Is Barack Obama Black? A response

Published on Saturday, November 8, 2008

Is Barack Obama Black?  A response

A.H. Jaffor Ullah

Professor Ajoy Roy, a retired pedagogue from Dhaka University , asked this question to members of Mukto-mona forum in the Internet after Barack Obama won the presidential election on November 4, 2008. He argued – Obama's mother was a 100% white woman.   Why should he be considered a Black person?    Like Prof. Ajoy Roy, many folks allover the world are now very much interested knowing more about the first African American (or Black) President of America.


If you look at the photo of Barack Obama you may think that he looks more like a Libyan, or a Somali man.  He quite does not look like a typical African person but why do American media call him the first ever Black President?  After all, his mother was 100% white.  The answer lies in the culture of America .


Tens and thousands of Africans were brought to Southern plantations of America as slaves.  These Africans were brought against their will mostly from western Africa .  As per historical documents, in 1619 a Dutch ship was the first one to land in American shore ( Jamestown , Virginia ) with 20 slaves.  The practice continued up until 1865 when slavery was formally abolished by the passage of thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


The southern colonies of America needed able-bodied persons to aid in farming, which were producing such cash crop as tobacco.  It was a very lucrative business to grow tobacco; therefore, many plantations were established in Southern states after America became independent in 1776.   The slave business grew in response to the growing demands for able-bodied farm labor.  It is a small wonder that African American people were mostly found in the southern states of America , who were essentially slaves.  Female slaves were brought in so that a new crop of slaves will be born, which will be a source of new slaves.  However, the presence of female slaves created a new problem.  The white men were sexually attracted to the young female slaves, which led to the development of a hybrid race called Mulatto.  In Louisiana where French people migrated from Canada , there they took African or American Indian women as their "pleasure girls."  The resulting hybrid people were called Creoles.


The hybrid people who were called Mullatoes or Creoles did not mingle with the white people but they remained with the African slaves.  The white Americans socially never did mingle with these folks who were collectively called the "colored people."  After the end of the Civil War (1861 to 1865) many blacks, mulattoes, and creoles moved to the northern states to get away from south where racial prejudice against them prevailed.  The northerners were relatively speaking more open-minded than the southerners.  The urban blacks that we see now in big cities in the north are the descendents of the black people who migrated from the south at the end of the Civil War.  After World War II more black people moved to cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, etc., in search of industrial jobs because the south could only offer jobs in the farmland as cotton pickers or agricultural hands.


The discrimination against the blacks continued well into early 1960s.  But the Civil Rights movement ushered in by Rev. Martin Luther King and other church ministers from Georgia , Alabama , Mississippi , etc., changed all that because both President Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were very supportive of bringing down the racial barrier and discrimination in American society. 


In 1969 when I came to America as a graduate student I saw some discrimination based on race.  The good news is that in the last 40 years the American society had changed a great deal and Blacks were getting more educated and many of them became professionals.  These educated African Americans are the bedrocks of the emerging middle class.  The Blacks also excelled in sports and entertainment industries.  Notwithstanding this social progress, social stigmas still abounds.  If a person had 20-25% black genes, he or she will still be called a black.  The presence of 70-75% white or Caucasian genes was not sufficient to make a person White or Caucasian. 

It is a fact that Barack Obama has 50% African genes due to the fact that his father was from Kenya and he has 50% Caucasian genes from his mother.  However, because of the presence of African genes he has kinky hair and dark complexion; therefore, unhesitatingly the media (read American society) calls him a black person.   Today (November 7, 2008), while watching a CNN program, I watched a video clip in which Obama was talking about having a pet dog in the White House.  He told the press that he would like to get a dog from the shelter but he said the problem is that the dog found in the shelter will be a mutt (mongrel) like him.  This self deprecating remark brought laughter in the press attending the meeting.


America is indeed a strange place.  Because of the history of slavery, the society still could not get rid of the prejudice it once had against the black people.  In my view, the racial profiling of people based on race has to end soon.  I however think that American society is headed in the right direction.  The people of this great nation have chosen Barack Obama to be their president with a big margin (53-46%).  This is a testament that the racial barriers are now coming down fast!


 Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans , USA

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