My cousin Barack

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

In the days since I sug­gested that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s rhetor­i­cal style mim­ics fem­i­nine tropes, I’ve been in­formed of the fol­low­ing:

One, a black man can­not show anger in pub­lic lest he be con­sid­ered an An­gry Black Man.

Two, to sug­gest that a black man has any fem­i­nine char­ac­ter­is­tics, even when framed as an “evo­lu­tion­ary achieve­ment,” is to emas­cu­late and re­duce him to a fig­ure from Jim Crow days.

These were the two most com­mon com­plaints I heard in the col­umn’s wake. Some of those who wrote were po­lite, self-iden­ti­fy­ing African Amer­i­cans who sort of agreed with my point but wanted to help me see things a dif­fer­ent way. Oth­ers weren’t so civil.

Do I think peo­ple are too sen­si­tive? Yes. Do I think I may have over­stepped the line? No. It’s a col­umn, not a dis­ser­ta­tion. And my the­sis, bounc­ing off the no­tion that Bill Clin­ton was the first black pres­i­dent, is se­ri­ous only if you re­ally think Clin­ton is black.

But I also rec­og­nize that my life ex­pe­ri­ence is dif­fer­ent from that of most African Amer­i­cans. And that ex­pe­ri­ence al­lows me both the lux­ury of see­ing peo­ple with­out the lens of race, but also (some­times) to fail to imag­ine how peo­ple of other back­grounds might in­ter­pret my words.

As my Washington Post col­league Jonathan Cape­hart wrote on the Post­Par­ti­san blog — and ex­plained to me in a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion — black males are held to a dif­fer­ent stan­dard than whites. They are prac­ticed in keep­ing their emo­tions un­der wraps. They can’t “go off,” as some have urged Obama to do in re­sponse to the Gulf oil spill.

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I take oth­ers at their word that it’s a fact of life for African Amer­i­can males.

You’ll have to take me at my word when I say that I don’t view Obama ex­clu­sively as a black man — no mat­ter what he said on his cen­sus form. Not only is he half-white but also he has man­aged to tran­scend skin color, at least from where I sit.

As a side­bar, there’s an­other rea­son I don’t see him as only black. He is my cousin. I had in­tended to save this nugget for a fu­ture col­umn, but now seems as good a time as any to brag.

I learned of this sur­pris­ing fam­ily link when a cousin con­duct­ing ge­nealog­i­cal re­search con­tacted me re­cently: “And by the way, did you know you’re kin to Barack?”

Ap­par­ently, we are de­scended of broth­ers whose par­ents — Jo­hann Pi­eter Straub and Anna Maria Bar­bara Hoff­man — em­i­grated from Ger­many to the colonies about 1733. Thus, ac­cord­ing to the fam­ily grid, Obama and I seem to be eighth cousins once re­moved.

I am proud to be Obama’s cousin. But that bond doesn’t blind me to his — and our — flaws. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One in Charleston, W.Va., af­ter at­tend­ing a me­mo­rial ser­vice for Sen. Robert Byrd. In my ear­lier col­umn, I sought only to of­fer one pos­si­ble rea­son why the pres­i­dent is pay­ing such a high price for his re­sponse to the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon oil spill.

Amer­i­can cul­ture is com­pli­cated and gen­der ex­pec­ta­tions play an im­por­tant part. Like it or not, that in­cludes not only our more pro­gres­sive con­tem­po­rary think­ing about such mat­ters, but also our less pro­gres­sive his­tory. And to­gether, this mix of ideas forms a mine­field that lead­ers must tra­verse.

Con­sider: In the days lead­ing up to the pres­i­dent’s Oval Of­fice ad­dress about the Gulf cri­sis, there was a lot of talk about the “style” of Obama’s re­sponse. On MSNBC, Donny Deutsch ar­gued that he “just doesn’t emote.”

Many peo­ple seemed to have a han­ker­ing for one par­tic­u­lar emo­tion: Not the Bill Clin­ton “I feel your pain” kind, but the “Take-BP-Be­hind-The-Wood­shed-And-Make-Them-Pay” kind. They wanted an ac­tion fig­ure in the hyper-mas­cu­line mode, not Ge­orge W. Bush but Ter­mi­na­tor.

In fits and starts, Obama had given it to them. He wanted to know “whose ass to kick,” he told us. He wanted them to “plug the damn hole.” Press sec­re­tary Robert Gibbs as­sured us that in dis­cus­sions with Obama he, in­deed, had “seen rage from him.”

Then the pres­i­dent gave his Oval Of­fice speech. And the col­lec­tive re­ac­tion was, “That’s it?! Where’s the ou­trage?!?!”

Obama elected to em­ploy a cer­tain type of rhetoric in the Oval Of­fice that put him in line with fem­i­nine rhetor­i­cal tra­di­tions and at odds with his­tor­i­cal prece­dent and the ex­pec­ta­tions for his gen­der. Such a choice ul­ti­mately may prove to be a cru­cial step for­ward to­ward a bet­ter world. But the back­lash against his rhetoric sug­gests we’re not there yet.

Speak­ing as a cousin, and a not-so-sen­si­tive colum­nist-cit­i­zen, I’m pulling for him to do bet­ter.

Charles Dhara­pak

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.