Thursday, February 08, 2007

African History Lesson

There is an odd juxtaposition of sentences in an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post.

In "400 Years After Jamestown," Stephanie Robinson of the Jamestown Project and Cornel West of Princeton University write:

It is nothing short of remarkable that the sons and daughters of those who arrived in shackles now excel in the broad range of American life.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is poised to make a legitimate, not merely symbolic, run for the presidency.
Striving to make a legitimate point about how things have changed in our country, Robinson and West also make an error of history and biography -- and geography, as well.

How? Senator Obama is not one of "the sons and daughters of those who arrived in shackles," although he certainly does "excel" in his own American life.

Barack Obama's father was born in Kenya and met the future Senator's mother when both were studying at the University of Hawaii in the 1950s. (Senator Obama's mother was born in Kansas.)

The African slave trade that sent the ancestors of today's African-Americans to this continent took place along the Atlantic Coast of Africa. Kenya, on the Indian Ocean coast in East Africa, was also the origin of some slaves, but those were bought and sold by Arab slavetraders and taken east, not west.

One might say that Senator Barack Obama is a "modern" African-American rather than a "historical" African-American. Modern, that is, in the sense of being or being descended from recent immigrants (although the Senator's father was more of a visitor than an immigrant, since he returned to Kenya after his son was born). Historical African-Americans, then, are those who can trace their ancestry to the Atlantic slave trade.

There are tens of thousands of African-Americans like Senator Obama -- recent immigrants (and their children born here) from Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda, and other countries -- who are not descended from slaves that were brought here in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. They deserve, like everyone, to be fully integrated into American society and politics. But that doesn't mean that their own histories and biographies should be misrepresented by those who should know better.

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