Ari Kelman: First Black Communist President

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ari Kelman is an associate professor of history at UC Davis.]

About two weeks ago, a news producer for one of the television stations in Sacramento called to ask me, “Will Barack Obama be our first black president?” I didn’t write about this at the time, because I was a bit freaked out and didn’t want to make sport of someone I don’t know. But the time has come to tell the story.

I was taken aback by the question itself, I have to admit. I first sputtered something like, “Um, it’s too soon to know.” And then I gathered myself and launched into a minutes-long discussion of race as a social construction, focusing especially on the Phipps case and Omi and Winant’s ideas about racial formation. I elevated the discourse, in other words. And I was in rare form, offering a rock-solid lecture to a keen audience of one. It was gripping. Producer Man (PM) was gripped.

So gripped that he didn’t say a word until I paused for breath. Then PM interjected, “No, I mean, hasn’t there already been a black president? I mean hasn’t there been a president with black blood.” I started hemming and hawing: “Oh, black blood, well, hmm.” Until, finally, I said, “I don’t mean to be rude. Really, I don’t. But where did you say you’re calling from? Because you sound like a white supremacist, talking about blood purity.” And that really took him aback. He was no longer enthralled by the subtlety of my disqusition. “No,” he sputtered, “I’m not white [well, okay then]. I’m just saying that Obama has black blood. But he’s not the first, right? He won’t be the first black president?” “That’s all I’m saying,” he added rather more angrily than I considered necessary. To which I inquired, “You’re talking about Clinton?” “Nope,” came his answer, “I mean Harding. Didn’t Harding have black blood?”

I caught my breath, laughed, and said, “Dude, Harding was white. That rumor was a smear used by his political opponents. There wasn’t any truth to it.” And that was that. Or so I thought. But then I started wondering. Not if Harding was African-American. But where the stories to that effect had originated. John Dean (yes, that John Dean), in his biography of Harding, notes that rumors of African-American ancestry swirled around Warren G. (as his homeys called him) during his childhood. Later, Harding’s father-in-law, desperate to break up his daugter’s relationship with young Warren, amplified the charges. And finally, Harding’s political oppononents did run with the lies, including during Harding’s campaign for the presidency.

So, here’s the thing: last night, in the wake of Obama’s huge victory in Wisconsin, the great Ogged of the great Unfogged wondered: “One question now is what else the Clinton’s will try to use against Obama, or whether they have something up their sleeve for the debates?” I have no idea what the answer to that might be. But I do know that if Obama is the nominee — we still aren’t there yet — we’re going to start hearing a lot more questions like PM’s: supposedly innocuous queries about the man’s racial identity, often with a subtext of whether he “shares our values.”

And don’t look now, but the great Katherine points out that it’s already happening. Over at National Review Online’s squalid gossip rag, the corner, super-classy Lisa Schiffren is wondering about “Obama’s Political Origins.” You see, it’s not really about race at all. She just want to know why Obama’s white mother would have had sex with his father, a black man. And the answer is: Communism! Simple. Honestly, that’s her argument. White women, in Schiffren’s experience, didn’t make babies with black men unless there’s a reason, usually politics, especially radical politics:

Obama and I are roughly the same age. I grew up in liberal circles in New York City — a place to which people who wished to rebel against their upbringings had gravitated for generations. And yet, all of my mixed race, black/white classmates throughout my youth, some of whom I am still in contact with, were the product of very culturally specific unions. They were always the offspring of a white mother, (in my circles, she was usually Jewish, but elsewhere not necessarily) and usually a highly educated black father. And how had these two come together at a time when it was neither natural nor easy for such relationships to flourish? Always through politics. No, not the young Republicans. Usually the Communist Youth League. Or maybe a different arm of the CPUSA. But, for a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or 60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics.

Let’s be clear about two things. First, Schiffren’s still in touch with some of the “mixed race” people who grew up in her ‘hood. Make no mistake about it: some of her friends are beige. And second, she talks to these people even though the unions that created them weren’t “natural.” In short, she’s an open-minded person with “mixed race” friends, unnatural friends to be sure, but friends nevertheless. Well, she doesn’t actually allow that they’re her friends. But she’s in touch with them. Which is nice. You could even say it’s mighty white of her. But that might be gratuitous.

Beyond that, after admitting that she has no idea how Obama’s parents actually met, Schiffren points to another article, from the fair and balanced site, Accuracy in Media, noting that, in Hawaii, the Obamas “had close relations with a known black Communist intellectual.” Then, after explaining that the Commie in question, Frank Marshall Davis, “mentored” Barack Obama in some way, Schiffren arrives here:

Political correctness was invented precisely to prevent the mainstream liberal media from persuing the questions which might arise about how Senator Obama’s mother, from Kansas, came to marry an African graduate student. Love? Sure, why not? But what else was going on around them that made it feasible?

