Monday, May 9, 2011

A Mother's Way

...She felt a little bit wistful or sad that Barack had essentially moved to Chicago and chosen to take on a really strongly identified black identity,” recalled Don Johnston, Dunham’s colleague at Bank Rakyat Indonesia. That identity, she felt, “had not really been part of who he was when he was growing up.” Dunham thought he was making what Johnston called “a professional choice” to strongly identify as black. “It would be too strong to say that she felt rejection,” he said. But she felt “that he was distancing himself from her...”

 That is an excerpt from a story about a new book about President Barack Obama's mother. The full story can be found here.

The book apparently attempts to provide the public with a fuller view of Obama's mother, and to give her an identity more in line with the feminism that dominated her adulthood. I have no plans to read the book, but I did find the excerpt telling in what it appears to reveal about the president's mother.

She honestly thought Obama had a real choice about whether he identified as black.

It is a common mistake for white folks. They often see the poses adopted by black folks as part of one long string of choices. They seem to imagine that we come to a fork in the road and decide whether we'd like to take the black route, or some other path.

Of course, since the black route is fraught with peril and frustration, many white people are surprised that more of us don't change directions. They can't understand why we don't adopt identities more in line with mainstream America. Why we don't listen to different music, wear different clothes and socialize with different friends.

Why we don't work harder to assimilate.

I'm sure the president's mother saw Obama as just as much white as he was black, particularly since it was her family that nurtured and raised him not his absentee African father's family. Moreover, the president spent several of his formative years outside of the country in countries where his blackness was clearly secondary to his American citizenship. (Take that birthers!) It seems that the president's mother thought that Obama had another path he could have trod, and she clearly believed that one was preferable.

Sadly, this just wasn't true. Obama's face proclaimed his blackness. The only way he could have embraced his "white identity" would have been to deny his blackness. The America of the president's youth did not have the term "biracial." It was a world where your racial identity was binary, particularly if you looked like a black man. There were very few opt-out opportunities.

In addition, having read the president's books, I wonder if his mother truly understood what his life was like growing up as a little black boy with white grandparents? She seems unaware or unconcerned about the slights, both large and small, that the president endured thanks to his unique position. Her comments appear to brush off any confusion or frustration he might have felt trying to negotiate the world around him carrying that additional burden.

And trust me, according to the president's writings it often felt like a burden to him. The challenge of trying to relate to his aging white grandparents with certain emotions bubbling within his black mind must have been daunting. The 1970s were a confusing time for white Americans, and I can imagine that his grandparents were just as confused as most people of their generation about what black people were so angry about. And I can imagine that Obama, who looked like a black man to the rest of the world, understood that anger only too well, and was increasingly bothered that his family just didn't get it, even as he loved them to death.

Obama never had a choice about being black if he wanted to be a man of morals and values. Any other path led to the type of assimilation that breeds contempt. Despite all of her many gifts, it is obvious Obama's mother never truly understood what it was like to be black in America, and all the small battles and choices that accompany that designation.. That's no big surprise. Very few white people ever obtain that understanding.

We walk this path because it's the only honorable path. Any other choice affirms the myth of white supremacy that is constantly being pushed upon us. It is sad that Obama's mother may have seen his choice as a rejection of her when it was clearly a rejection of becoming something far worse.

A disgrace to his mother.



LisaMJ said...

Hmm, I guess I'll have to read the book to find out but I wonder if this is what she actually said/thought or her co-workers interpretation/spin of what she said. Anyway, it seems to me that Obama looks black. I mean he isn't so racially ambigious looking that he could ever pass for white and in this country if you look black, most folks consider you and treat you like you are black. At least in America. Maybe in Hawaii and Indonesia it is more of a choice but I'm skeptical.

Darth Whitey said...

I hear what you're saying BM, but I'm thinking maybe she felt that she worked hard to make him feel like he wasn't an "other" her whole life, not realizing that he had no choice regardless. Sounds like she was an amazing human being. But yea he looks like the child of two black parents because his father was black as night. Hard to fit in to the white world that way.

MiGrant said...

I wonder how all this will play out as the demographic shift progresses. My daughter (16) certainly already lives in a different world than the one I grew up in. Personally I think it'll ultimately be a healthier environment for whites too when "white" isn't automatically equated to "mainstream". Rednecks will be just one more ethnic group with their own quaint customs....

lifelearner said...

Yet another thought provoking post. This book probably will be more speculation than a true memoir of his mother. Pres. Obama knew he was black as long as he was living in this world, no matter how white is upbringing was, he probably got that fact of life during his school age years.

dtwo said...


interesting post. I'm a bi racial (read: black) brother from Boston. I'm in my early 40's and growing up my mother wanted me to acknowledge my my whiteness in addition to acknowledging my blackness. I started out trying and that lasted for about a week (not literally but close). I grew up in a white town and the kids in the neighborhood let me know from jumpstreet that I was black. It was a rude awakening. My parents didn’t prepare me to enter a society that was hostile to anyone who was “different”. It took me a LONG time to figure out where i fit in. B/C whites had issue with my blackness and black folks where saying i wasn't black enough it sucked. There was no choosing what i wanted to be. I was biracial and I could view myself as biracial but society viewed me as black and didn't care what my true background was. It was tough.

Anonymous said...

We are supposed to be grateful for the opportunity to worship White people. Didn't they build the Rocky Mountains? Didn't they dig the Grand Canyon? Didn't they fill the Great Lakes with water?

What do you mean they stole a continent? That would be unChristian.

Now, 40 years after the Moon landing, they can't figure out they have spent the last 4 decades buying their way into slavery by going into debt for cars designed to become obsolete.

Their White economists did not tell them.

Economic Wargames


Big Man said...

Mi Grant

I didn't know that about the author.

Raving Black Lunatic