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Opinion

Ghana's hype over Obama, beyond race

Ghanaians take a special pride in the fact that neither they nor Obama are descended from slaves, but they know that his visit has more practical reasons, too.

By / July 9, 2009



Accra, Ghana

How about this for a headline: "Here comes Obama, the Black Magic."

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If you saw that in the US, you might take offense. It sounds a lot like "Barack the Magic Negro," the satirical song that a GOP operative sent to members of the Republican National Party in a compact disc last Christmas. Across America, politicians and columnists tripped over themselves in denouncing the song.

But I'm not in America. I'm in Ghana, where I recently encountered the "Black Magic" headline in a story about President Obama's July 10 overnight visit. And I'm once again struck by the easy playfulness that surrounds the subject of race here. When I walk through the streets of Accra, Ghana's capital, people will sometimes shout "obruni" (white person) at me. But if I grin and say "obibini" (black person) in reply, they smile back. It's all in good fun.

And there's a good reason for that. Unlike blacks in the United States, most Ghanaians here don't have ancestors who suffered the horrors and indignities of slavery. So they're much less touchy than we are about race, which conjures up the most painful aspects of our own shared past.

This history also helps explain the distinct hype and excitement surrounding Mr. Obama here. Sure, Ghanaians are proud that their country is the first sub-Saharan African nation to host the first American president of African descent. But they're also proud that Obama – like most Ghanaians – does not descend from slaves.

"The 44th President of the United States had a Kenyan Luo father who went to study in America where he married a white woman of Scottish and Cherokee descent," the "Black Magic" article noted. "Obama's skin coloration did not link his ancestry to the dehumanizing trade started in the 17th Century."

The slave trade also evokes guilt, of course, since Ghanaians' own forefathers participated in it. So there's a bit of anxiety about reports that Obama and his wife will visit one of Ghana's slave castles, where millions of human beings were shackled and sent across the sea.

"For this visit, we should not over-play the slavery card," the article warned. "Obama is no descendant of a slave."

But Michelle Obama is. Predictably, then, rumors have circulated that the first lady – not the president – has insisted that they tour the castles.

Most of the other talk around town focuses on the reasons behind the Obamas' visit. Why Ghana? And why now?

The obvious answer is that Ghana is a democracy. Last December, following a close and bitter election, the nation peacefully transferred power from one party to another. On a continent marred by dictatorship and violence, Ghana is a beacon of stability. And Obama probably wants to recognize that.

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