Obama: ‘A Mutt like Me’

Obama: ‘A Mutt like Me’

20th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

An American in Germany reflects on what this historical inauguration means to black people, white people and everyone in between.

When I learned that Barack Obama was elected president, I was in a crowd of several hundred Americans and Germans who had gathered in Frankfurt for an all-night election party hosted by the U.S. consulate. Emotions of shock, relief and joy instantly flooded my system. Shock that Obama had actually pulled it off, relief that the Bush years would finally be over with no Republican sequel, and real joy that this particular individual, Obama, would be our next president.

The announcement was splashed in the TV screen around 5 a.m. and the crowd leapt to its feet. People began to hug, to cry, to cover their mouths in disbelief, and jump up and down in blocks. An African American woman from our group, Democrats Abroad, came up to me and said, “Is it true? Is it really true?” I replied, “Yes, I think it is. I think it really is.” She just hugged me, with tears streaming down her face.

Emancipation statue at Lincoln ParkWhile I’ve heard many African Americans say “I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime,” it’s hard to appreciate this sentiment without reflecting on United States history. In 1870, five years after slavery was officially abolished, African American men were given the right to vote but discriminatory practices and physical violence at the polls (in the South, mainly) prevented many from doing so. In 1920, American women won the right to vote, including African Americans, but due to certain states’ continuing efforts to circumvent the law, many black women were prohibited.

Meanwhile, the “Jim Crow” laws -- state and local laws enacted between 1876 and 1965 -- mandated segregation of public schools, public places and public transportation; signs for “Whites Only” and “Coloreds” for public bathrooms and drinking fountains are chilling reminders of this era. The one-drop rule was in effect in many states, which declared that if a person had “one drop” of black blood, they would be classified as black, and therefore denied many rights and privileges.

What was also prohibited in many States was inter-racial marriage, which was generally considered a felony. Called anti-miscegenation laws, these began as early as the 1660’s when the U.S. was a handful of British colonies, and lasted for centuries. From 1913 to 1948, 30 out of the then 48 states deemed the marriage of whites with blacks or other non-whites illegal. This affected, for example, my maternal grandparents who were both Asian Indian, and in 1932 were not allowed to marry in California because the authorities deemed my darker-skinned grandfather to be non-white and my lighter-skinned grandmother to be white; my grandparents had to cross state lines and go to Nevada to get married.

All of these discriminatory and repressive laws came tumbling down as a direct result of social protest culminating in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 got rid of the Jim Crow laws; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests and provided federal enforcement of voting rights so that African Americans could finally cast their ballots; and in 1967 an interracial couple, the Lovings, took their case all the way to the Supreme Court which then ruled that prohibiting interracial marriage was unconstitutional.

Americans abroad and guests gather for a US election party supporting the US Republicans at the "Wahlkreis" bar in Berlin on November 4, 2008. Americans abroad gathered all over the world to observe their historic election, with front-running Democrat Barack Obama fighting to be the first black US president and Republican John McCain hoping for an upset win. AFP PHOTO BARBARA SAX

In this context of decades and centuries of denying human and civil rights to African Americans and people of color, the election of a black man as president only 40 or so years later is simply astounding and truly a historic moment.

But addition to being the first “black” president, Barack Obama is as much “white” as “black” – if one accepts racial categories at all – making him the first multiracial president ever. Having a black father and white mother, he is the embodiment of crossing the racial divide – which for centuries had been legally prohibited.

In Obama’s first press conference as president-elect, when asked about what kind of puppy he would get for his girls at the White House, Obama replied that he would like to get a “mutt like me” – and smiled. I had been listening to the debates and as many speeches as possible, and I never heard him identify himself before. Being a blend of Asian Indian and Danish myself, I was curious if he would use the term multiracial or something to that effect but I didn’t hear it – until after the election and then, in a humorous fashion. Within a few hours of his victory, two women, one German, one American, each came to me and told me that Obama’s victory would be very important for her son, who is multiracial. As the United States and indeed the world grow increasingly more multi-cultural and multi-racial, the U.S. has a president who reflects that direction.

Four-month-old baby Dorian Neiman and his mother Dyane pose in front of a wax likeness of incoming US president Barack Obama at Berlin's Madame Tussauds wax museum on January 15, 2009. When Barack Obama is inaugurated the first black president of the United States on January 20, millions of Americans hope he will usher in a new era of race relations in the country. AFP PHOTO BARBARA SAX

Despite all the odds, Obama is the right person at the right time. He defies categorization and has an all-embracing message – if you doubt this, look at his superb speech on race, given on March 18.  Obama breaks a lot of rules – being black, being multiracial, being an open intellectual, being the first anti-war president to win during wartime. He seems to have turned the social hierarchy on its head. His presidency wouldn’t be this exciting if he didn’t offer something new, addressing the needs of people who have historically been ignored – working people, people of color and especially young people. It is the combination of his being the first president of color plus being a candidate of credible change with a spirit of inclusiveness, that is so historic and exciting.

Erika Surat Andersen is an American who has lived in Frankfurt since 2001.

20 January 2009


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