How Obama Altered History with a Single Hyphen

By calling himself a Kenyan-American, POTUS irreversibly changed what it means to be an American president — and who can be one.

Obama declared himself a "Kenyan-American" while speaking in Nairobi on Sunday. (National Journal)

"I'm the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States. That goes without saying," Obama said in a speech over the weekend while visiting his ancestral homeland of Kenya.

Read the lines over to yourself slowly, maybe one or two more times.

These two sentences will be referenced for years to come by political pundits, scholars, historians, and regular people as the moment every American with a hyphenated identity was introduced to the rest of the world, but most importantly to the rest of our country.

With his bold statement embracing his Black father's Kenyan identity on an equal plane with his White mother's American roots, Obama put the country on fast-forward toward the reality that awaits us in 2043 when the entire nation will be minority White and most of us will profess to being equal parts this and that.

We're well on our way already.

Multiracial Americans are "growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole," according to the Pew Research Center. The research firm estimates that about 7 percent of adults could be considered multiracial. And that's just people who are actually born to parents from two or more racial backgrounds.

There are also tens of millions of foreign-born immigrants (like me) who happily hyphenate to embrace our dual identities.

Though the binary racial categories of Black and White still persuade many to keep it simple and check only one box, in 2013, the Census counted about 9 million Americans who chose two or more racial designations.

What's more, interracial marriages are up and the number of multiracial babies has gone from 1 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2013. That's a lot of cute baby pictures on Facebook and Instagram for us to like.

So multiracial Americans can now openly claim President Obama as their torchbearer. He has finally put into the historical record what so many readily embraced about him the moment he beamed into our homes from the stage at the Democratic convention in Boston almost 10 years ago: He represents the next America, the mixed and remixed version of a still-young country coming to terms with its complexity and depth.

With his deceptively lighthearted comment, President Obama also rose above the torrent of discontent surrounding the Confederate flag — that makeshift bandage over a rotting wound into which some still pour salt. He clothed himself in his full identity as an American — a Black American, a White American, an American who embraces who he is and the country that made him so. And he did it on behalf of millions who live their American lives in a hyphenated way.

Some will easily dismiss his comments as pandering to a crowd of 5,000 Kenyans who adore him. That's partly true; as we know, the president can get swept up in the moment on occasion (think "Amazing Grace").

But that criticism speaks more to Obama's recognition that in a hyperconnected world where news travels at the speed of a well-crafted tweet, he would be heard in that Nairobi stadium and around the world.

Lately, we've seen the president emboldened about certain issues (Black men, gay rights) as he continues his farewell tour as his second term draws to a close. But we have never seen him openly call himself a Kenyan-American on a world stage.