Slavery, Africa and What Obama Can Teach

Ibrahim Sundiata (Brandeis University)
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.


It's mentioned often that Obama is a son of Africa. Well, he's also a son of the African Diaspora and was raised by Anglo-Saxon people. He accepts himself as African American but makes us realize that he's multiple; therefore we realize that we as African Americans contain multiple colors and multiple cultures. Africa itself is multiples. 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.

TR: What's the "old Dixie" narrative?

IS: It's a fixed narrative which informs our politics, our view of the past, our view of the future, which is that slavery was driven by innate racial hatred, not economic greed; that the majority of slaves went to the United States and grew cotton; that slavery was the first form of psychosexual torture in the universe. Toni Morrison said something like, while the Holocaust was 6 million, the numbers immolated in the Middle Passage run to 60 million and more. That's the narrative, and it's basically ahistorical. Really, the numbers were more like 15 million; most slaves went to Brazil; and most produced sugar, not cotton. 


At the time of the American Civil War, there were 4 million African-American slaves and over 20 million serfs in Russia. People are very attached to the old Dixie narrative, though. When, for example, Skip [The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr.] talked about Africans trading Africans, there was a huge reaction because it disturbed one part of that narrative.

TR: So maybe our narrative isn't 100 percent accurate, but if African Americans characterize slavery it in a way that's "ahistorical," either in terms of motivation, numbers or context, what's the actual harm?


IS: When other human rights abuses occur, including present-day slavery, the people who talk most about it tend not to be African Americans. For us [African Americans], it ended in 1865, and then there was lynching and Jim Crow. That's it. That's our story. So when I mention slavery in places like Thailand, Mauritania, Brazil and Mali, the response I often get is, "I don't know about that." In some cases people don't want to know. There's a sense that it may deflect interest in our own continuing struggle, but in fact it leaves us out of an important conversation.

TR: In your experience, what are some African-American misperceptions about contemporary Africa?


IS: That it's a country, not a continent — meaning that the individual peculiarities are molded into the larger narrative. So people will say there's no big difference between Botswana and Equatorial Guinea. In a sense, it's all one Africa to many people. There was this one African-American woman I met at a conference who said, "Anywhere I go, I'm at home in Africa." She had been living in a West African country and invented an exaggerated kind of West African dress.

I asked what language she spoke, and she said, "What? I'm not learning any local language." It was clear that when she went to an African country, she went to "Africa" — she wasn't thinking with any nuance about the difference between going to country A, B and C.


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.  


Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.