Now that Barack Obama has won the Democratic nomination, there will be much talk today and the rest of the campaign season about the historical significance of his victory. And it is historic, no doubt. What I'm about to say is not meant in any way to diminish the significance of his nomination.
However, and without wading too deeply into all the complex issues of racial identity, it must be said that Obama is not exactly your average African American politician—and I’m not just referring here to his unique rhetorical skills. What I mean is that his ascendancy also marks an historical departure from African American politics itself. As just a starter list, there are at least five ways that he is different:
First, he is half-black and, consequently, light-skinned. Second, his black half is Continental African and more recent in its migration to America, through his father, as compared to slave-descendant and centuries-old in its genealogical origins. Third, he does not come from a clerical background, the occupation which (especially prior to the civil rights movement) was responsible for producing a disproportionate number of black leaders. Fourth, though he later became a Southside Chicago organizer, his upbringing was middle-class Midwestern, not underclass and urban. And, finally, Obama is Ivy League-educated, as opposed to a product from an historically black college.
There are American black leaders who share many of these biographical characteristics, and a few who may fit all five. (Quick quiz: Can you name even one other?) But there are not many, and certainly none who reached the political summit Obama did yesterday. And that, I would submit, is no coincidence.