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Not Just Another (Black Is) Beautiful Face

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LeeAnna Keith teaches history at Collegiate School in New York City. She is the author of The 9780195393088Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction. In the article below, Keith reflects on the role race may have played in the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama.

Even the most outspoken critics of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize have hesitated to suggest that President Obama was rewarded simply for his good looks. He won the prize “for awesomeness,” at least, according to Republican objectors, who have hesitated to introduce race in their prize critiques. As a student of the history of racial violence in America, however, I embrace the taboo notion that the Nobel committee tapped Obama because he is black. As a symbol of overcoming prejudice, the first black president of the United States embodies an ideal of peace in a still turbulent world.

Commentators have chided the committee’s citation, with its references to diplomacy, multilateralism, and confronting climate change, as being less like a summary of accomplishments than an agenda for the future. Less often, they have noted the committee’s second consideration, that “only very rarely” has a person “captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future” in the way that Obama has. This is veiled Norwegian racial commentary, an acknowledgment of the president’s dazzling personal profile against the backdrop of America’s unjust history.

The racial dimension of the award was not lost on African observers. Kenyans are celebrating the recognition of a “son of Africa” who has inspired the world. In the spirit of “Ubuntu,” South Africa’s president explained, Obama’s mission “celebrates our common humanity.” The Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu credited the award with helping people of color around the world to “walk a little taller.”

“What I actually want to say is, yippee!” exulted Tutu.

Americans should embrace the honor just as unequivocally, and also recognize the prize as recognition of the American electorate’s contribution to the cause of peace. Like Obama, Americans as a society have not yet managed to blunt the force of conflict, weaponry, and planetary degradation. We have made only tentative steps toward repairing our country’s image in the eyes of the world. With the election of Barack Obama, however, the United States transcended its four-hundred year history of racial violence and suppression. We set a standard of openness and opportunity to amaze the world.

Violence as an alternative to political inclusion and equity persisted even in Obama’s lifetime. He was born in the era of the Freedom Rides and church bombings, when a majority of white southerners opposed equal opportunity and a minority dedicated themselves to murder and intimidation. The efforts of white supremacists in the 1960s continued the long tradition of racial violence in the American South, brutality that emerged first amid the desperate struggle of chattel enslavement. Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize helps us to understand slavery as an act of war, the companion of countless sins in the seizure, transport, and management of captives. In behalf of its monstrous cause, the U.S. slaveholding interest persisted in one of history’s most costly wars, claiming the lives of more than 600,000 North and South.

As demonstrated in the history of the Colfax Massacre, the killing of more than one hundred armed African American men in Louisiana in 1873, the violence and repression persisted in the aftermath of Emancipation. The establishment of blacks as voters and as aspirants to elected offices had met the most fierce resistance of the White South establishment. Allied to the Ku Klux Klan and other paramilitary groups, white voters wrenchingly contorted U.S. democratic practices to exclude the terrorized African American electorate.

White supremacy became the special project of government in southern communities and elsewhere: a monopoly on opportunity enforced by legal and extralegal means of black disempowerment.

In the Age of Obama (and his parents), black people and their allies initiated a hopeful reversal of this painful legacy. Americans of his mother’s generation perceived the alternative of cooperative engagement between the races. None pursued this kind of mutuality with more enthusiasm than Stanley Ann Dunham, and no one, by most measures, yielded better results.

Dr. Dunham was educated by anthropology and courted in Swahili and the King’s English by Barack Obama, Sr. Emboldened by the 1960s, Hawaiian Style, and university romance, they lived the principle of love, not war. Best of all, Obama’s mother enlisted her steadfast and resourceful parents, ordinary white folks, in the project of raising her mixed race son in an atmosphere of peace.

White Americans’ ability to repeat the cognitive and emotional leap that the Dunhams achieved has sustained a growing culture of acceptance of and mutual benefit by blacks and whites. Inspired by black leadership, including the first two black American Nobel Laureates, Ralph Bunche and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Americans in Obama’s lifetime have constructed a civil society more than a world away from the Colfax Massacre and other acts of racial violence.

The inauguration of President Obama only weeks before the Nobel deadline was an act of joyful concord that remained fresh in the minds of Norway’s committee of five through the first turgid months of disengagement from the George Bush Era. Obama calls for diplomacy and cooperation in international affairs. Having presumed to overcome symbolically the legacy of racial hatred, Obama’s America might reasonably expect to win the world to the audacity of hope.

Strengthen democracy and human rights around the world by setting an example? Peace Prize Committee to Americans: Yes, you can.

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