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Is Barack Obama the first African American President?

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20 January 2013 is the day that Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term of office as President of the United States. He is widely regarded as the first African-American president of the U.S. But – is this true?

On the face of it, the arithmetic is simple. Obama’s mother was, in the peculiar language of the Americans, ‘Caucasian’. His father was Luo, which by all accounts is in Africa. So, join the two together and what do you get? An African American.

But this is not all there is to it. In general, the term African American refers to a person who is descended from the first Africans who were brought to what is now the U.S. as slaves. These persons share a culture that is distinct from the dominant American culture and that culture is referred to as African American. And that is where there is an obvious problem – because a lot can be said about Barack Obama, but not that his cultural background is African American.

The ‘true’ African Americans know this, of course, but there seems to be a silent conspiracy not to talk about it. One comedian has dared to challenge the dominant beliefs, using the known facts, but presenting them in a tongue-in-cheek way. Look at this video. Comedian Chris Rock, in a ‘special message for white people’ shows how the young Barack (then called Barry) was raised mainly by his grandparents from his mother’s side (who were, of course, white) and spent most of his childhood years in Hawaii. It is good to note that Hawaii (where I am actually writing this post) is very different from the U.S. mainland. Hawaii is a true melting pot of cultures, with strong influences from the U.S. mainland, but also the indigenous Polynesian Hawaiians, Japanese, and many others. There are, as one might say, fifty shades of brown on the island. On Hawaii, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to know somebody’s culture by looking at the skin tone. You have to wait until a person opens his mouth. In that sense, Hawaii is just like many African countries, where the same is true.

This means that in Hawaii, Barry Obama was raised the Hawaiian way, by his ‘caucasian’ mother and grandparents. (See also his own highly readable memoir, “Dreams from My Father”.) This happy state of things only changed when the young Barry moved to the U.S. mainland. It is there that, sadly, he was confronted with the ‘normal ’ skin-tone related American prejudices. He saw himself forced to make a choice: would he identify himself more with the dominant white culture, or would he adopt the African American one? He chose the latter, but of course retained many of his old, ‘white’ cultural traits.

Therefore, Chris Rock is totally right, although he seems not to believe it himself. Barack Obama is indeed, culturally speaking, a white American, not an African American.

But the story does not end here. Of course, Obama has developed a deep understanding of the African American culture, through his long interaction with African Americans, and not least through his wife, Michelle. Many African Americans felt that Bill Clinton was the first President who understood them. That may be true, but I would venture that Obama’s understanding is bound to be much deeper and more intimate. In that sense, he IS unique. Not, as popular belief would have it, because he is the first African American President. He is not. What he is, though, is perhaps even more important: he is the first President who, because of his background and because of the choices he has made, has an understanding not only of the dominant white American culture, but also of the African American culture. He is, in that sense, a true American.

Whilst that may be a positive message for Americans, it is not good news for the Luo. The Luo who celebrated four years ago when Obama was first sworn in where misguided. Culture is not, as some will believe, in the genes. It is part of the upbringing. Obama is lots of things – but certainly not Luo, and in that sense they cannot expect anything more or less of Obama than they could expect from any other American President – preciously little, in fact.

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