Obama And The Narrative Of "Hard Truths"

I keep noticing that whenever Obama delivers these "tough talks" or messages of "tough love" the recipients, most of them to people of color, are generally cheering. I watched Obama's Ghana speech, and by the lights of my limited knowledge of African affairs, it seemed pretty basic, and I suspect a large number of Africans agreed with him. I'd also suspect that a large number didn't. My point isn't that Obama "represents" opinion in Africa, as much as it's that he represents one side of it. To go to Ghana and demand working, credible democracies just doesn't strike me as much of a stretch. But from the headlines, you'd think Obama had given his speech in Zimbabwe.

I don't think this is about race, per se, as much as it's about how we in the press see conflict--it's generally easier to report out a two-sided conflict than a multi-facted one. It's also about a kind of journalistic laziness that sees the world like this: Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are black leaders. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson believe that racism is responsible for everything wrong with black America. If Obama says, "Be a father to your child," he's challenging black people. Likewise for Africa the calculus is something like: Africans think all their problems were caused by colonialism. If Obama says it's corruption, then he must be challenging Africans.

It's an algebra that relies on figureheads and "spokespeople" to articulate the thoughts and feelings of millions. As long as I can remember this talk about a  "crisis of fatherhood," I can remember their being an intrinsic, native "black fatherhood" movement. And this was in Baltimore in the 80s--ground zero. When Obama was in college, it was rappers who were telling brothers "be a father to your child." (along with a lot of other things.) I suspect that it's the same in Africa, that Obama is representing a side of the debate--a native side--which, while understanding the evils of colonialism, also understands that corruption and big man-ism are enemies of progress. I saw a lot of stories on Nigerians being pissed off that Obama wasn't coming to their country. Of course Wole Soyinka has, in strenuous tones, asserted that Obama must not come to Nigeria.

There are two problems here: One, I think the tone of the stories reflect a desire for white people to be off the hook. I don't know that for fact, but I believe it. Two, I think the tone of these stories carry a strong notion of Obama civilizing, or righting, his dark kin. I think this dynamic is backwards. It's the very presence of the native fatherhood movement that enables Obama to say "be a father." It's the fact that Africans, themselves, have been fighting corruption that allows Obama to make that speech. As in so many things, Obama isn't the wave, he's the dude surfing on top.