Barrack Obama brings the colour brown to world politics

Date: January 1, 1970
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How black is Barrack Obama? This is a question that Africans and people of African descent have asked throughout his campaign, and will ask even more now that he is headed for the White House. The answer is that he is neither black nor white. He is brown – the colour of the future.

As one CNN analyst pointed out, only 30% of Americans are purely white, and an even smaller percentage of black Americans purely black. Always on the mark, South African cartoonist Zapiro depicts an ebullient Obama embracing a world in which his mother was white American; his father black Kenyan and his childhood spent in Asia and Polynesia.
Yes, he will be the first African-American to occupy the White house. But, after a George Bush who had only once traveled out of the US (to Mexico) before he became president and a vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin who genuinely believes that Africa is a country, what Obama offers is a view of the world a wee bit wider than what we have become used to in American foreign policy.
As the Southern African mother of two daughters of mixed race and origins, the colour brown has long fascinated me. A few years ago, Waterford/ Kamhlaba, my alma matter and the school on the hill in Swaziland that pioneered mixed race education while apartheid swirled around us, asked me to write an article on what had changed in the 25 odd years since I had attended the school and then decided to send my daughters there after the advent of democracy in South Africa. I chose to write the article in the form of a letter to my two daughters on their great fortune in being born brown; the colour of the future.
I was born of white South African parents who grew up in fairly typical homes; my father of a well to do family and my mother more working class (and rabidly racist) roots. As young idealists who met at the University of Natal in the fifties, they came to the conclusion that the only way to free themselves from the racism in their blood was to immerse themselves in the simple community life of rural Africa.
An opportunity arose to take up positions on a Christian mission in a remote part of the then Southern Rhodesia, which they believed would soon join Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) in gaining independence. As their children grew up speaking the local dialect and going through the black education system geared to ensure that only one-eighth of students could ever reach secondary school, they became involved in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, only to be deported to Botswana in 1976; the peak of many political upheavals in the region.
That is how my brother and I found ourselves (on scholarship) at Kamhlaba, which in isiSwati means “small world”. At the time, I felt a great ambivalence towards what I felt was both a small and artificial world. Yes, the kids of the rich and mighty, the Oppenheimers and the Mandelas could find common cause in this haven so close and yet so far from the madness around us. But the minute we crossed the border into South Africa we went our separate ways.
A few years later, I met my future husband, a Ghanaian, at Princeton University in the USA in the most antagonistic of circumstances. Then president of the African Students Association (ASA) that had been active in the divest-from-South Africa campaign, he had taken up a case against the university authorities for granting a scholarship to a white Rhodesian.
African American colleagues had even greater difficulties figuring out how to deal with a white African. This was aggravated by the fact that, as time progressed and I gained acceptance in the ASA, African students made it a point that, save for skin colour, I had more in common with them than did their African American cousins.
During my four years of study in the US, I found my greatest comfort zone to be in the Princeton Inn kitchen where I worked to supplement my meager student grant. Hungry for a link to the continent, working class African Americans like Jim Saunders the chef and Minnie Somers my supervisor took me into their hearts and homes, creating lasting bonds that rose above the narrow confines of race.
When I went to register the birth of my first daughter in Zimbabwe in 1984, the form asked for race of mother, father and child. I put African under each. The young black bureaucrat behind the desk politely changed these to read: “white”, “black” and “coloured”. I asked that he change these to read “human, human, human”. He explained that there was no such category as the human race.
Ten years later, when I had rediscovered my South African roots (albeit with little or no connection to my white relatives who are dotted around the country) my younger daughter had the experience of being dropped off at a school event by her dad and hearing two white colleagues say: “she is not a real coloured: her father is black!”
My husband promptly made sure that our daughters had the choice of both South African and Ghanaian citizenship. We decided to send them to Kamhlaba, where we hoped that they would gain more of a world view than might be possible in the immediate post apartheid South Africa.
I remember writing in my article for the Kamhlaban (reflecting on what had changed in a quarter of a century) that if you get on the subway in New York or London, you would be hard pressed to find a face that is purely of any race.
I recalled that in the heated arguments that my father often had with my maternal grandfather about his greatest phobia – his granddaughters marrying black men- my dad used to point out that if the Almighty had not wanted it so He would not have created from this mix the beautiful color brown.
If all that Barrack Obama succeeds in doing is to show us that between the black and white of race and politics there is a colour brown in which you can celebrate your African roots as well as pay tribute to the white grandmother and mother who raised you without being called an oreo (black cookies with a white filling) he will have done our world a great service. This I know, is why my family will remain glued to the television through his presidency.
Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service which offers fresh news on every day news.

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