volition. So they have no collective narrative of endeavour and seeking a better life in a new world to pass on to each generation. No, at the core of the Black American experience is the initial injustice of being brought against their will, in shackles, to a distant continent on board a Slave ship. So isn't this the acid proof that the myths held about whites are in some part true?
Well even here the truth is more complex and less easy to consume. The simple truth is that the whites payed for their Slaves. Blacks weren't stolen from Africa, but traded by fellow Africans in the same way you would trade Cocoa beans. If whites are heartless for buying slaves, then aren't black Africans heartless too for selling them? An uncomfortable truth that the black diaspora chooses to ignore.
For Obama such inaccurate myths were easy to dispel, because the family that loved and cherished him in his formative years was white. Far from the back stereotype of white devils. So Obama had to seek out more complex motives for the behavior of whites towards blacks.
Reading between the lines, Obamas explanation for the attitudes of some whites, are just the usual bunch of human failings. Greed, fear, guilt, shame etc. Because of these failings whites propagate myths of their own. Black people are lazy and won't help themselves is a common white myth, and there are many more. The most insipid of white myths is that Blacks are some how less intelligent then Whites and deserving of their low social station. The most scariest consequence of this myth, is that it has seeped into the black psychic too. Blacks well aware that their own myths can't totally explain their condition, find themselves succumbing to the white mans myths, undermining their own self belief and self confidence. So white myths become a self fulfilling prophecy in the minds of blacks.
Obama is a very astute politician. Just the way he managed to circumvent the cesspool of racial politics in the recent presidential election without ever falling in was a major testament to his political nous. I think he knows that beyond the myths the races have a quite admiration for each other. His mother for one had a romantic view of blacks, painting a picture of his father, that would have been difficult for any man to live up to. Personally I believe that many Whites secretly admire black culture and black resilience, and in return blacks have a smoldering admiration for white organisation and economic success.
Obamas telling legacy may be finding away to get past the fear and distrust and allow these grudging admirations to blossom into something tangible. I believe he as already succeeded in showing whites that there is nothing to fear from Blacks in positions of power. His next challenge is showing blacks that they can indeed compete on equal terms with whites, despite the historical legacy.
His slogan "Yes we can", is pure genius in this regard. It appeals to both blacks and whites, who all know deep down that the myths they hold about each other are merely an internal defence mechanism. A way of shielding themselves from deep rooted inner doubts and uncomfortable truths.
If whites don't feel the need to man the ramparts in front of the black hordes, and blacks feel comfortable in stepping up to the plate and taking their rightful place at the American table without seeking refuge in victim hood, then "Yes we can" will prove to be the most important political slogan in American history.
It is still early days, but somewhere in some town in America, there will be a Black child thinking I too could become president. In years past that child's dream would have been snuffed out by well meaning elders who saw it as their duty to explain the realities of black life. Today however, that same child is likely to be met with a resounding chorus of "Yes you can".