And here:

It was, of course, an explicit tactic of the Communist party to stir up discontent among American blacks, with an eye toward using them as the leading edge of the revolution.

Before finishing up with a flourish:

Time for some investigative journalism about the Obama family’s background, now that his chances of being president have increased so much.

Let the games begin. Oh, and I got another phone message from PM this morning. It seems that he wants to talk again. Maybe because I was so helpful the last time. It almost makes me feel bad for Warren Harding. Not that there’s anything wrong with having “black blood.” But a black Communist? Now that’s worth investigating.

[Update: Reading Henry at Crooked Timber, I realize that Belle Waring has posted on this already. Which offers me the chance to reiterate that I heart Belle Waring. But not in a creepy way. At all. Really. And Crooked Timber’s okay, too.]

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N. Friedman - 2/29/2008

Good luck in your campaign.

Arnold Shcherban - 2/28/2008

OK, let's leave it at this: it scares
you, it does not scare me, but I'm still voting... for myself.

N. Friedman - 2/28/2008


A number of points in response...

Before making my points I note that I assume I understand you correctly and that you think that the you and me's of the world are protected by this historic moment because, as you see it, the moment of history is part of the mix in what a leader, for good or bad, can do.

I am not sure I disagree with your view that historic moment is a limiting factor. So, I shall let that notion alone.

One. I am not so sure that this troubled time is not one where a divisive leader might well cause all sorts of trouble. Look at the problems which President Bush may have made worse - and, to note, I am not entirely sure whether his wars will, in the end, lead only to bad things as is currently the popular view although I could not remotely imagine myself taking most of the steps he has taken were I the leader - as a result of today's problems in the Muslim Arab regions.

I shall note my earlier point that I think you may have overlooked in reading my last comment. I suggested the possibility that Obama is, in part, tied to a community to which he may owe something. Which is to say, were he to reject the separatist wing that wants to support him - rather than issue meaningless criticisms of that group's bigotry against Jews and non-African Americans -, that would cost him critical support. So, were Obama to become president, he would, quite possibly, owe something to some rather nasty groups. How does he repay the favors done for him by them? How willing is he to listen to such people?

There is also the point that we live in perilous times. From who will Obama look for counsel when the likes of Ahmadinejad rail that Jews are bacteria? According to Obama, his spiritual adviser - his confidant, perhaps - is a man who thinks Farrakhan is a great man. So, what advice will Obama find sage when faced with nasty demands from the outside world. Will he attempt, as some suggest, to appease Arab Muslim anger by taking it out on Jews - as some people suggest be done? Will he listen to people like his spiritual adviser?

At this point, we do not know enough about Obama to have any idea what he is about. Were we dealing with Hillary, we already know that she will likely behave similarly to her husband. One can disagree with such an approach. But, there is no mystery. With McCain, we can also be pretty sure who has his ear. Again, there is no mystery to him. We can agree or disagree with him. But Obama, at present, is a mystery man. And, that scares me, especially when his past associations are divisive.

Arnold Shcherban - 2/28/2008

Mr. Friedman,

I'm glad that you stated your position towards Obama clearly and
without resorting to any inflammatory and insulting personal remarks and labels that the writing style of the so-called "Professour" Eckstein is so rich with.
As soon as the "cautionary" articles on Obama started to propagate
through HNN pages I also stated my position on him quite definitively.
I mentioned the shift of his position
on withdrawal of US troops from Iraq since the beggining of primaries campaign along with the vagueness and ambivalence of his calls for "change" to the point that one has to make a guess according to one's own political convictions and personal wishes what senator Obama might have meant by that "change".
Therefore, in one of my comments on this issue I called him "a grey candidate". And he will remain to be
"grey" in my opinion, until he formulates the interpretation of the changes he allegedly strives to bring on clearly and umambigiously.
This being said, however, I cannot help noticing that some of senator Obama's political adversaries (if one believes that they have been expressing their political and ideological positions sincerely all along), rushed to exploit that particular lack of content in his speeches in a rather insidious way; the claims ranging from Obama being a secret Muslim up to being a secret communist.
And that's exactly what I have been raising my voice against - essentially - nothing else.

