And you thought President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s wake in Charleston was a bold statement of his identity as an African- American president.
It was nothing like the president’s “homecoming” to Africa.
It was already enough that Obama is the first sitting president to visit Kenya and Ethiopia.
Tells you what kind of parochial attitudes defined America’s world-view and its sense of leadership when not a single commander-in-chief ever bothered visiting those countries.
This week Obama put them all on the map in a positive way. And not in the typical “bad news” light in which we tend to see Africa, or in a one paragraph newspaper story under the heading “global brief.”
We also saw the president, as they say, “be comfortable in his own skin.”
When was the last time you saw the president damn the birthers and proudly say: “Obviously this is personal for me, the reason my name is Barack Hussein Obama.”
The president even joked about it: “I suspect that some of my critics back home are suggesting that I’m back here to look for my birth certificate,” he said at the state dinner in Nairobi, drawing a mix of laughs and applause. “That is not the case.”
And then in the speech at the Nairobi Sports Arena, he brought down the house when he said: “And of course, I’m the first Kenyan American to be president of the United States.”
No joke. Just fact. Kenyan American. Even as it was said with a smile, I’ve never heard the president say that before. Obama had checked off African-American in the 2010 Census, according to reports. But for the most part, this is such a unique president with an ethnic background that enables him to legitimately claim being White, Black, and multi-racial. Geographically, he’s a Kansan on his mother’s side. A Chicagoan by residence. By schooling, he can claim allegiances to Boston (Harvard), New York (Columbia), and Los Angeles (Occidental). And by his birthplace, his boyhood and his presidential summer retreat, he is all about Hawaii.
But just hearing him say “Kenyan American” was such a surprise the phrase got a roaring blend of laughs, cheers and applause.
I immediately understood. My parents were both Filipino and I proudly claim to be Filipino American, thought I prefer to distinguish my birth on American soil and say “American Filipino.” I also use the broader Asian American, or Asian American Pacific Islander, because it is the socio-political umbrella that recognizes me.
It’s sort of how Blacks have used the umbrella African-American. But few ever go specifically by country—except for the president.
So, I get it. Kenyan American. Add it to his list of Obama’s American identities. Makes sense to identify by ethnicity and zoom in to the root, especially when you’re in Nairobi.
It’s a becoming phrase, an identifying phrase. It’s not a Kennedyesque “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Made for diplomatic truth. No, this is the real truthier truth. More than rhetorical, this is the identity tour of the president.
Obama is also finding how different it is when you visit a country as a law student, or as a U.S. Senator, versus visiting as the first president with African blood who happens to be the most powerful man in the world.
This is beyond “The Jeffersons.” This is the global version of “moving on up.” That message came across in his Sunday speech to young African leaders, where the president as a role model presented a vision of how Kenya could fulfill its dream of a modern, 21st century sense of itself.
The speech addressed Obama’s views on corruption and sexism. But one part of his speech struck me as something Americans can learn from, too.
“So Kenya is at a crossroads,” said the president. “A moment filled with peril but also enormous promise. I want to be very clear here. A politics that’s based on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that’s doomed to tear a country apart. It is a failure. A failure of imagination. (applause).”
In many ways, it speaks to show Obama has dealt with race issues in our own country while in office. His presidency has tried to redefine the racial politics of our past, by trying to imagine a better America. It’s a way that honors our differences, but attempts to keep us all working together and respecting one another.
Contrast that with what we’re seeing. The rise of nativism in our country where the confederate flag has become an issue again. And the birther Trump leads all GOP presidential hopefuls. Is Trump really about “making America great again?” Or with his anti-immigrant rhetoric is he about “making America White again?”
America’s sense of tribalism seems to be selling on one side of the political spectrum right now. It’s totally antithetical to a modern sense of diversity that Obama in his final year seems more dedicated to than ever.
Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. (https://www.aaldef.org/blog/)