A Backslidden Blogger, Inaugurating Obama and "The End of White America"

It has been exactly one year since I made my last blog entry – can I still really call myself a blogger?  Anyway, 2009 was quite an eventful year for me both professionally and personally.  With regards to the latter, I entered the land of parenthood as my wife and I welcomed our son into the world in January.  As for the former, less than six months later I walked across the commencement stage at Harvard with the university's first class of Ph.D.s in African American Studies (and thousands of other graduates as well). As both a black father and a recently-minted Ph.D. in African American Studies there was perhaps no more intriguing event in 2009 than the historic election of Barack Obama.  Personal background aside, Obama’s rise to the presidency was arguably the biggest headline around the world, rivaled only by the economic collapse that serves as the background to this week's festivities, around the world.  So much has been written about Obama that I’ve been reluctant to weigh in -  Seriously, what more can be said!  As a good friend, and colleague in the study of religion, recently bemoaned, “Since when did Obama become the arbiter of the black religious experience?”  Moreover, given the culture of celebrity and the fascination with the entire Obama family (we love you Michelle, Sasha and Malia!), they have also become the poster image for the African American family.  Want to know about black love, black parenting, etc – there’s sure to be scores of articles available on each topic that begin with an Obama invocation.

Despite being overwhelmed by Obama-mania (how quick does it take to become an empty signifier?), I’d be lying if I did not admit that I too will be celebrating this Tuesday, or acknowledge how often I’ve considered the question, as a new parent, of what it will mean for my son’s first memories of the White House will be occupied by images of a black family.  As a scholar of African American religion, there is still much that can be said of the subtle ways that Obama appealed to, but also superceded, black church traditions in his campaign.  And, as a historian I still wonder, given the current academic interest in re-thinking Black Power, what it will mean that the man who heads the United States—the last super power—is African American.  Can American imperialism also be a form of black power?

Anyway, at this point I will leave these preliminary thoughts as they are, as simply questions. But I do want to direct attention to one article that I recently read that stood out for me in the sea of stories on Obama, blackness, and the so-called “post-racial” era. Hua Hsu, a colleague and friend of mine from Harvard, who teaches at Vassar College and also happens to be formidable behind the turntables, recently examined what the Obama phenomenon says about the current state of whiteness in America.  The header to his article reads as follows:

"The Election of Barack Obama is just the most startling manifestation of a larger trend: the gradual erosion of “whiteness” as the touchstone of what it means to be American. If the end of white America is a cultural and demographic inevitability, what will the new mainstream look like—and how will white Americans fit into it? What will it mean to be white when whiteness is no longer the norm? And will a post-white America be less racially divided—or more so?"

To read the entire essay, click on the following link to The Atlantic on-line.

This excellent piece is certainly worth reading in its entirety.  Perhaps you'll turn to it after coming down from the inauguration high, as we celebrate this historic moment and consider the continued promises of American democracy.  Then all of us who live our lives in the many worlds between black and white will begin the difficult work of figuring out what the Obama era will truly offer.  In the meantime, for now I will return to singing "We Shall be Free" with my wife and son, along with Garth Brooks, Shakira, Stevie Wonder and the rest of the pre-inauguration party cast.  GOBAMA!