The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, December 11, 2006

Barack Obama And Cultural Software

The following essay was broadcast on NPR today:

In the October 23rd edition of  Time magazine,  the furor around first-time senator Barack Obama is compared to that surrounding Colin Powell in 1995. 

I wondered: Is there some   reason why   Powell and Obama, arguably the most respected black men in America, trigger such reactions in  audiences of all races, and even across ideological lines?

One fact jumps out:  Powell’s father was a Jamaican immigrant, Obama’s a Kenyan student.  Neither, in other words, were the products of American slavery.

  I’ve always felt that black Americans, while materially wealthy in comparison to   African or   Caribbean blacks, are in certain other senses impoverished.   We lack our original names,    and have no sense of our tribes, cultures, languages or mythologies in a way possible for  any white or Asian child of immigrants.

Obama’s father could trace his family back a thousand years, to a time before colonialization.  With such a lineage, one can dream of freedom, power and opportunity.  Standing on his father’s shoulders, Obama can see all the way to the White House.

He was born in Hawaii.   His parents divorced when he was two, and four years later his mother  moved the family to Jakarta for four years before returning to Honolulu.  In other words, he was surrounded by a truly  multicultural society, and came to understand this as a natural, healthy thing.

With a certain amount of grief, I compare this to my own childhood, growing up in the 50’s and 60’s in Los Angeles:  every President looked like the men who once owned my family.  As well as almost everyone I saw on television or in film.   The faces on every piece of money I ever had in my pocket.     Every governor of every state.   When I opened the dictionary, one of the synonyms for “dark” or “black” was “evil.”

It hurt.  It still hurts.

It is my belief that the major difference between blacks and whites in America is their software rather than their hardware.

Obama grew up running the kind of “software” that says: “I can be anything,” and that core self-confidence and self-love reflects back   to the outside world. It allows him to touch hands and lock eyes, and honestly say: “we are marching together toward a common destiny” rather than “you hurt me.” It allows others to look at him asking: “what can we create together?”, rather than   “do you hate me? Do you blame me?”

It is exactly the gift I pray to give my own son.

Race may be the greatest open wound in the American character.  I believe that good people of all colors hunger to find a bridge   between black and white, left and right, America’s unfortunate past and her potentially glorious future.  In some very significant ways, Obama is America’s first 21st Century politician.

Of course,  potential and actuality are two very different things.  Obama is   new to the political scene, and   yet to make the kinds of public errors  that rub the luster from a popular hero.  Only time will tell.  But for this moment in history,  at this time of national division, to many people he represents   healing.  And perhaps even more: he represents the American Dream itself.

No comments: