When I first heard Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize I reacted with a fair amount of surprise. And then terror.
While I have only been a lukewarm supporter of the President’s initial period in office–less than impressed with his commitment to corporate welfare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and avoidance of issues confronting immigrant and LGBT equality–I am an avid ally of him as a fellow person of color.
I can appreciate the difficulty of a fairly progressive-minded, person of color has when they occupy the most powerful political seat in this nation. We are a nation that has refused in bold and multiple ways to confront its white supremacist past, and the powerfully lingering ways that past structures our present. The social and cultural baggage of more than two centuries of this great failure is lifted and carried by all those who choose to bear its load, and all people of color whether or not they so choose. Barack Obama, in many ways, carries a share beyond measure.
So when I heard he had won, the second thing that came to my mind was that this would be used by his opponents. When I opened up my news app to read about the award, one of the first voices I read was Republican chairman Michael Steele’s who asked “What has President Obama actually accomplished?” Most early coverage grappled with this question, baffled by the President’s distinction coming at a time when he officiates over two wars and struggles on the domestic front to secure his and his party’s agenda. What I knew would be coming were even more racially-infused analyses, ones putting his award into question as they imply he was nothing more than a recipient of global affirmative action.
While I, too, was surprised that Obama won the award, it is not an unjustified recognition.
The U.S. has a difficult time thinking beyond its borders, and making sense of this award is nearly all about that. The Nobel Committee bestowed this distinction not for his domestic struggles but for his leadership on the global stage. While we are stuck in the health care and immigration debates–both of which DO relate to hemispheric peace–our President has also been acting for peace in the global arena. Whether in his support of a nuclear free world, or for meaningful efforts to check global warming, Obama has been active in progressive ways beyond our borders.
Of course, he has already begun accumulating a list of omissions on that same stage, issues and conflicts to which he and his administration have been all too silent, or vocal in less than productive ways. But the award is not a litmus test of issues as much as it is a process of possibility.
And here is where race may be involved. There is a powerful element to his international distinction that comes with his race. It is not just because he is black, but this distinction does come from the ways he is connected to his blackness. That might seem confusing, but it’s really not. Barack Obama has made himself a national and international voice for those who do not have one. In his consistent rhetoric (and in measured ways beyond) he has shown that the issues confronting the poor and the marginalized are significant and worthy of deliberation at the highest of political levels. Perhaps more important is the sense of moral imperative he gives to these issues. This is, I think, a significant component to the way he is regarded on the world stage. As a black man who advocates for the issues confronting the “global South”–the masses of poor and hungry being victimized by war and other government machinations–who are both nonwhite and the majority of this globe, Obama has become a force of good and, potentially, much more good for the world.
Obama is, in global terms, an authentic voice for the world’s oppressed. Some of this comes from nothing other than being who he is. But all of it comes from his unwillingness to forget and depart from who he is.
The most significant thing he has done this year that has received less than the attention it deserved was his trip to the African continent. That this was under the radar on the US domestic scene has probably as much to do with the Obama White House than anything else. Timed to be part of a weekend, when press coverage is low, his administration might have feared the radical white backlash that would rather predictably come with a the nation’s first black President traveling to Africa. The escalation of the “birthers” and the mainstreaming of their message didn’t help.
But it was a powerful weekend. I still don’t think we, as a nation, have a firm grasp of the awesomely tragic ways European imperialism and slavery transformed the world. I am quite certain we don’t appreciate the ways most of the global South continues to feel their affects. While we think of these as things that have passed, they have no such luxury. For those reasons, I am also quite certain few of us could appreciate the significance of a nonwhite person, in his capacity as the de facto head of the First World, symbolically “returning” to the Third World. I don’t think we can fully appreciate the inherent possibility for change that brings with it.
Today, I think the Nobel selection committee did.