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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One of us

The outpouring of joy from black people since the election of Barack Obama reached a crescendo yesterday during his Inauguration. Close to two million people, many African-American, braved single digit temperatures to see the first black President of the United States assume office.

Ever since Obama won the Iowa primary the anticipation has been palpable. When he won election in early November, black communities across the country celebrated. Their joy was understandable. Black people came to this country as slaves and were discriminated against long after slavery ended. Theirs has been a long and difficult journey. And now, finally, the ultimate milestone. One of their own has won election to the highest office in the land.

Well, sorta.

Technically, Barack Obama is more closely related to the Anglo majority of this country than he is to the African American population.

The vast majority of African Americans are the descendants of slaves who were brought here from various parts of West Africa. A few came from Central Africa, but none were from East Africa. Most were purchased from African tribal leaders in what is present day Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, Gabon, and Nigeria. If you were a slave trader, it made no sense to double the length of your journey by sailing all the way down around the Cape of Good Hope up to the Horn of Africa to procure your slaves. So virtually all New World blacks are the descendants of West Africans.

Kenya is located almost four thousand miles from Sierra Leone. That is a vast distance, both geographically and genetically. Ethiopians and Somalians don't even look like West Africans (they tend to resemble David Bowie's wife Imam). Kenyans, located just south of those two countries, have facial features which more closely resemble those of West Africans, but from the neck down they resemble their skinny East African brethren. Even within Kenya, people can easily tell the Kikuyu from the Luo just from appearance. (Obama's father was a Luo.)

One indication of the genetic gap between the two coasts is that while virtually all great sprinters are of West African descent, and East Africans dominate distance running, there has never been a single great distance runner of West African descent, nor a great sprinter of East African descent.

To use a completely unscientific analogy, Kenyans are about as closely related to the West Africans as, say, Malaysians are to Mongolians. Which makes Barack more distant cousin than brother to most African Americans. (He may be considered a "brother" by the community, but he is more an adoptive one than a biological one.) His mother, on the other hand, was regular plain vanilla Anglo, a Dunham from Kansas. So Barack is more closely related genetically to the average WASP than to the average African American.

He doesn't even look particularly African-American. When I first saw his picture a few years ago, I was struck by how much he resembled an Arab from, say, Morocco or Algeria. It is telling that the closest doppelganger they have been able to come up with for Obama so far is that Indonesian photographer.

Of course, genetics aside, in this country you're considered black if you have so much as one eighth African blood. So, in social terms, Barack is black, no question. There are certainly plenty of other Americans who, genetically speaking, are at least half Caucasian, yet who are also considered black. And Barack, who undoubtedly discovered early on that he was considered something of an outsider in places like Kansas, obviously made a conscious decision to embrace an African-American identity when he moved to Chicago.

So, yes, Barack is African-American.


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