Category Archives: Politics

Our President is Black

It didn’t hit me until yesterday that our president is black. Of course I can see that he has brown skin; I followed all the news reports of his “historic election;” I even recognized the significance of his family’s 2009 trip to Ghana. What I didn’t recognize until turning on the news Wednesday and witnessing President Obama explain to reporters with frustration why he felt it necessary to release his long-form birth certificate was what it really means to be the nation’s first black president.

President Obama at Wednesday's press conference.

America’s history of racism is well-documented and needs no further rehashing from me. I will say, however, that I was mistakenly under the impression that our racist past was just that–largely in the past. When I saw Obama create an economic recovery plan, I saw the president do that, not a black man. When I watched him introduce a healthcare bill, again, it was the president, not a black man. And when he decided to involve U.S. forces in the situation in Libya, without asking Congress first, he was definitely the president then, not just a black man. I have been able–with almost no effort on my part–to accept Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, as my country’s president and respect or object to the decisions he makes based on a confidence that he deserves the job he has. I realize now, with no further delusions or self-deceptions, that a good part of the country does not, and will never, have that ability. And it’s simply because of the fact that President Obama is black.

The “silliness” that he has had to deal with is unprecedented: 2008 campaign T-shirts equating Obama with Curious George, the monkey; right wingers casting aspersions on his chosen faith; the GOP working hard to block, repeal or replace every one of his proposals; an e-mail depicting the White House lawn as a watermelon patch; another portraying Obama as a child chimpanzee; of course, the “birther” controversy; and now, challenges to his educational record. It’s ridiculous. More than half of this country was sophisticated enough to set conventions aside and vote for “Change” in 2008. The very vocal minority who did not, has proven to be more bitter, racist and simple-minded than I ever thought possible as they continuously work against efforts that would, in the future, be beneficial to the country (such as healthcare), just to undermine the black man they never wanted to be president.

Through it all, President Obama handles himself with grace, laughing off his frustrations but never releasing the outrage for the hate directed at him that must be pent up somewhere inside. Often, I think back with admiration about all that my slave ancestors had to suffer through and how they somehow managed to survive in order for me to be here. I’m beginning to look at Obama’s presidency with a similar sense of wonder and pride.

The Melting Pot of Assimilation

Twice last week, I heard a couple of politicians from opposite sides of the aisle say that America is about assimilation. First was former Maryland governor, Bob Ehrlich, who is running for governor again in the state. “We are about assimilation; that’s what this culture’s about,” he said during a televised debate last Thursday in answer to a question about illegal immigration. “We talk about multiculturalism—we are a multi-ethnic society but we are a singular American culture, premised on English, democracy, capitalism, equal opportunity, living the American Dream.”

The very next day, President Obama reflected a similar sentiment at his televised town hall meeting with young voters. “Each wave of immigrants that have come in have been able to assimilate, integrate and then rise up and become part of this great American Dream,” he said in answer to a question about the Dream Act, which would allow young undocumented immigrants to get a college education.

A Conversation With President Obama

While I should have expected such comments from the conservative Ehrlich, I was slightly shocked to hear Barack “Dreams from My Father” Obama tout assimilation. Assimilation. It’s always been a dirty word to me. Reminiscent of the forced acculturation that African slaves—my ancestors—were subject to upon being brought to this country. Assimilating to a certain extent was, of course, inevitable, but it was something to resist giving in to completely; a process to approach with the utmost caution. For holding onto one’s native culture and customs, in my mind, is necessary to maintaining an authentic identity.

It’s an idea I’m thinking about more now that I have a son to raise and instill with information about who he is and where he comes from. Already, people want to take the culturally significant, three-syllable name his father and I gave him and Americanize it into something just three letters long. It’s fine—I understand the desire for nicknames (I have a bunch myself). I just don’t want my son to ever feel like he has to eradicate his African American-ness, his Trinidadian roots or his Muslim heritage in order to homogenize—to assimilate—with people pursuing “this great American Dream.”

Individuals’ differences are what make this country interesting. I have long been more fond of the idea of a stew pot, that maintains individual flavors and allows each ingredient to contribute to the taste of the total dish, than “the melting pot.” I thought that this view would have caught on by now. After hearing from Ehrlich and President Obama, I’m beginning to wonder, though, if post-racialism—the state this country’s supposed to be in—is simply the end result of decades of assimilation.