Obama is a celebration of brown

How black is Barrack Obama? The answer is that he is neither black nor white. He is brown—the colour of the future.

As a Southern African mother of two daughters of mixed race, the colour brown has long fascinated me. A few years ago Waterford/Kamhlaba, my alma mater and the school in Swaziland that pioneered mixed-race education, asked me to write an article on what had changed in the 25-odd years since I had attended the school and then decided to send my daughters there after the advent of democracy in South Africa. I wrote it in the form of a letter to my two daughters on their fortune in being born brown.

I was born of white South African parents who grew up in typical homes; my father of a well-to-do family and my mother of more working class (and rabidly racist) roots. As young idealists who met at the University of Natal in the Fifties, they came to the conclusion that the only way to free themselves from the racism in their blood was to immerse themselves in the simple life of rural Africa.

An opportunity arose to take up positions on a Christian mission in a remote part of the then Southern Rhodesia, which they believed would soon join Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) in gaining independence.

As their children grew up speaking the local dialect and going through the black education system geared to ensure that only one-eighth of learners could ever reach secondary school, they became involved in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, only to be deported to Botswana in 1976.

That is how my brother and I found ourselves (on scholarship) at Kamhlaba, which in isiSwati means “small world”. At the time I felt a great ambivalence towards what I felt was a small and artificial world. Yes, the kids of the rich and mighty, the Oppenheimers and the Mandelas could find common cause in this haven so close and yet so far from the madness around us. But the minute we crossed the border into South Africa we went our separate ways.

A few years later I met my future husband, a Ghanaian, at Princeton University in the US in the most antagonistic circumstances. Then president of the African Students’ Association (ASA) that had been active in the divest-from-South Africa campaign, he had taken up a case against the university for granting a scholarship to a white Rhodesian—me.

African-American colleagues had difficulties figuring out how to deal with a white African. As I gained acceptance in the ASA, African students made the point that I had more in common with them than did their African-American cousins.

During my four years of study in the US, I found my greatest comfort zone to be in the Princeton Inn kitchen where I worked to supplement my student grant. Hungry for a link to the continent, working-class African Americans such as Jim Saunders, the chef, and Minnie Somers, my supervisor, took me into their hearts and homes, creating lasting bonds. When I went to register the birth of my first daughter in Zimbabwe in 1984, the form asked for race of mother, father and child. I put African under each. The young black bureaucrat behind the desk politely changed these to read: “white”, “black” and “coloured”. I asked that he change these to read “human, human, human”. He explained that there was no such category as the human race.

Ten years later, when I had rediscovered my South African roots (albeit with little or no connection to my white relatives who are dotted around the country), my younger daughter had the experience of being dropped off at a school event by her dad and hearing two white colleagues say: “She is not a real coloured: her father is black!”

My husband promptly made sure that our daughters had the choice of both South African and Ghanaian citizenship. We decided to send them to Kamhlaba, where we hoped that they would gain more of a world view than might be possible in the immediate post-apartheid South Africa.

I remember writing in my article for the Kamhlaban (reflecting on what had changed in a quarter of a century) that if you get on the subway in New York or London, you would be hard pressed to find a face that is purely of any race.

I recalled that in the arguments that my father often had with my maternal grandfather about his greatest phobia—his granddaughters marrying black men—my dad used to point out that if the Almighty had not wanted it so He would not have created from this mix the beautiful colour brown.

If all that Barrack Obama succeeds in doing is to show us that between the black and white of race and politics there is a colour brown in which you can celebrate your African roots as well as pay tribute to the white grandmother and mother who raised you without being called an Oreo (black cookies with a white filling), he will have done our world a great service.

Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service which offers fresh views on everyday news

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