Barack Obama’s one-day jaunt to Ghana this weekend carries a message for “multiple audiences,” according to the White House. On the heels of a Russian expedition and frustrating climate-change negotiations at the G-8 conference in Italy—all of which were overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson—the first black president of the United States is arriving on African soil as a hero, but not a stranger. Unlike every other American president who has made an in-office trip to Africa, Obama is no virgin tourist on the continent. In fact, Ghana’s new president described Obama’s visit as a “homecoming”—though in some ways, the media focus on the head of the family is misguided. Obama may be the first African-American president, but it is Michelle Obama for whom Ghana represents a true return.
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Obama’s immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, seemed to view their African sojourns in 1998 and 2007 as face-saving opportunities—for Clinton, a respite from the Lewinsky moment, and for Bush, a last chance to be received warmly before leaving office. To Obama-watchers, however, the Ghana stopover is seen as not just a meet-and-greet, but as the next chapter in the exciting narrative of race and memory that seems to unfold at every turn in this young presidency. But while Anderson Cooper may be airing a special on “President Obama’s African Journey” this week, Obama has already had his African journey. It’s called Dreams From My Father. After visiting Nairobi 20 years ago, he wrote, admiringly, “here the world was black, and so you were just you.” A 2006 trip took then-Senator Obama and his wife back to Kenya, and seemed to cement his ties to the continent on which he is the first American president to have living relatives.
Despite this unique association and his previous views, President Obama clearly sees no upside in promoting the “black man goes to the motherland” storyline. The White House has taken pains to present the trip as a policy-heavy mission. Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary, says the administration “[does] not believe that there is a way in which we could ever fulfill or assuage the desires of those in Ghana or on the continent on one stop.” Once landed, the president will observe all appropriate protocols, of course—addressing the nation’s parliament and paying a visit to one of the slave forts that line Ghana’s Gold Coast. He’ll speak, says Michelle Gavin, senior adviser for African Affairs, on “civil society, civic engagement, and civic responsibility that's driving African societies forward and creating capacity for development.”
Like Obama’s March trip to Turkey—strategically folded into his “European” travels—the show in Ghana will address African issues, but avoid overreach. Obama told AllAfrica.com that he intends to “show that Africa is directly connected to our entire foreign-policy approach; that it's not some isolated thing where once every term you go visit Africa for a while to check that box.” Whereas he once asked his half-sister to tell a Kenyan merchant “I’m a Luo,” Obama now tends to discuss his personal attachment to the continent in the context of policy alone: “When my father left Kenya,” he added, “the GDP of Kenya and South Korea weren't equivalent—Kenya's was actually higher. What's happened over that 50-year period?”
But no matter how bloodless the White House strategy, the optics of the half-Kansan, half-Kenyan president’s return to the cradle of civilization are irresistible. What’s more, the Obama family’s journey to the western face of Africa—toward the jails and portals that anchored the triangle trade of slavery—invites a whole different cultural calculus.
The ugly centuries of traffic in black bodies from West Africa created the American experience that Michelle—a child of Chicago’s “black belt”—has always known. The president, meanwhile, has been a perpetual interloper in that experience, sharing the external markers of race in American society, but importing a decidedly hybrid backstory. He’s talked about the difficulty of hailing cabs, and being underestimated because of his race, but unlike his wife and daughters, none of his ancestors were sold into slavery.
It’s doubtful that Michelle will exhibit her husband’s trademark detachment when touring the hospital in Accra that houses young women who routinely die in childbirth, or the Cape Coast Castle from which millions of West Africans embarked on the deadly passage that sundered families and birthed centuries of cruelty and violence. Having traveled myself to similar terrain in west Africa, the encounter with such history does not invite the classic Obama cool.
If the particularities of diaspora and circumstance make the West Coast Michelle’s, the trip in general offers a specific opportunity for those interested in untangling the hyphens and hybridity involved in calling Obama a black president. It’s a fascinating riddle: Obama is an African American, whereas the identity he’s chosen—and the daughters he is raising—are African-American.
In the end, the labels may be the problem. After traveling to Kenya in 1988, Obama wrote: “Nairobi’s history refused to settle in orderly layers, as if what was then and what was now fell in constant, noisy collision.” The diplomatic stop in Ghana may likewise illuminate how the American and the African live in dynamic balance—even within one family.
Dayo Olopade is the Washington correspondent for TheRoot.com.