Slavery, Africa and What Obama Can Teach

This history and black-studies expert says the president will make us re-evaluate our old stories.

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Ibrahim Sundiata (Brandeis University)

(The Root) -- Professor Ibrahim Sundiata pays close attention to how African Americans think and talk about our history in the United States and about Africa itself.

Something he hears frequently: that the particular form of slavery that brought our ancestors to the United States was uniquely evil, violent and sexualized. Something else: that Africa, the "mother continent," is unified by common cultural threads and belongs on a romanticized pedestal.

But Sundiata, who teaches history and Afro-American studies Brandeis University and has written a number of books on those topics, says that these oversimplified narratives aren't accurate and, in fact, don't serve us well in 2012.

In Not Out of Dixie: Obama and the American Identity Crisis, his forthcoming book about President Obama's effect on the African-American psyche, Sundiata says he'll argue that the stories we tell ourselves about history and identity are crying out for context and a dose of reality. He predicts that the complicated past and tense political present of our first black president will make us question whether the familiar characterization of slavery is actually all that important to African-American identity. Finally, he says we'll begin to re-evaluate how we see modern-day Africa (first lesson: that it is a continent, not a country) and, hopefully, accept its complexity.

"Traditionally we've been embedded in the Dixie story of slavery as well as a romantic and oversimplified story of Africa, and now we're moving beyond that, and Obama is a sign of our movement," Sundiata told The Root.

In Equatorial Guinea, a country that he has studied extensively, we caught up with him to talk about his observations of black Americans in Africa, how what he calls the "old Dixie narrative" does us a disservice and why President Obama's definition of his identity might change all of that.

The Root: Tell me about your book and what it says about President Obama's impact on African-American identity.

Ibrahim Sundiata: It's a book about the continuation of race and color in America. I argue that Obama is a firewall against the disaggregation -- or separation -- of African-American identity.

TR: How does that work?

IS: The very fact that he chooses to identify as an African American -- he says he's a black man of mixed heritage -- is empowering because he recognizes and embraces all parts of himself. In doing so, he's not at all postracial. And that's a good thing. The book talks about how black identity in North American arose in slavery and is defined by rules written in slavery. Those oppressive rules today occasionally work in the maintenance of our solidarity. So I think it's good that he defines himself as African American, but in a way that's variant.