Several years ago, in my first class in my master's program, one of the assigned readings was a novel that I have since blacked out because it was so unpleasant to read (and I know I didn't bother keeping it, so sorry, no title). It was a stream of consciousness book about a Jewish guy who was undergoing psychoanalysis. A very depressing, self-deprecating character.
But in the book, there is one part where he describes his journey to Israel where he has an affair with a beautiful Israeli woman who is serving her time in the military there (and for one reason or another, she kind of reminded me of the woman in Orwell's 1984). It doesn't take long until she can't stand him, either. She tells him that he has the mentality of ghetto Jews. Jews who just surrendered to their fate. She is a strong, beautiful Jew and the complete opposite of him.
His attitude toward life was no different really than his parents, and his parents had come over from Eastern European ghettos in "the old country," and they settled in a beat up apartment in a beat up Jewish neighborhood in New York, and raised him there. He realized powerlessly to some extent, that his heritage had made him what he was, and hers was completely different. Hers was of ancestors that fought to have a homeland and continued to fight for that homeland.
This book, and particularly this difference between the main character and the Israeli woman comes to mind whenever I think of Barack Obama lately.
Now, justifiably, there is a lot of attention to the fact that Obama is the first black President of the United States. However much I disagree with his politics and worldview, this is truly a historic event. But in reality, he is very different. He is bi-racial for one, but that is not what I mean. Most bi-racial children in this country are treated as if they are Black, almost never treated as if they are white, and they often live the lives of Blacks, not Whites.
But Obama's heritage is different than most African Americans. Obama's father was Kenyan. Obama does not look back on his family tree and see slaves. He was raised by his white mother, who has a doctorate in anthropology, has traveled the world and taken him with her; and also by his grandparents in Hawaii. Even the time he mentions that his mother took welfare had to do with her earning an advanced degree....not a life that is devoid of education, hope, or lack of choice.
We'd like to think that this doesn't matter. But it does matter to most people who their ancestors were, where they came from, how they got to America.
When I hear Obama talk, it is not the talk of biting injustice and victimhood that you hear from Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. It is not even the rallying cry of Martin Luther King, despite his being proclaimed the culmination of MLK's dream. When he mentions poverty or struggle, it is generally not anything detailed at all.
I wonder how much his difference in heritage has shaped the man who has managed to become the first Black President of our country. I wonder if that is at least part of the difference.