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How Obama thinks: An Africanist interpretation

BY GUEST OPINION | JANUARY 26, 2012 7:20 AM

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Ever since President Barack Obama achieved national and global stardom, many have struggled to understand his thinking process. In fact, the Tea Party has its own guidebook on how Obama thinks.

Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D'Souza believe the president has a "Kenyan anti-colonial worldview."

The problem with these philosophical viewpoints is that they're inscribed within old Greco-Roman thematizations that insist that nothing good can come from Africa. To them, the African is backward, uncivilized, and incapable of anything positive. If it smells African, then it has to be negative, dark, or bad.

McLuhan, Conrad, and other scholars summarize the old European idea of Africa by referring to the continent as a "mysterious, throbbing, palpable, darkness within the European psyche." Obama is a pure mystery to these people. As a member of this mysterious club, let me offer some help here.

I wish to argue that one of the ways to understand the Obama phenomenon is through African philosophical thought. We also need to somehow deliver ourselves from the impression that anything African is inferior. This is because at his core, Obama is a community man, a people's man, and a community organizer. Obama's DNA is ingrained with the philosophical belief that a man is defined not only by his individual agency but his commitment and connection to the wider society.

While Western thought glorifies individualism and adores exceptionalism or "hero" narratives, African traditional thinking ontologically, epistemologically, and pragmatically believes that the community is indispensable to our definition of who we are. John Mbiti foregrounds this basic underpinning of African societies through the enduring dictum, "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am."

Isn't this what Obama has been saying all along: "I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper … We've got each other's back." And so on and so forth.

At his core, Obama deeply believes that the person and community are intrinsically linked. This is not different from Ifeanyi Menkiti's thesis that "in the African view, it is the community which defines the person as a person, not some isolated static quality of rationality, will, or memory."

To me, the belief in being each other's keeper does not at all sound at variance to the evangelical doctrine of bearing each other's burden (Galatians), because Christianity is a huge part of Republicanism — and rightly so. The GOP is going to have to find another narrative to counter the Obama machine this fall. Demonizing Obama and his core values even when they're right in lockstep with yours is not the way to go.

Etse Sikanku is a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa.


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