News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Does it matter Obama is not an heir of slavery?

Many have argued that Barack Obama is biracial, not black. Yet the label “African-American” is especially appropriate for our president-elect. Unlike most people of African descent in the United States, Mr. Obama can trace his roots directly to Africa through his Kenyan father. For most black Americans, that connection is lost in the ancestral slurry of slavery. That very fact raises another distinction between Mr. Obama and other African-Americans: He is not a descendant of slaves.

Is that significant? The question bears examination.

Few would argue slavery scars those it victimizes. The psychic trauma of being treated like chattel would wound anyone who endured it, even if some bore the burden better than others. The psychological reaction to slavery would vary widely by individual as well. Some would grow bitter and angry. Others despondent and passive. But it’s difficult to imagine anyone enduring the experience unscathed. The fact most former slaves became loyal Americans is a testament to the ideals of this nation and the hope and perseverance of the human spirit. Still, it’s clear the legacy of slavery, both internal and external, has negatively affected the African-American community to this day.

We all know the sad statistics. In almost every category of social progress—education, income, health, longevity—black Americans lag behind white Americans. There is no other reasonable explanation for this inequity except the cultural aftershocks of slavery.

Barack Obama, however, is not an heir to this legacy. How this has affected our president-elect’s character and his success in a predominantly white society is anyone’s guess. But it would be thoughtless to dismiss this difference out of hand.

What do you think?

Raul Ramos y Sanchez

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