Across the DivideTerrific! He's convinced Cornel West that he's black enough. Well, I'm reassured!
By Richard Wolffe and Daren Briscoe July 16, 2007
Cornel West was on fire. Bobbing in his chair, his hands sweeping across the stage, the brilliant and bombastic scholar was lambasting Barack Obama's campaign. Before a black audience, at an event outside Atlanta called the State of the Black Union, West was questioning why Obama was 600 miles away, announcing his bid for the White House in Springfield, Ill. Did he really care about black voters? What did that say about his willingness to stand up for what he believes?
"He's got large numbers of white brothers and sisters who have fears and anxieties and concerns, and he's got to speak to them in such a way that he holds us at arm's length," West said, pushing his hand out for emphasis. "So he's walking this tightrope." West challenged the candidate to answer a stark set of questions: "I want to know how deep is your love for the people, what kind of courage have you manifested in the stances that you have and what are you willing to sacrifice for. That's the fundamental question. I don't care what color you are. You see, you can't take black people for granted just 'cause you're black."
A few days later, West was sitting in his Princeton office after class when the phone rang. It was Barack Obama. "I want to clarify some things," the candidate calmly told the professor of religion and African-American studies. Over the next two hours, Obama explained his Illinois state Senate record on criminal justice and affordable health care. West asked Obama how he understood the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and interrogated him about a single phrase in Obama's 2004 Democratic-convention speech: that America was "a magical place" for his Kenyan father. "That's a Christopher Columbus experience," West said. "It's hard for someone who came out of slavery and Jim Crow to call it a magical place. You have to be true to yourself, but I have to be true to myself as well." A few weeks later, the two men met in a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel to chat about Obama's campaign staff. Just a month after ripping into him onstage, West endorsed Obama and signed up as an unpaid adviser.
West may have come around, but he raised one of the most potentâ€”and controversialâ€”questions facing the candidate: is he black enough? It's one that has long dogged Barack Obama's career, though he says he settled his own struggle with racial identity (as the son of an African father and white, Kansan mother) in his late teens. ...The preppie from paradise had to prove to his future wife that he was ideologically black enough to get her to marry him:
Obama himself dismisses the idea. At the end of a NEWSWEEK interview in his Senate office, Obama offered an unprompted statement about "post-racial" politics: "That term I reject because it implies that somehow my campaign represents an easy shortcut to racial reconciliation. I just want to be very clear on this so there's no confusion. We're going to have a lot of work to do to overcome the long legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. It can't be purchased on the cheap." Obama was dismayed by the Supreme Court's recent decision against public schools that pursue diversity by taking account of students' race.
When the two first met at the law firm, Michelle was his reluctant mentor for the summer. She remembers rave reports that circulated around the office before she joined him for lunch the first time. "Yeah, he's probably a black guy who can talk straight," she recalls saying to herself. "This is a black guy who's biracial who grew up in Hawaii? He's got to be weird." Afterward, she realized she may have misjudged Obama. But it was only later that summer, when he took her to a church basement on the South Side, that she fell for him. He gave an inspiring speech about "the world as it is, and the world as it should be." Three years later, they married. Michelle had to work through her early misperceptions about him; now, she says, the nation needs to do the same. " ...A black legislator in Springfield challenged Obama:
"He was questioning Senator Obama's toughness and, frankly, his blackness, as to whether Barack really understood what it was like to be a teenage African-American standing on a street corner in Chicago and being harassed by police officers," recalls Dillard. Obama stood his ground, evoking his childhood in tough neighborhoods of Honolulu ..."No comment.
"Sometimes, the middle ground doesn't hold between black and white, and Obama's innate sense of caution and compromise can look like weakness. Just before his big announcement outside the old state capitol in Springfieldâ€”where Lincoln delivered his "house divided" speechâ€”Obama abruptly changed plans and asked his pastor not to deliver the invocation prayer. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is the man who gave Obama not just spiritual direction, but also his signature phrase, which became the title of one of his books, "The Audacity of Hope." But in the days before Obama officially launched his campaign, Wright was also caricatured as a "radical" for his Afrocentrism and his focus on black issuesâ€”a strange criticism, perhaps, of a preacher on the South Side. (The Reverend Wright is considered mainstream among African-American church leaders; Ebony magazine once named him one of the top 15 black preachers in America.)"The Rev. Wright may be considered mainstream among African-American church leaders, but he's not mainstream among Americans. As he said recently, "When [Obama's] enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli [in Libya]" to visit Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Mr. Wright recalled, "with [Black Muslim leader Louis] Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell."
It's a commonplace in history for somebody of a mixed or marginal ethnic background to try to be more ethnocentric than thou, whether out of compensation or genuine enthusiasm: Napoleon, Eamon de Valera, and Stalin (from 1941 onward) are obvious examples. Similarly, Obama wrote a 442 page book about how his not being all that African-American by heredity and upbringing made him self-obsessed with being black.
To the Man from Mars, this article would make sense if Obama was running to succeed Jesse Jackson as the Uncrowned King of Black America. But, last I checked, he's running to be President of the United States. To the average American voter, the news that Obama has relentlessly managed to prove to black activists such as Dr. West, the Rev. Wright, and Mrs. Obama that he's black enough via his staunch political commitment to their cause might not be as reassuring as the article assumes.
But you won't see that in Newsweek.