Slavery, Africa and What Obama Can Teach

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

Ibrahim Sundiata (Brandeis University)

I was once traveling with a group in Ghana, and we visited the Cape Coast Castle. I was with a multiracial group of scholars, and I could hear that the tour we were getting was very different from the one being given to an Afrocentric African-American group, in terms of emphasis and blame and emotion. It demonstrated how we become and remain invested in different narratives. The guides seemed to gauge the various groups and tailor the tours to the stories they wanted to hear.

TR: What does President Obama have to do with changing perceptions of Africa?

IS: Obama said something like this once: We have an image of Africa, and that image cools in Africa’s embrace. He talked about being a young man and going to Kenya, and how distance promotes romanticism. And how the arrival doesn’t kill the love of Africa — not at all — but it certainly kills the romanticism. When he went to Kenya, he went back to where his father came from, and he did realize all the language and cultural differences and nuances because he understood that his father was not just from Kenya, he was Luo.

I’m using him as an example of learning. He still talks about Africa and loves Africa, but he’s not unaware of African ethnicity and variations among African experiences. Therefore, Obama is capable of doing things like praising African democracy ad criticizing African dictatorships.

I think that perspective, over time, will force African Americans to grapple with the complexity of Africa. He’s sent forces to Uganda. There are bases in Djibouti. When the president helped or supported removing [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi, [Louis] Farrakhan said, “Who the hell do you think you are? He’s an African leader.”

As time goes on, there will be other occasions that will make people say, he’s taking out black leaders. But is simply being black enough? Is simply being African enough?

TR: What are three things about the United States and Africa that you want African Americans to begin to think about in the age of Obama?

IS: African Americans built the antebellum U.S. with their blood and sweat. People think slavery was just a sexualized narrative — you know, white people were just mean, and there was all this raping and sex. No, they weren’t just mean; it was production. They didn’t just wake up and beat people for fun. It was business, and we did the work.

Second, we are far from postracial.

Third, because Obama operates and has to interact with the real Africa, we’re going to have to be much more critical, even as we love the mother continent.