Mixed-blood, like me

I have been trying to pinpoint what it is about Obama that strikes a chord with me. Many Clinton supporters have accused Obama-ites of not being politically astute and of supporting a candidate based on feel-good rhetoric and not the experience that the candidate brings to the presidency. For me, this does not address the Clintons' past betrayals of my political support. I saw then-President Clinton sign NAFTA, put welfare mothers to work, support "don't ask, don't tell", and become embroiled in Republican mud-slinging (mostly self-inflicted, I mean come on a thong!) that brought the Clinton administration to a stand-still for nearly two years.

On top of this, in 1996 President Clinton signed the Relocation Bill that evicted traditional Navajo families (including some of my relatives) living at Big Mountain, Arizona from their land to strip mine the coal that lies just under the surface. Strip mining is so environmentally destructive that the land is not inhabitable for several generations. The bill proposed relocating these traditional Dineh to the site of the United States' largest radiation spill called--in an Orwellian touch--"New Lands". I have no faith that things have changed. In the past several years, Senator Clinton has stood by and supported the Bush administration march to war. I believe her vote on the war was a politically pragmatic decision made to pander to the Republican base--with little or no concern for me or other concerned Democrats who opposed it.

But my interest in Obama is not simply a by-product of my distrust of the Clintons' political choices. I began to realize that it is after all the candidates' very attitudes towards public service that lead me to favor Obama . If elected, Obama, born in 1961, will be the first person from my generation to be elected to the Presidency. 1960 is considered the beginning of Generation X, which corresponds with the bottoming out of the birthrate that occurred between 1960-1980. Obama's election would mark the end of the Boomer generation's hold on political leadership and the passing of that mantle onto my own. I was born in the middle of the spread of years that define Generation X, but I recognize in Obama some of the approaches to race and identity that are the marks of a mixed-blood person born in the era following the Civil Rights movement. There has been much discussion about President Clinton's racist postcard that he sent to his grandmother in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. I see this card sent by law student Clinton to his grandmother in the deep South strikes as predictive of his political career to come. He was willing to bend to the expected social mores that may have been common at the time (I don't know, I was not alive then) but his actions are lacking in personal integrity and choice of someone coming of age in the midst of change.

I recently read a great article on Salon.com written by Gary Kamiya called "Bi-racial, but not like me" on the subject. Kamiya's analysis of his support for Obama is the best I've read on the subject. He quotes from Obama's autobiography "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance":

One of those transformative moments comes during Obama's undergraduate days, after he had given a well-received speech urging the university to divest from South Africa. A black friend, Regina, praised his talk, but Obama cynically denied that it had any meaning, saying he just did it for the applause and that it wouldn't change anything. Regina retorted that he was selfish and shallow -- "It's not just about you" -- and angrily left. Left alone, Obama suddenly realized she was right. His mother had told him the same thing, but he had rejected it, putting it down as "white" truths. "Who told you that being honest was a white thing? ... You've lost your way, brother. Your ideas about yourself -- about who you are and who you might become -- have grown stunted and narrow and small.

"How had that happened? I started to ask myself, but before the question had even formed in my mind, I already knew the answer. Fear ... The constant, crippling fear that I didn't belong somehow ... that I would always remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment."

Then Obama modulates into something like a vision, at once real and transcendent. He imagines the face of Regina's grandmother, "her back bent, the flesh of her arms shaking as she scrubs an endless floor. Slowly, the old woman lifted her head to look straight at me, and in her sagging face I saw that what bound us together went beyond anger or despair or pity. What was she asking of me, then? Determination, mostly. The determination to push ahead against whatever power kept her stooped instead of standing straight."

And then, an even larger vision. "The old woman's face dissolved from my mind, only to be replaced by a series of others. The copper-skinned face of the Mexican maid, straining as she carries out the garbage. The face of Lolo's mother [Lolo was Obama's Indonesian stepfather] drawn with grief as she watches the Dutch burn down her house. The tight-lipped, chalk-colored face of Toots [Obama's white grandmother] as she boards the six-thirty bus that will take her to work. Only a lack of imagination, a failure of nerve, had made me think that I had to choose between them. They all asked the same thing of me, all these grandmothers of mine."

Finally, the lesson, to be carried forward: "My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn't, couldn't, end there. At least that's what I would choose to believe." Through a long and arduous search for blackness, Obama arrived at humanity.

In a certain way, Obama's odyssey in "Dreams From My Father" mirrors that of the boy hero of the greatest novel America has produced -- a book that is also about race, and the terrible wound that slavery left on this country and all its people. Huck Finn has been abandoned by his father, a bitter, drunken racist, and has to make his way through the world alone. But actually, he is not alone: a fugitive, he drifts down the Mississippi River, the river that runs through America's heart, with Jim, a runaway slave. And in the course of their journey, the wise and kindly Jim becomes Huck's father -- and, by implication, the father of every American. The pathos of Twain's masterpiece is it redeems our nation's dark history by allowing the despised slave to raise, and ultimately teach the meaning of life to, the lost and innocent boy.

Obama's quest is identical, except the colors are reversed. In search of an absent black father, he tries to become authentically black. And it is only when he learns that his father is all too human that he finally comes to understand that he is the child of both black and white, and ultimately of everyone, of all colors. "All these grandmothers of mine."

The man who emerges from this book has the integrity, the wisdom, the "dogged strength," to fight for a reborn America. And he also represents something larger than himself: He embodies hope. But that hope will only become real if the American people make it real. For hope is just a vessel. You have to fill it.

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