The discovery that Barack Obama is descended on his mother’s side from America’s first slave is a teaching moment, right? We learn that blacks triumph over adversity. That since our very beginnings whites and blacks have been mating, creating mixed folks who are — or should be — seen as just American individuals. From first slave John Punch’s apparently marrying a white woman, we learn that long before Loving vs. Virginia, mixed matings had not even always been coercive. In sum, the line from Punch to president is to remind us that after all of the nastiness of America’s racial past, we are a land of mutts and race is ultimately a meaningless concept.
That’d be sweet, but in reality, if Obama’s is the “story of America,” it’s not in the “Kumbayah” way we might like to think.
Phenotypically, Obama is certainly a blend. We even now know that Obama has actual black American blood in him as well as the African kind. However, his persona is anything but post-racial. The boy those white Midwestern grandparents loved is a black American man culturally.
This is clear in the speech cadence he adopts with black audiences and also dusts his mainstream addresses with (“responsibili-tih”). It is clear in his gait, which black voters warmly identified with as showing that he was “one of us.” Many black men of Obama’s age and education level marry white women, and David Maraniss’s biography indicates that Obama was no stranger to dating white women earlier in his life. He settled down, however, with a black American woman, and a dark-skinned, tall one at that — and black people love that, too.
Thus Obama is no Tiger Woods, whose conception of himself as “Cablinasian” is equal parts ahead of the curve and tone-deaf. Obama, comfortable for years with a pastor like Jeremiah Wright, spontaneously saying that he’s black in the eyes of cab drivers, and signaling, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” is a Black Man indeed. A constructed one, also, however: His checkered ancestry is so mesmerizingly multifarious that we tend to forget that no one learns to talk, walk, date, or go to church like the Obama we now know in Indonesia or Hawaii.
And therein lies his true lesson to America, regardless of the antiquarian fascinations exerted by Mr. Punch. In America, the one-drop rule lives on, enforced partly by white perceptions, of course, but also by black people’s quest for cultural fellowship. Today it is common — although by no means universal — for bi- and multi-racials to “identify” as black even with little or no visual indication of African heritage. Obama did not craft an individualist “I’m just me” persona, but one much more specific — a definitively black one. John Punch may have married a white woman, but his eleventh great-grandson did not.
Did society require a studiously black identity of Obama, or did he embrace it for other reasons? Probably both, but if there’s a lesson in it, it’s that in some ways we are less past race in 2012 than Punch was 400 years ago.
However, the Obama story also teaches that getting past race in America will not only be about getting past blackness, but whiteness. Post-racial or not, the whites in America who elected Obama were open to his blackness — and even turned on by it — in a way that would have seemed like science fiction just 25 years ago. Who knew in 1987 that before long, blackness would help a man get elected president? Among younger whites (and many Asians), not only is rap their main music, but “Ebonics” and its associated mannerisms are now in the cultural DNA. White twentysomething men a generation ago were not calling one another “bruh” and greeting one another with the brotherly hug nearly as much. The color of America in the future will be café au lait.
That, rather than vanilla, will be the feel of the America “past race.” Barack Obama’s life choices and cheek-swab genetic history are not what can tell us that — but the signs are all around us if we know what to look for.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of many books on language and race.