Colby Cosh: Obama’s family tree might have hung him from a limb

Colby Cosh: Obama’s family tree might have hung him from a limb

National Post

Colby Cosh

Ever since Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for the presidency, American political observers have been arguing endlessly over whether his race will be a net help or a hindrance to him at the polls November 4. Strangely, though, there has been less discussion over the crude binary characterization of Senator Obama as “black.”

Even in the most progressive American circles, it seems, the “one-drop rule” of racial categorization, a heritage of slavery, still holds sway. For taxonomic purposes, a man with a white mother and a black father is a black man. Obama discovered very early in life that he could not defy the rules of this game. And if he wins the election, his own biography will demonstrate that it is easier to succeed in America as a multiracial individual who self-identifies as black than it is to live with a blurred racial identity. Being “black” has enabled him to represent a dream of racial conciliation for all Americans more easily than being a trans- or post-racial figure would.

The strange part about this narrative is that Obama’s black ancestors aren’t even African-American; he is the son of a dynamic, brilliant Kenyan economist and politician he hardly ever knew. His black identity comes from outside American history. And reporters have barely scratched the surface of his white maternal ancestry, the part of him, so to speak, that lies fully within America, complete with all the contradictions and horrors of its past.

And here’s another strange fact: It is easier to show Barack Obama’s descent from slave-owning American colonists than it is to establish any genealogical connection between himself and American slaves. In many ways, a WASP family-tree snob of the 19th century would probably be more impressed with Obama’s mother’s background than with John McCain’s people. (Both candidates can claim direct descent from King Edward I.) A 2007 investigation by the Baltimore Sun found that Obama’s direct maternal ancestors included slaveowners from the time of William and Mary right down to the eve of the U.S. Civil War, a war in which he had family on both sides.

And the closer you look, the weirder things get…

Read the entire article here.

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