Friday, August 1, 2008

#40 Obama and Me

No...never met him, but there are some socio-politico-geographico-anthropologico-educational connections that you may find interesting...or not. As I mentioned in last post, there's the Chicago connection, which runs deep, if not inter-personally so. Here's how it works. After being kidnapped by my own mother and father from my toddlin' town (I was two-ish) in our native Georgia, USA, I was rudely transported (I had to leave my pet chickens) to another toddlin' town a.k.a. Chicago, USA, just blocks away from Hyde Park central and the University of Chicago--Barack Obama's latter-day living and husting-grounds. Soon-to-be-Dr. J.D. Senior had gotten a graduate scholarship of some sort at U of C's Divinity School. Obama was to end up there as long-term Lecturer in the School of Law after his degree at Harvard, where he entered just a year after I did a post-doc N.E.H. Summer Seminar there, and where we both met...Kevin Bacon. But getting back to Chi-town, we settled in what was called the South Shore (and even more pin-pointedly, the South Shore "Gardens" section of the South Shore--Chicago has been accurately called a City of Villages), which would become part of Obama's Illinois-state-legislative district, and in turn the launching ground for his elective-office career.

In my early years, these residential areas of Chicago were truly garden-like: classy two-story bungalow-type homes, upscale three-and-six-flat apartments (where we first lived), lovely parks and schools, and only a bike-ride (see earlier post) from beautiful Lake Michigan beaches. And totally de facto SEGREGATED. (Before "white flight," blacks populated areas for-the-most-part north and west of the Hyde Park hub; now, virtually all of the south-side.) In fact, I was present on THE VERY DAY that the very first sit-down protest was held (one summer Saturday in '55 or '56--I'd have to research the exact date, which I'm sure Obama would know) at Rainbow Beach, 75th St. south and lake-front. (I have no doubt that these were inspired/sponsored by the liberal folk up the road in the integrated U of C/Hyde Park neighborhood--folk he would join later on his road to the White House.) We were just kids, and watched in wonder from the sidelines while, as I remember it, some of Chicago's Finest engaged in pleasant conversation with the young black couples in attendance. Brave folks. But this WAS the beginning: every single Saturday that summer they were back there, and subsequently sitting-in at every shoreline beach and park in Chicagoland, until all were integrated. It would have done Obama proud, if he had been born yet.

That would happen somewhat later near another lovely, fully-integregated, newly-American beachfront property called HAWAII. And, as you are doubtless aware, this is one reason that some of his detractors, black and white, say he isn't really "black enough." That, along with the fact of his mixed parentage, Kenyan (unlinked-to-American-slavery-heritage) father, virtually "foreign" and fairly privileged upbringing, etc. Well...eyewash to all that. I'm reminded of a great Chris Rock line from a stand-up performance that goes something like this: "I'm black...but I'm also RICH. I can get almost anything money can buy for me and my family--homes, yachts, travel, you name it. But not a single one of you white men in this audience would trade places with me, would you." And he's right: the built-in burden of blackdom in America is just too daunting for even the bravest among us, unless we're born to it. All this is nothing new, and I wouldn't harp on it, if it didn't touch me personally in another way. You see, Obama in the strictest sense is NOT BLACK at all...more of a bronze, or burnished-brown coppery color, if you will. Much like my 4th son, who, coincidentally, bears a vague resemblance to the Presidential candidate. They both are from mixed parentage. One male, one female...(drum riff). No, from mixed African and Caucasion stock, but with the parental genders switched. My son is more white than black genetically, however, and thus most accurately and ironically reflects America's tragic slave-holding past: he was born with blue eyes, though they're getting darker-greener with age.... Understand? (If not, go back to your Mendel.) He and Obama are truly African-American in a way that transcends the political/nationalistic sense of the term in current usage. They're not black or white, but BI-racial, MULTI-racial, not one or the other. So why should they have to CHOOSE between one or the other? One CULTURE over another? I don't know. Well, maybe I do. We just haven't quite GOT it yet. Globalization has to start at home.

Not so very long ago, Obama and my son would have been called--yes--mulattos, and NOT ONLY by white society. It's that "one drop [of blood] theory" that was actually de jure (Jim Crow laws) in the South and pretty much de facto everywhere else in America. (And, by the way, unforgettably dramatized in a tragi-comic paint-bucket episode in Ralph Ellison's novel, Invisible Man.) Thus beginning at half-breed and then on a sliding scale from black to white, but never quite, you had the verbal monstrosities of quadroon, octoroon ("high yaller"), even unto hexadecaroon--all, however, translated "Negro." "Zero tolerance," as it were. I'm afraid this artificial racial divide is still with us. Why has Obama lagged behind (by almost 20 points) the popular approval of the Democratic party as a whole in this election year? Maybe I've already answered that question. More of this later.

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