You're right in stating that President's personality does make a difference, presenting some convincing examples of the changes which, perhaps, would not be possible (at the time of their occurrence) if not for this or that President's push
for those changes.
But what I meant by "hurting" you or me and other Americans had little to do with the content of your examples.
Yours main and clearly expressed concern was/is Obama's possible divisiness - moreover - possible dissemination of hatred within American multi-ethnical society. It is that concern I targeted in my "hurting" objection. And it was in that sense I mentioned he-can't-hurt-you-or-me. The reason is simple: no group and party (who has real socio-economic and political power in this country) will let him (Hillary, or McCain.)
All you examples of the significant changes constituted by the former Presidents and the current one has to be taken mostly in historical, not in personal perspective, to understand. They are not as much examples of achievements of certain personalities (though the personalities involved, as I mentioned before, do matter, and often very much so), as of the particular consequences of the pressure of historical circumstances and of social and political evolution, in general. It is a prominent (though sometimes looking mysterious) feature of critical times in the history of practically all countries that one or several political leaders (good or bad), who express the need for change to save the day the best way and executing that change emerge just at the right time. Take Lenin, or Roosevelt, or Hitler, or Churchill, or Reagan, or Gorbachev, or Bush.
Could they have done what they have if not for the right historical, socio-political circumstances, and the wide support among either respective populus or powerful special interests?
Another words: those leaders were essentially products of their time.
It is true that, perhaps, other personalities would fair worse in the same circumstances (all other things being equal) than the listed ones, but this comparatively much better "performance" is the main reason behind their greatness, not that they created those circumstances ot have done the deeds all on their own.
You may not agree with me on the primacy of historical circumstances and socio-political evolution over the personal characteristics of the players involved, but my "hurting" point was based primarily on this primacy I believe in, which is based on what I know from historical sources, and, certainly, on my philosophical upbringing, as well.

Joseph Mutik - 2/27/2008

You are a Henry Ford fan, international Jew. Actually what Henry Ford meant is Jews like me, who make money, not recycling communist garbage collectors like you.

N. Friedman - 2/27/2008


I do not claim that Obama has secret Muslim convictions. I never suggested that or anything of the sort. I, instead, would suggest that he may perhaps - and this is something I would like to understand better - have separatist, not inclusionist, convictions. And, separatists tend to be divisive. And, with that concern, I noted that I feel uncomfortable voting for him, unless he has a far better explanation than he has thus far presented.

Last night's performance did not help me very much and, in fact, reinforced my concerns. You will recall that he claimed to condemn Farrakhan, in response to a question about whether he would reject Farrakhan's support. Mrs. Clinton attempted to make something of that but she did not do it in a sufficiently artful way so Obama weaseled out of the subject by saying that condemn and reject are the same thing - which, in the context of the question, was clearly not the case.

But, if you look carefully at what his original answer said, what he clearly meant was that he is perfectly fine with having Farrakhan's support even though there is some disagreement with certain of his views. And, Obama said that because, I would think, he does not wish to alienate an important bloc of supporters to whom Obama owes something - namely, an important bloc his voters who do, in fact, support Farrakhan. So, that suggests to me that Obama may, indeed, have or, perhaps, need to have that group's interests at heart to the detriment of other groups.

I am, in fact, very concerned about Obama. Is he a stealth candidate who will, upon being sworn in, act to stir up hatred? That, notwithstanding your view of the US, is something a president can do.

Or, is he an opportunist, who says this to one group and that to another group, all in order to advance himself? In that case, what are we getting, if we elect him?

There is, lastly, his past association with people who want, rather than to settle the Arab Israeli dispute, to dismantle Israel. Read the article I posted from the Electronic Intifadah. The author of the article is not a nut. He is a sharp guy but who, rather than wanting to settle the dispute with everyone getting something, thinks that the settlement should be the end of Israel.

On your view, one president is the same as the next. I do not see that. I think that presidents can be very consequential, both due to circumstance and due to ability (or inability) to advance an agenda.

Take the current president as an example. Were a different president elected, I suspect that very different choices would be made on a whole host of issues, most notably regarding the decision to invade Iraq and the persons chosen to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court.

You say that Obama can do nothing to hurt you or me. That is simply not true. One need only open a history book to see just how fragile civil rights are. And, wealth does not insulate people from prejudice, especially if it has the support of a president.

As for an example of presidents who have been very consequential at changing the US, think LBJ and medicare and civil rights legislation which did substantial things to help African Americans. LBJ was, on such issues, extraordinary, pushing legislation through which had substantial resistance - and, in the case of civil rights legislation, resistance from his allies in the Democratic party. So, I do not remotely agree.

