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.

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

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.

He also wants oil, other Ghanaians emphasize. The recent discovery of large offshore oil reserves here has whetted the energy-hungry appetite of the United States, which already derives 16 percent of its petroleum imports from West Africa. By 2015, the US National Intelligence Council estimates that fraction will rise to 25 percent. Obama seems to want to make sure the US gains access to Ghanaian oil before China, which has its own enormous energy needs – and its own designs on West African petroleum.

The two interpretations aren't inconsistent, of course. By celebrating and assisting democracy in Ghana, the US can ensure a favorable environment for the oil trade and other forms of economic development.

And if you think you can have economic progress without democratic institutions, take a look at Nigeria. Despite its own huge oil reserves – or, some say, because of them – Nigeria is a swamp of poverty and corruption. Ditto for Kenya, Obama's ancestral home, which has been wracked by internal conflict since he visited there last in 2006.

So, the argument goes, Obama decided to reward Ghana – the little democracy that could – over larger but less enviable African nations. No less a figure than Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka endorsed this view last week, warning that an Obama visit to Nigeria would bolster its crooked, oppressive rulers.

"If Obama decides to grace Nigeria with his presence, I will stone him," declared Mr. Soyinka, with characteristic bluntness. "The message he is sending to Ghana is so obvious, is so brilliant that he must not render it flawed by coming to Nigeria any time soon."

Then there's the question of kente . Bill Clinton was given this cloth in 1998, during his own visit to Ghana, but he wore it over his suit. George W. Bush visited twice but never donned kente. Will Obama wear kente in the traditional African fashion, with only a T-shirt underneath?

"Bush is purely American," one Ghanaian clothing designer told a newspaper last week, urging Obama to go the traditional route. "Obama has blood of an African in him."

Indeed, he does. And next week, we'll start to understand what that means: for Obama, for Africa, and for the world.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, is teaching this summer at the university's study-abroad program in Accra, Ghana. His book, "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," was published last month.

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