“Obama’s achievement will change America’s image around the world, and change the mindset of Americans, too. We, as black people, now have the hope that we have never, ever had.”
On 5 June 2008, The New York Times ran an article by Marcus Mabry which recorded the views of some Africans, as well as African-Americans, on the defeat, by Barack Obama, of Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic Party nomination. The article proved beyond all doubt that some political events can achieve more, by the inspiration they spread among some groups and individuals, than the intrinsic worth of the events themselves. And indeed, for all we know, Barack Obama may become a disappointing president, even if he wins the election in November and becomes the first black president of the USA.
Of course, if that were to happen, it wouldn’t be the first time a politician had disappointed the hopes of his ardent supporters. The most recent case I can remember was the joy I felt when Tony Blair became the British prime minister in 1997. Six years later, as Blair trooped along behind George W. Bush to go and murder innocent people in Iraq, it took only the mention of his name to fill my whole being with nausea. How could I have been so stupid as to repose hope in such a man? But I had.
So, what Obama may yet become is always at the back of one’s mind, even as one supports him with one’s whole heart. However, there is comfort in the incontrovertible fact that in Obama’s case, the significance of what he has already achieved by beating Hillary Clinton, is, in itself, so historically important that unless he becomes a really very bad president, or, indeed, a very good one, it will dwarf what he is yet to fail to achieve, or actually accomplish in office. For he has liberated the minds of all black people in the world who, through the domination that white people have held over us in the past, had resigned themselves to playing second fiddle to white people, be it in school, the work place, social life, or politics.
I can’t quite find an analogy that adequately does the situation justice, so I’ll go back to Biblical times. Imagine you were a member of the tiny Israeli army, that was drawn up against the mighty, well-armed force of the Philistines, and you were fearfully enduring the daily taunts of their giant, Goliath. And you then saw the young lad, David, slay the giant Goliath with a mere pebble from his slingshot – what would have happened in your mind that day?
Well, this is how Obama’s victory has affected them, as related to Marcus Mabry in his New York Times article. Bus driver Kwabena Sam-Brew, a 38-year-old immigrant from Ghana who lives in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, told Mabry that he doubted whether his 5-year-old American-born daughter would remember the rally that effectively crowned Obama as the Democratic nominee. But Sam-Brew said he would describe it to her in later years. He would tell her that the night Obama became the Democratic nominee was “the night that all Americans became one”.
Obama’s achievement would, in the words of Sam-Brew, “change the [American] nation’s image around the world, and change the mindset of Americans, too. We, as black people, now have that hope that we have never, ever had. I have new goals for my little girl. She can’t give me any excuses because she’s black.”
Wilhelmina Brown, 54, an account representative of a bank in St. Paul, Minnesota, told Mabry that it was not “that we’re so distraught, but our children need to be able to see a black adult as a leader for the country, so they can know we can reach for those same goals. We don’t need to give up at a certain level”.
She might have added that for black women, Obama’s achievement is particularly awesome because so many black women have experienced abandonment at the hands of black men like Obama, who enjoy sexual relations with them, and then, if any kids are produced by the relationship, leave the women to raise the kids on their own.
It is true that the status of “single mother” is not the monopoly of black women, whether in America or elsewhere. Nor is it anything to be ashamed of. But it is a sociological phenomenon that black men in America do tend to abandon their “families” more often than any other group in America, with the result that there are relatively few male role models in the black community in the US, aside from the usual cliché mob of pop and rap stars, basketball, baseball, and football players, other athletes and the occasional film star.
Alison Kane, a white 34-year-old transport analyst from Edina, Minnesota, told Mabry that Obama’s success as a bi-racial politician would have a similar effect on her 21-month-old bi-racial daughter. “When she’s out in… some small town in rural America, they’ll think, ‘Oh, I know someone like you. Our president is like you!…’ That just opens minds for people, to have someone to relate to. And that makes me feel better, as a mom.”
But some African-Americans are sceptical that America can change even if Obama becomes president. Mabry quoted one woman as saying “I’m not trying to be racist or over the top, but it is seriously apparent that black people aren’t valued in this country. In the last 12 months, six [black] kids were being tried for attempted murder for a school fight; an unarmed [black] man got 51 bullets in his body by a New York police officer [and] died.”
In fact, three detectives from the New York City police department were charged in the shooting that left 51 bullets in the body of the black man, Sean Bell, on his wedding day in 2006. But – as if to strengthen the woman’s point, the policemen were all acquitted. It’s as if pumping bullets into a black man’s body were as unremarkable as doing the same thing to a donkey.
Obama himself, although careful not to make too much of his race, has acknowledged that his campaign and victory have had an effect on other African-Americans. In TV interviews, he has said that perhaps the most powerful story he had heard was at a conference, where a woman came up to him and told him that her son who teaches in an inner-city school in San Francisco, had told her he had seen a change in behaviour among the young African-American boys there, in terms of how they think about their studies.“Those are the kinds of things that I think make you appreciate that it’s not about you as an individual’” Obama said. “It’s about our country and the progress we’ve made.”
A Ghanaian who has lived in the US for a long time, commented on “Okyeame”, an internet discussion group, that Obama was able to transmit such feelings to other African-Americans because he was “a culturally-situated person”. Obama never pointed to the village of his Kenyan father “with his left hand“ (that is to say, with disrespect). “He was proud of his father and his name.” That was important because in order to get to somewhere, one must know where one came from.
The majority of the children of Africans born in America lacked this cultural fortitude exemplified in Obama. As a Sunday School teacher in an all-Ghanaian church in the USA, the Ghanaian who commented on “Okyeame” was “befuddled” by the way the children showed total disrespect for their Ghanaian parents and absolute disregard for their parents’ culture and norms. Some of the children would not even let their parents call them by their “African names” when their American friends came to visit. Some children forbade their parents to speak “that African language” when their American friends came to see them. Some did not want their parents to visit their schools, and there was a whole host of other demeaning constrains that these children developed, as a result of “cultural kwashiakor!” [under-nourishment].
This propensity to degrade their culture [he went on] tended to psychologically degrade the children as time went on. Obama’s mother, on the other hand, allowed him to take in all cultures with respect. So Obama never degraded his side of Africa. And further, Obama fervently told his friends not to call him “Barry” for Barack! “Even if he had not entered politics, Obama’s accomplishments would have been worthy to emulate. But as president, he would serve as a beacon of hope for all those who have felt left behind. Until those left behind decided to emulate Obama’s cultural fortitude to stimulate mental toughness [in themselves], 10 consecutive black presidents would have little effect on the growth of those left behind,” [the Okyeame member concluded].
A Nigerian, who wrote on “Navigant” (also on the internet) confessed that he had been a supporter of Hillary Clinton against Obama, but nevertheless wanted to congratulate Obama on the good and winning campaign he had run. “I did not support him; [the Nigerian wrote] “but he did enough to earn the confidence of many. The task ahead is to work hard to beat the ageing McCain… Even though I never supported Obama, I almost shed a tear listening to him ... not only for his moving words, but for the major historic event we were witnessing. Whatever happens from now on, his success has left an indelible mark in America’s psyche and has added tons of layers of respectability for the black race on planet Earth…”
The Nigerian concluded: “Barack, you have made sceptics like me very proud (even though we cannot say so publicly). Well done. We all proudly look forward to having a President Obama.”
And that says it all.
(See Diaspora: Obama, a life inside the American dream)