Obama's Future, Free of an American Past?

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Commentator Steven Barnes argues that one of the reasons Sen. Barack Obama could be such an appealing candidate is that he doesn't carry the cultural baggage of slavery, since his father was an immigrant to the United States.


And one day after Congress finished up work, one very popular senator took a trip to New Hampshire. And you don't have to be a political scientist to pick up the significance there.

Commentator Steven Barnes is among those intrigued by the junior senator from Illinois. He says one reason Barack Obama is such an appealing candidate is that he doesn't carry the cultural baggage of slavery.

STEVEN BARNES: In the October 23 edition of Time Magazine, the furor around first-time Senator Barack Obama is compared to that surrounding Colin Powell in 1995. As almost exclusively white New Hampshire crowds cheered him this past weekend, I wondered is there some reason why Powell and Obama, arguably the most respected black men in America, trigger such reactions in audiences of all races and even across ideological lines?

One fact jumps out. Powell's father was a Jamaican immigrant, Obama's a Kenyan student. Neither, in order words, were the products of American slavery.

I've always felt that black Americans, while materially wealthy in comparison to African or Caribbean blacks, are in certain other senses impoverished. We lack our original names and have no sense of our tribes, cultures, languages or mythologies in a way possible for any white or Asian child of immigrants. Obama's father could trace his family back 1,000 years to a time before colonialization. With such a lineage, one can dream of freedom, power and opportunity. Standing on his father's shoulders, Obama can see all the way to the White House.

He was born in Hawaii, his parents divorced when he was two, and four years later, his mother moved the family to Jakarta for four years before returning to Honolulu. In other words, he was surrounded by a truly multicultural society and came to understand this as a natural, healthy thing.

With a certain amount of grief, I compare this to my old childhood, growing up in the '50s and '60s in Los Angeles. Every president looked like the men who once owned my family, as well as almost everyone I saw on television or in film, the faces on every piece of money I ever had in my pocket, every governor of every state. When I opened the dictionary, one of the synonyms for dark or black was evil. It hurt. It still hurts.

It is my belief that the major difference between blacks and whites in America is their software rather than their hardware. Obama grew up running the kind of software that says I can be anything, and that core self confidence and self love reflects back to the outside world. It allows him to touch hands and lock eyes and honestly say we are marching together toward a common destiny, rather than you hurt me.

It allows others to look at him asking what can we create together, rather than do you hate me, do you blame me? This is exactly the gift I pray to give my own son.

Race may be the greatest open wound in the American character. I believe that good people of all colors hunger to find a bridge between black and white, left and right, America's unfortunate past and her potentially glorious future.

In some very significant ways, Obama is America's first 21st century politician. Of course, potential and actuality are two very different things. Obama is new to the political scene and yet to make the kinds of public errors that rub the luster from a popular hero. Only time will tell. But for this moment in history, at this time of national division, to many people he represents healing, and perhaps even more, he represents the American dream itself.

SIEGEL: Steven Barnes is a science fiction writer. He's the author of "Great Sky Woman."

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