The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Obama, Powell, and controversy

My thoughts that the non-American parantage of Barack Obama and Colin Powell might have influenced their emotional health has triggered some strong responses.  I would have thought my position was clear on this stuff: I consider slavery and its aftermath to have been the equivilent of 30 years of torture and abuse.  Take that person at age 40, and I doubt you have someone at the top of their game.  Still, all I was doing was musing on the respect and admiration afforded these two men, one of whom might one day become a serious presidential contender.

But here were some of the responses, and my answers:

“Just because Obama is black should not automatically trigger any guilt in white voters, unless the white voters have some reason to be guilty.”

Based upon history, there is incredible violence and pain in the relationship of black and white Americans.  And guilt is a common byproduct of being reminded of this.  My experience suggests that those with the least actual reasons to feel guilty are often the ones who feel it the most.

“"Yes, but the black-white thing goes very deep, and poisons things quite separate from the usual human issues."

So, issues of interest to black voters are not "human"?”
Neither are “male” or “female” issues.  We’re talking about a sub-set of the whole.
“Are you also saying that since Obama was not born of a black American woman, he would not rate as being of any value as a potential candidate for the office of president? Only as a son of an African can he have any intrinsic worth and value as a candidate for the highest office in the executive branch?”

You’re exaggerating for effect.  I point out that Obama and Powell, both with fathers from outside America, come from different emotional positions than the typical American black, and that that might be partially responsible for their popularity. 

“Are you saying that white people are so full of evil and hate that they cannot look past a black man/black woman-born child in America, who grows up to run for the office of president as something that is anathema to most whites of this country?”

Heck no!  They’re no better or worse than black folks. But Obama completely avoids the “descended from slaves”  position that I believe hurts black Americans terribly.  There is fear wired into our marrow, and fear often manifests as anger.  Few people, white or black, want to deal with angry people.

“Are you implying that native born black Americans are not worthy of being president of the US, only those whose parentage is not considered "black American"?”
I can only hope you’re kidding.  But in case you’re not, every additional damage is more weight for the psyche to lift.  I speculate that the advantage of fathers unscarred by America’s “peculiar institution” might have had special gifts to offer their sons.


Are black and white Americans so full of "poison" that there is no way they can work together on "issues" which affect ALL Americans: healthcare, crime, decent housing for the indigent, over-taxation and under-representation, the fight to find a cure for HIV/AIDS?”

I’d say that the legacy of slavery has poisoned the dialogue on a vast swath of issues.

If Powell's father was Jamaican, wouldn't there also probably have been a slave background? Or was slavery less culturally destructive in the Caribbean?”

I think Caribbean slavery was less culturally destructive, yes—in the sense that post-slavery, the ex-slaves were more able to create a culture of their own. Also, slaves in the Caribbean were (I believe) primarily under British or French rule, which means that they did not inherit the legacy of the American Civil War.  That insanely violent legacy, and the Jim Crow and segregation that followed, created a variety of negative responses, including insane amounts of denial and anger from Southern whites.

Blacks I’ve met from the Caribbean simply seem to have a deeper sense of themselves as human beings.  Not as deep as Africans, but certainly deeper than the average black American.

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