What Obama Means to the World
When author and screenwriter Ronan Bennett was wrongfully imprisoned by the British in the infamous Long Kesh in Northern Ireland in the early '70s, a number of books made the rounds among the Irish Republican prisoners. There was Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, which tells the story of a Bolshevik revolutionary imprisoned by the Soviet state he helped create, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn's account of an ordinary prisoner in a Soviet labor camp. But the one that spoke to Bennett most urgently was Soledad Brother, the prison letters of black American militant George Jackson.
"The other books didn't have the visceral impact, but Soledad Brother was just something I could relate to completely. I felt I knew the man," Bennett recalls. "There were all kinds of recognizable elements in our struggle. The most powerful part was the way he conducted himself in the jail.... It was about dignity. Never, ever folding or letting threats from the jailers make you collapse.... It was about being principled, dignified and resistant. I tried as best as I could to replicate that attitude of no compromise, resistance and the emphasis they put on solidarity. Strong standing up for the weak."
Bennett had never met a black person. Indeed, the only ones he'd ever seen had been those serving in the British army. Nonetheless, as an Irish Catholic in occupied Ulster, black America loomed large in his life. "From a very early age my family had supported Martin Luther King and civil rights," he says. "We had this instinctive sympathy with black Americans. A lot of the iconography and even the anthems, like 'We Shall Overcome,' were taken from black America. By about '71 or '72, I was more interested in Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver than Martin Luther King."
For most of the last century, progressives and the oppressed around the world have looked to black America as a beacon--the redemptive force that stood in permanent dissidence against racism at home and imperialism abroad. "No African came in freedom to the shores of the New World," wrote nineteenth-century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville. "The Negro transmits to his descendants at birth the external mark of his ignominy. The law can abolish servitude, but only God can obliterate its traces." That "external mark" has acted like a passport to an outside world that ostensibly distinguishes black America from the rest of the country and its policies.
When Kwame Nkrumah came to power in a newly independent Ghana, he sent for black American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois to edit the Encyclopedia Africana and Paul Robeson to take up the chair of music and drama at Accra University. Even as colonial France massacred Algerians by the score, it opened its arms wide to the likes of Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. For some time during the 1980s and '90s, Jesse Jackson acted as a rogue ambassador, parachuting into trouble spots and freeing hostages.
This affinity found potent expression in sport and popular culture too. For most of the last century, there was an organic connection between black artists and the aspirations of African-Americans and other oppressed minorities. Their songs, like Sam Cooke's "Change Is Gonna Come" and McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," provided a soundtrack for a generation of liberation politics (not to mention Barack Obama's campaign). In sports, Tommie Smith and John Carlos greeted "The Star-Spangled Banner" from the Olympic podium in Mexico City in 1968 with their clenched fists. Their protest has resonated across nations and ages. Margaret Lambert, a Jewish high jumper prevented from competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, told NPR last year how delighted that protest had made her feel.
Then there was the inimitable Muhammad Ali. "We knew Muhammad Ali as a boxer, but more importantly for his political stance," says Zairean musician Malik Bowens in the film When We Were Kings. "When we saw that America was at war with a Third World country in Vietnam, and one of the children of the US said, 'Me? You want me to fight against Vietcong?' It was extraordinary that in America someone could have taken such a position at that time. He may have lost his title. He may have lost millions of dollars. But that's where he gained the esteem of millions of Africans."
By the beginning of the new millennium, however, black America's most globally prominent faces were singing and rapping about getting rich. They were playing golf and tennis and staying clear of political controversies that might threaten their record-breaking endorsement deals. And in the figures of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, they were representing the most reactionary US foreign policy in at least a generation. When Secretary of State Powell addressed the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in September 2002, he was jeered. A year earlier, when he refused to show up at a United Nations antiracism summit after the United States resisted all talk of reparations for slavery and stifled criticism of Israel, the cartoonist for the South African newspaper Citizen ridiculed him: "Coming Uncle Tom?" asked two characters representing participants at the conference. "De Massa in de big house says I ain't," responds a Powell dressed up as a house servant.
To the world, black Americans were looking and sounding increasingly like the rest of America--for better or worse.
But on November 4, 2008, black America was once again the toast of the world. Throughout the Caribbean, radios blared Mighty Sparrow's calypso hit "Barack the Magnificent"; firecrackers went off in El Salvador; Liberians danced in the street. The Times of London's front page showed a picture of Obama below the words The New World. The Sun, Britain's top-selling daily tabloid, showed Obama under the headline One Giant Leap for Mankind.
In the tiny Romanian village of Rusciori, Obama Sorin Ilie Scoica was born on election day. "When I saw Obama on TV, my heart swelled with joy. I thought he was one of us Roma because of his skin color," said Maria Savu, the baby's grandmother, who hoped his name would bring him luck. In Ghana, John Atta Mills, an opposition candidate running on an agenda of change, produced posters of himself standing next to a life-size cutout of Obama. In Brazil, at least eight black candidates took advantage of a quirk in electoral laws so they could stand as "Barack Obama" in elections in October.
America had a black leader, and suddenly everybody else wanted one. Or at least they wondered how they could get hold of one. Political conversation in France, Britain and Germany, in particular, went almost effortlessly from how to keep immigrants out to how descendants of (mostly) immigrants could ascend to the highest office in the land--or why they could not. "America is a New World again," said Rama Yade, junior minister for human rights and France's only black government member. "On this morning, we all want to be American so we can take a bite of this dream unfolding before our eyes." Cem Özdemir, the first politician of Turkish descent to lead a German political party, was not holding his breath [see Paul Hockenos, page 17]. "In Europe there is still a long way to go," he told Der Spiegel. "The message is that it's time to move on in Europe. We have to give up seeing every political figure from an ethnic minority as an ambassador of the country of his forefathers."
In almost every instance the simple, honest answer to the question "Could it happen here?" was no. The Obama story was indeed about race. But at its root it was essentially about white people. Would they vote for him? Would they kill him?