Barack Is Not Spock

The president is not some exotic alien. He's just black.

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Barack is not Spock. I’ve heard so much rhapsodizing recently about the obvious kinship of the “mixed-race” marvels that I had to set the record straight. I saw “Star Trek” last weekend. Good film, but when the Vulcan commander strolled across the bridge of the Enterprise, I was not reminded of the president. Others have made that bold leap of seeing one man in the other. After all, both are calm, hybrid products of two worlds and overall cool dudes. What’s the harm in making that leap?

I think it promulgates a pernicious idea I’ve seen and heard since Obama hit the world stage: the need to put him on a pedestal of difference. He became an exotic creature, different from other black folks, somehow more acceptable because of his unusual life experience. The notion of Barack as Spock keeps him at a distance. He has always been “other”—and now, some would suggest, he is an actual alien.

This line of reasoning, though, is based on a faulty premise. That he had a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, that he was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, that he attended Columbia University and Harvard Law set him apart from most people—not just black people.

Saying that his love of education and his calm manner came in part because he was raised by whites is pretty insulting, and—by the way—ignores his cultured and educated wife, who was raised by black parents on the South Side of Chicago.

President Obama is a man with one black parent and one white parent who self-identifies as black. So do a lot of other Americans. (So, in the interest of full disclosure, does my son, who is proud of every part of his heritage.)

I realize that many of the folks who focus on his otherness mean it as a compliment. But at times an insinuation creeps in, that Obama is not like those purely black people, immersed in their black culture and black ways. In America, influences in art, music, food, literature, science—you name it—have been as mixed as the people who live here. Pure anything is not the way it works.

Now, I think anybody can choose his or her identity. During the campaign, when angry callers asked why I called Obama black, I answered, “Because he does.” It’s not that simple, though. The night before the presidential election, when he stood on a stage at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and spoke of his grandmother—his white grandmother—who had just died, and cried for all she represented to him, no one could ever say he was denying anything about her.

While I hate to call anyone out, I was taking all the Obama-Spock comparisons in stride until I read a phrase in a Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times. Her take on our Vulcan-like leader described the president’s “mixed blood.” It sounded like something out of a 1940s melodrama about a tragic mulatto, a reminder of a time when donor blood was separated by race.

In “Star Trek,” the Vulcan’s blood is green. In the real world, it all flows red, no matter how mixed up it is, and that’s why Barack is not Spock, just the American president who is black. 

Mary C. Curtis is a writer and editor based in Charlotte, N.C.