Monday’s release of a photo showing Barack Obama dressed as a Somali elder during his 2006 visit to northeastern Kenya was not just cynical, cowardly and out-of-bounds, it was also deeply ironic.
After all, it is Black History Month. During February, PBS featured the special African American Lives II. The show, hosted by The Root Executive Editor Henry Louis Gates Jr., accompanied famous black Americans on their own genealogical expeditions. People like Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Tom Joyner and Maya Angelou were brought to tears as they learned the long forgotten stories of their families. Black Americans tuned in to watch the poignant discoveries because many of us yearn to uncover our own buried pasts. We want to know from whence we came and to whom we belong.
Despite puzzling questions from some blacks about whether or not Barack is “black enough,” he speaks to this desire in us to understand our roots because he knows his story. He can return to the land of his father and siblings. He can join in the ancient rituals. He can don the traditional clothing. Obama, like many of us, is still unalterably American. His story is as rooted in Kansas as it is in Kenya. But he has easy access to both. He can draw from the deep wells of both his mother’s hopes and his father’s dreams.
The social death of slavery has cut off many black Americans from our ancestral narratives. During Black History Month we adopt our collective accomplishments and our common heroes as a salve against our lost personal stories. This is critically important, but there is something special about naming your own ancestors and encountering yourself in their reflections.
Yet here in Black History Month, Obama’s own black history is being used as a weapon against him. President Bush can traipse around the motherland safely encased in his armor of whiteness. No one can mistake him for a “native”. His role is simply to dispatch the White Man’s Burden with billions in abstinence-based HIV/AIDS programs and malaria-fighting mosquito netting. In a single photo, Barack can be painted as indelibly tied to a deep and mysterious, exotic and dangerous Dark Continent that produced the shame of slavery and the fear of Islamic radicalism.
Obama is vulnerable. This is the assassination that we should fear, because the Secret Service cannot protect him from it. The voters of Ohio and Texas will have to be the armored vest against these attacks. South Carolina voters soundly repudiated the Clintons for their race-baiting strategies. I believe that Ohio and Texas voters will ignore this revival of fear-based politics and embrace a new direction for American elections.
If they look carefully, these voters will not see the “scary Muslim” that this photo is supposed to evoke. They will see themselves. If they look carefully, they will see their own uniquely American stories that are tied to distant lands whose rituals they still honor and whose languages they still speak. If they look carefully, Americans will see themselves in kilts, saris, and sombreros. If they look carefully, Americans will see the way to throw off narrow, bigoted fear-mongering politics and build an expansive, hopeful patriotism that embraces the world even as it strengthens America.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.