Or, take Ronald Reagan. He was not and still is not my cup of tea. However, it has to be said that he took a country that was, by even the measure of his predecessor, in a deep morass and turned attitudes around - dramatically around. And, he was rather good at pushing his agenda through Congress, most especially in comparison with the incapable Jimmy Carter, who was politically inept - apart from the Israeli Egyptian treaty - whatever one might say about his views about the world.

Arnold Shcherban - 2/27/2008

Do you really feel apprehensive of Obama?
Do you really think that even if he hides some (too) left (or Muslim) convictions, he will be able to do something about them becoming President of the US?
Then you knowledge of today's America not just poor, but completely distorted out of shape.
What can he do to hurt you or me and other white or black folks, or this country's internal or foreign policy?
Has any President (or party/group for that matter) been able to
change major socio-economic, ideological, or political principles
this country had been standing on for many decades, so far?
Who is Obama? God in human image?

Arnold Shcherban - 2/27/2008

I congratulate you for finally coming out of the peacemaking closet... as a true imperialist and militarist you're. That's exactly what I've been saying about such folks like you all along.

Arnold Shcherban - 2/27/2008

From me, international Jew, to you - Zionist Jew.

N. Friedman - 2/26/2008


I think the questions about ongoing connections with racial separatists and the like are legitimate.

Joseph Mutik - 2/26/2008

replace "context" with "content"

Joseph Mutik - 2/26/2008

Doesn't matter who is the president, if the U.S. "national interest" will require blaming the Jews for high gasoline prices, jobs going overseas, etc., Israel will be left alone to take care of itself. As a former IDF soldier I know that the only real god is the Israeli Army and, if they really exist, the Israeli nukes.
A very good description of this reality you can find in this article:

Joseph Mutik - 2/26/2008

About the context, it represent exactly what one can expect from a Russian (probably Ukrainian) Jew hater.

Joseph Mutik - 2/26/2008

And of course his responsible mother is the main cause for this. OJ Simpson is a successful black too.

Arnold Shcherban - 2/26/2008

Jews of the world unite... against Obama! The only thing he can do to
"convince us" of his non-communist convictions is to convert to Judaism.
That's the message of the American Zionist community.

N. Friedman - 2/26/2008


I meant to point to this photograph, not the one noted in my post.

N. Friedman - 2/26/2008

Mr. Mutik,

I could care less about Obama's origins. I do, however, care much to know what his views really are. And, the little I know places his public image in sharp contrast with his past and, perhaps, even his present.

See this and this and, most disturbingly, this and, from a supporter of Israel's demise, this - which includes this priceless picture.

So, we have a candidate who appears to belong to a church which seems to hold separatist racial views - and he is evidently close with the paster who seems to hold such views and who is close to the separatist figure Farrakhan. We have a candidate who, if the Schlussel article is to be believed (and, it could, of course be wrong): "continues to employ several Farrakhan acolytes in high positions on his Illinois and U.S. Senate campaign and office staffs." And this is to be our standard bearer for bringing America altogether?

To my mind, Obama's condemnation of Farrakhan would ring a lot truer if Obama did not feel quite so comfortable with people associated with Farrakhan. Moreover, I would be a lot more comfortable were Obama's views better distinguished from those of Edward Said.

Absent answers to these questions and concerns, I shall not vote for him, even though I would, in the abstract, prefer a Democrat and certainly do like Hillary.

Stephen Kislock - 2/25/2008

As Stephen Colbert, says "I don't see color.", but some people sure do.

Obama's, use of his skin color? What does a Black person see, when they look
at Obama? I think you have some growing up to do.

Joseph Mutik - 2/25/2008

Obama's career is clearly the result of his upbringing by his white and responsible mother. If his single mother would have been black she would have a good chance of being a crack user (another prejudice). His father followed the pattern of black a father leaving his child with the single mother.
The question is: Is he WHITE or black?
I am a Hillary supporter but I'd be able to vote for Obama if he can convince me about his character. For me the color of the skin doesn't matter and Obama's use of his skin color looks quite suspicious to me?!

Vernon Clayson - 2/23/2008

Gasp! A black communist in this day and age and (Gasp! again) Warren Harding outed as mixed race, it's all too much to digest. Everyone can't be a blue blood, neither Bill or Hillary Clinton can lay claim to that, his ancestors are more Deliverance type characters while hers were Carl Sandburg types, aspiring to country club membership when things get better. Two more tiresome people I cannot imagine. Barack Obama is more interesting and how his parents got it on is of no consequence. The thought isn't pretty but when is it ever in the cold gray of the dawn, whatever your race or political persuasion.