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Obama's Challenge: Cultural Memories of Malcolm X

President Obama has been dogged by a deep dislike by many Americans. This is seen particularly in the ongoing misconceptions of him: that he is a Muslim, a foreigner, and a radical. Michelle Obama was also seen as a radical who would destroy the White House and the Presidency. These misconceptions were and are rampant, despite Mr. Obama's very American story, his being born poor and working his way up into success through education and discipline.

Further, I don't think that race completely explains the personal dislike for Obama. It's more complicated than that. Governor Nikki Haley, for example, has been warmly welcomed has the political head of South Carolina, and General Colin Powell was highly regarded. Obama's problem goes deeper and is more complex.

One of my courses, Religion and Modern American Culture, has delved into African-American religion. In learning and teaching about Malcolm X, I've been struck by the similarities between Malcolm X and Obama. Both are tall, lean, and educated. Both are concerned about social issues. Both are black. Both came from poor circumstances. Both speak powerfully before large crowds. One converted to the Nation of Islam, and one's father had been a Muslim.

I wonder if the resistance to Obama (and here I don't mean opposition to his ideas and political positions, but a personal dislike) is based in a cultural memory and fear of Malcolm X, who could be angry and confrontational. His vision was for a separated America, not an integrated one; racism was, for him, intractable and insoluble. Both men have been concerned with issues of poverty, society, and racism. Obama has also been confrontational, as with his early refusal to wear the American flag lapel pin (an issue from which he has had to back down). That particular issue hit a lot of buttons for many Americans, and one of the big ones is, I think, the angry confrontationalism of Malcolm X. With the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, we again were thrown into the issue of confrontational black leaders.

Many Americans still have a memory of Malcolm X, and that button is pushed by a new lean, well-spoken African-American man. This is why we have the ongoing confusion about Mr. Obama's religion, as Malcolm X was famously Muslim (first he was Nation of Islam, and then he shifted to Sunni Islam) while the President's father had been, at one time, Muslim. Malcolm X's memory is still there, triggering these fears of that Obama will be anti-American and racially angry. These fears have proven to be untrue over the past four years, but since they are irrational, vague cultural memories they have a life of their own, especially when triggered by controversies (such as the issues around the American flag lapel pin, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright).

The questions remain, can Mr. Obama defeat this cultural memory and fear? Will he be re-elected for a second term? How will later history view his presidency and these ongoing social fears? Only time will tell.

Theological Aesthetics with Ben Quash

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