Throughout the campaign cycle, it always surprised me that Barack Obama’s blackness was taken as a given. The fact that Obama is actually biracial was frequently lost amid the understandable excitement over heralding America’s first black presidential nominee, which is strange since that very mixed-race ancestry is, to my mind, a key part of the man’s of-the-moment appeal. Far from post-racial, Obama’s heritage speaks to our country’s increased diversity and our era’s rapid globalization; his life story, hopping as it does between Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya, and Chicago, is a profound reflection of our times. The pictures of Obama with his white grandparents—widely circulated in light of his grandmother’s late-campaign health troubles—evoke a family dynamic that would be unthinkable, even illegal, in our country’s relatively recent past.
For these reasons, I felt ambiguous over the last week or so as Obama’s victory seemed more and more secure. I wondered about the accuracy of celebrating our first black president, and about the intimations of the “one-drop rule” inherent in any description of Obama as “black” in the first place. But a trio of recent articles—and the immediate, powerful moment when the electoral triumph was finally announced—have made me feel otherwise. Regardless of Obama’s genealogy, we have witnessed something historic that vindicates America’s prolonged battle for racial equality.
In her essay “Obama’s Mixology,” published in web-only paper The Root, Michele Elam correctly states that Obama may come from a mixed background, but he identifies most strongly with the black community. More so, even, than with his fellow mixed-race Americans:
As his Indonesian-Caucasian sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, noted, Obama identifies as black not because he is conscripted by the one-drop rule, but because he actively chooses it. He belongs to the black community not only because, historically, mixed people have always belonged, and because black has never been pure; he belongs also, his sister suggests, because of personal commitment and responsibility. The issue may appear moot since race is part choice, part social ascription, and Obama could not simply opt out of the race even if he woke up some morning and chose to. But it remains important that he does not bill himself as "mixed" or "other" even when it might appear politically convenient or grant him cultural glam.
For Elam, Obama’s victory is a meaningful one precisely because he has chosen to identify as black even though it might have been politically advantageous to sell himself as more benevolently multicultural.
Eugene Robinson, in his election-day editorial in The Washington Post, also takes great cultural pride in Obama’s ascendancy. Like so many black Americans who lived through the civil rights movement, Robinson’s main response is one of disbelief:
It's not that I would have calculated the odds of an African American being elected president and concluded that this was unlikely; it's that I wouldn't even have thought about such a thing. […] But an amazing thing happened. In the Iowa caucuses, white Americans voted for the black guy. That's the moment Obama was referring to when he said his faith in the American people was vindicated. For me, it was the moment when the utterly impossible became merely unlikely. That's a fundamental change, and it launched a sequence of events over the subsequent months that made me realize that some things I "knew" about America were apparently wrong.
Robinson’s piece, which I read after voting but before the results were in, foreshadowed the sudden and momentous elation I felt when Obama finally won. Perhaps because the campaign dragged on so interminably long that the thought of it ever ending at all seemed unreal, or perhaps because I never fully considered the instantaneous cultural sea change that a black president’s election would induce, the moment’s power took me by surprise. It took the videos of black Americans, famous and otherwise, in ecstatic celebration to make me understand exactly what was at stake over the last 21 months. These people wholly accepted Obama’s victory as a culmination of the centuries-long quest for equal rights. Writing in Salon, Rebecca Traister examined one of the night’s most emotional moments—the TV cameras’ shots of Jesse Jackson right after the race was called. Few living Americans are so closely identified with the civil rights struggle as Jackson, and he shared Robinson’s amazement:
But not 20 minutes after the news of Obama's victory had begun to sink in, the cameras again panned to Jackson, and this time his cheeks were wet with tears, his hand at his mouth. He still looked anxious, and tense, as if he, like so many of the people around him wandering saucer-eyed and silent, were still wound tight with fear: Is this happening? Is it real? And if so, can I begin to weep.
Obama’s family history is very different from those of many black voters who supported him—he can’t trace his origins to slavery, for example, and he was raised by white people from the Midwest—but these are smaller distinctions than I realized. The bottom line is that Obama identifies as a black man, and, perhaps more importantly, he looks like one. There is no meaningful difference between his skin tone and that of his fully African-American wife, and Obama’s white background surely didn’t shelter him from the kinds of insidious cultural racism that all black Americans experience. His mother’s ethnicity couldn’t have prevented Obama from being judged as a black man by strangers, or from feeling acutely unique among his classmates and peers at Harvard and the University of Chicago. His victory showed that America is ready to be led by a man who is proudly, visibly black. The unifying message and shrewd calm of his campaign may have obstructed the enormity of this accomplishment, but now that the votes are in, we need to take a minute to recognize it. Even more than I was expecting, this is an incredible moment in American history and a reminder, after months of cynical and paranoid campaigning, that our country is exceptional in our ability to honor our ideals.