Monday, November 03, 2008

Auntie Zeituni and Obama’s African Burden

I was still digesting the news of Obama’s Auntie Zeituni, living in the US illegally since 2004, when the doorbell rang. It was after 5pm on Saturday afternoon, and I wasn’t expecting anybody on a cold November day at the onset of the Michigan winter. I went to see who it was, and was greeted by a tall elderly man, in a baseball cap. “I support Obama,” he announced, “and I am here to ask you to vote for him on Tuesday. Are you registered to vote?” We talked a little bit, before I thanked him and wished him good luck in his efforts.

My mind went back to Auntie Zeituni, whom I first encountered on the pages of Obama’s first autobiography, Dreams From My Father. It struck me as quite intriguing that an auntie, a blood relation of the person widely expected to become the next president of the United States of America, was an illegal immigrant in the very country her nephew was poised to be the most powerful person. If the information was indeed leaked, as was suggested by Congressman John Conyers, chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary, what specific damage to Obama was the leak supposed to inflict? That Obama was keeping an illegal immigrant? That Obama had relatives who were not ‘American’? Or that Obama was indeed not “one of us,” as had been not-so-subtly suggested during the campaign?

Obama’s presidential campaign has taught a lot of us some really important, if not paradoxical, lessons about American politics. Clearly, something has moved in the galaxy as far as race relations are concerned since the civil rights era. At the same time, clearly very little has changed inasfar as the associations many Americans make with the continent of Africa and African people. And Obama has been perceptive enough to know how to keep his distance from that continent throughout the campaign. How does one explain that paradox? Even commentators and news analysts, especially in Kenya where Obama has blood ties, have been cautious, warning that Obama is first and foremost an American, and not an African.

While Obama was movingly sanguine about Kenya and Africa in his first autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he was much less so in the second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope. But even then, he did not hesitate to inform his readers about the global face that his extended family represents. He wrote:

As the child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and a niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe (p. 231).

On a March 17, 2008, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote of Obama’s global profile: “If elected, Obama would be the first genuinely 21st-century leader. The China-Indonesia-Kenya-Britain-Hawaii web mirrors a world in flux.” At the time, one would have imagined that cosmopolitan aspect of Obama’s biography to have been an attractive trait of an American presidential candidate. It clearly hasn’t been; if anything, it has been one more potential bomb waiting to explode and sink Obama’s campaign.

A few days after that column’s publication in the New York Times, which was also a few days after Obama’s much-praised speech on race in America, I sat on a plane from Johannesburg to Amsterdam. I had picked up a number of newspapers to read about Obama’s speech, and had downloaded the video of the speech whilst in the field in a remote, rural part of Malawi. The gentleman next to me introduced himself, and we got talking. I asked if he had heard of Obama’s speech, and he said he hadn’t. He hadn’t used the Internet for two weeks, he said, during which time he had been doing missionary work in rural parts of South Africa. His two teenage daughters had accompanied him on the trip to bring the Christian gospel to black South Africans and help them build a church. He also confessed that he did not vote Democrat, and therefore did not have much interest in a Democratic presidential candidate anyway.

He went on to tell me that he did not understand where all the talk about racism in the US came from; if Black Americans didn’t work hard enough to uplift themselves, they should really not blame racism for holding them down. He pointed to his daughters as evidence that there was no racism in the United States: “those two daughters of mine, they don’t know what racism is. They have friends of all races.” His words left me fearing for what was really going on in latter-day missionary endeavors in Africa. I didn’t know whether his daughters’ lack of awareness of racism was the same thing as an absence of racism in the United States, which seemed to be his conclusion. Were young Americans today less racist because racism was dying in America, or was it rather because its existence was being denied strongly enough, as it had always been, that young Americans were being shielded from its existence?

How about the arrests of the two neo-Nazi youths in Tennessee recently who had mounted a plan to steal guns and use them to massacre African American students, culminating, according to the plot, in an assassination of Obama himself? After initially dismissing the story as another insignificant episode in what was probably a one-off prank, I later learned from a National Public Radio interview that in fact there was increasing agitation amongst white supremacist groups who believe that the election of Obama would force Armageddon. His election to the presidency will be the ultimate threat to white power, said a former white supremacist during the radio interview, which will galvanize all white supremacists to act, rise up and retake the country.

In February 2007 Morris Dees, Co-Founder and Chief Trial Counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), spoke at a University of Michigan social justice forum, in Ann Arbor, about the proliferation of hate groups in the United States. He said hate groups had increased by 30 percent between 2002 and 2007. He said immigration was the biggest motivator for the proliferation. Hearing Mr. Dees describe how the SPLC uses a criminal justice approach to dealing with hate crime in the United States, it led me to wonder what that really entails. Is it possible to end hate by mere recourse to law and criminal justice? Does this approach challenge racism and bigotry, transforming people into love-filled individuals who embrace and appreciate racial, ethnic, religious and gender diversity?

I ask these questions because I do think that there’s a role for the criminal justice and corrections system, but there’s also a far greater need for long-term, transformative change beyond corrections. I am not sure that the law is enough without a personal effort to transform oneself and rid oneself of hate and bigotry. As one student told our class recently, there’s a whole family and community structure where such vices are bred and cultivated. Clearly there are many young people who indeed embrace love and an appreciation for diversity, who are also aware of the real and practical existence of racism and its consequences locally and globally. But there are also those whose belief in diversity has been more a result of the denials of the existence of racism than a true transformation and awareness.

Coming back to Aunt Zeituni, the entire question about her having been served with deportation orders four years ago speaks to the hierarchical ladder the fabrication of races has manifested. In the documentary Life and Debt about the effects of IMF’s structural adjustment policies on Third World economies, by Stephanie Black, there’s a contrast made about what it takes for an American to enter Jamaica, and what it takes for a Jamaican to enter the US. For the former, it is a mere driver’s license at the port of entry. For the latter, as with most Third World people around the world, it is a herculean, heart-rending process that stretches for months. Several thousands of visa applications get rejected every single day, each of them having paid the equivalent of a non-refundable US$100. The inside of the embassy itself is a place that reduces one to fear and humiliation, requiring one to prove one’s humanity before one is considered worthy of entry.

Obviously there's a good argument to be made about the impossibility of granting a visa to each and every applicant, given the enormity of the numbers of people who want to come to the United States of America. However, the whole atmosphere attached to the process and to some inexplicable visa denials can be filled with dread and heartache for some.

Still, something has moved at a galactic level, and a lot of people around the world are filled with undeniable greater hope and admiration for the United States of America. The burden for the kind of change the world is anticipating ought not to be carried by Obama alone, if at all. As Dr. Makau Mutua, Dean and Professor of Law at State University of New York at Buffalo wrote in June 2008, the US presidency is very different from the African presidency, and most other presidencies for that matter. If elected, Obama’s constituency will be the numerous interest groups who wield influence in US domestic and foreign policy. Obama may personally understand the importance of changing the image of Africa and Africans in the eyes of Americans, but it will have to be a slow, gradual, deliberate process, or else it may merely provoke unintended consequences. And in the meantime, Aunt Zeituni has to accept her place in the hierarchy, follow the law, and return to Kenya.