Saturday, November 8, 2008

On The Significance of Barack Obama As President

On November 4th I sat at my kitchen table in my Oakland apartment watching CNN.Com. In fact for days and weeks before November 4th I had become accustomed to waking and before brushing my teeth or putting the kettle on, turning on my computer to see what had transpired in the presidential campaigns the day before. The US elections had become that important to me; I was rooting for Obama.

As I boiled water for tea, I watched and listened as Obama campaigned in Virginia the day before, making the same speech he had made in the other two states he would visit that day. Speaking of his campaign and the need to maintain respect for differences, he said “we try to make sure we are always reminding our supporters that we are all in this together. We are Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, democrat and republican, young and old, gay and straight, disabled and not disabled, and all of us have something to contribute…” In the crowds behind him, I saw brown and beige and pink skinned people, children and elders, women and men, most standing, some in wheelchairs, and I believed enough to be moved.

That Tuesday reminded me of another day, back in 2004, a year before I left my yellow and green stucco house in Shirlea, Nassau, Bahamas for the neighborhoods of the Bay Area, California. I had been watching the US Democratic Convention on television and a senator from Illinois happened to be speaking. I was sitting down but by the end of his speech I was standing because I could hardly contain the excitement I felt for this man I had never before laid eyes on. His words had a feeling about them, an energy that I had not witnessed in my 35 years, except in snatches of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, both African American visionaries and leaders who had been assassinated by the time I was born. When I heard Barack Obama speak that night I knew he was the one. I told my friends, this is the man who should be president, and when he runs, I am going to the US to vote.

I am a Greek Bahamian who was born in Coral Gables, Florida, so my promise was not an idle one. And on November 4th, 2008, with a long yellow envelope enclosing my absentee ballot in one hand, I left my apartment building at midday and walked the short way to the Lakeside Temple of Practical Christianity where our neighborhood polling station was open and ready to take our votes. As I stepped into the church hall, the full import of what I was about to do assailed me, and I began to weep. In that moment thoughts rushed in all at once: names and faces of the visionaries who had shaped my own most deeply held convictions, about justice and possibilities for change – Rev. King, Malcolm X, Mandela, and the writers whose teachings are my touch stones – Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Alice Walker, James Baldwin; Obama’s message of hope and unity a branch sprouted off that tenacious tree, ancestral roots many and deep. And too, I felt and saw the faces of friends and family, of Bahamians of African descent who have their own histories of liberation struggles, and how I am integrally connected to them, how their history has helped me to understand mine, how their lives today ask questions of me, and answer the questions I cannot answer alone; and of course I felt the hearts and saw the faces of friends here in the United States, many of them Africans in the Diaspora, from the Caribbean or Africa, and some from Boston and Brooklyn, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, and LA and Oakland and their stories were now part of my story and all this history felt deep and wet inside me so that for a split second I had to turn away from the hall, the quiet in there, the voters with their backs to me, to let the tide swell up and of its own accord fall gently away.

I showed the official my envelope. She showed me the black box and the narrow slit to push the envelope through. And on that day I voted for the first African American president of the United States of America. I was grateful to be alive then, and a witness and participant in an exquisite moment in history. I have never believed in the vote as much as I did in that moment. Nor understood how connected we are to all the moments that have brought us collectively to this one.

Later that day, as evening came and votes were being counted on the East Coast, it soon became clear that Barack Obama was going to win. And by 8:30pm that night, only half an hour after West Coast polling stations had closed, CNN had announced their projection that Obama had indeed won and could now be called President Elect Obama. And as the news spread so did voices across Oakland just outside my apartment windows. Horns were blowing, people on the streets were screaming, answering shouts echoed in hallways and in adjacent buildings. Strangers embraced as hoards left bars and community theaters and walked out into the night, wet-eyed and elated.

I have heard friends say that this moment matches in emotional intensity September 11th, but significantly rather than distrust in its aftermath, it has brought more openness. Strangers look at each other and smile tentatively, knowingly, and between them is a sense of the possibility of transformation. The possibility of transformation nationally in which they have already played a part, and if Obama’s election was the result, who knows what could happen next? The old story, with its inevitable limitations and foreseeable conclusions, just got told a different way. And for now the question most people I know seem to be asking is, should we remain hopeful, or cautious, or both?

African American scholar Cornell West, while applauding Obama on his election, cautions that while symbolism is important, Obama the man, the leader, must be held accountable particularly to African Americans and to the poor, and it is how much he is willing to risk on behalf of those suffering most in America that will be the measure of his success in the White House.

Others, including my friend and Bahamian local activist Erin Greene, have said that Obama’s election means very little as far as institutionalized racism goes, and that very little gain has been made as a result of Obama becoming the first African American to be elected president of the United States of America.

The truth is institutionalized racism is as strongly entrenched here in America now as it was before November 4th. And, ongoing social critique is crucial, but, to minimize and misname this historic moment by claiming, as Greene has, that “Obama’s victory will perpetuate confusion” regarding the existence of institutionalized racism, robs us collectively of this transformational moment, which, rather than perpetuating confusion, has already opened the way for real talk regarding, in poet Janice Mirikitani’s words, radical inclusiveness, in this country and globally.

As a white person living in this country, I have to believe that change is possible. I also have to make a distinction between vigilance and cynicism; I can be hopeful and vigilant, but cynicism generates in me profound despair. While vigilance invites me to be awake and ask questions and hold myself and others accountable, cynicism, (and not Obama’s victory), perpetuates distrust and failure to imagine anything better than what already exists.

Unlike Bill Maher, I do not want to ignore Barack Obama’s blackness. Barack Obama is the right man for the presidency of America not in spite of his race but because of it. It is because he is of African descent in a country maimed and wounded by white supremacy that he understands what is needed to heal it; his election calls on white America to live up to its own highest ideals, to live up to its own most cherished vision of freedom from which it has again and again fallen short. His election is a balm to the psyches of African American people particularly, and people of color in general, whose lives have been undervalued or not valued at all in a country where racism has consistently corrupted ideological lenses. Similarly, it is because of Obama's bi-racial and multi-ethnic location, and his interpretation of it, that he was uniquely able to rally together so many across class, race, gender, religious and even political affiliations. For people of every color and ethnicity, who have felt devalued because of class or sexual orientation, or spiritual affiliation, who do not fit with what are considered mainstream standards, Obama’s election has countered that devaluation, has replaced it with possibility: what was marginal has been brought to center in an extraordinary human drama, and so too in our psyches that which we have marginalized we can now bring to center and begin to know what it feels like to have (these parts of) ourselves be honored.

With Obama’s election to president of the United States of America, white and black and brown and red and yellow people are all called on not only to question the old story that white supremacy invented, not simply to cast it out either (since who knows where it would land and still find ways to grow), no, with Obama’s election to president we are called on to take that old story and transform it, word by word; to take its words apart and reconfigure them, revise them, bring new words to the table that can focus new light on old images, all the better to see and create new meaning. And it is in our power to do so. That is the hopefulness that Obama has invoked, symbolically and otherwise: it is in our power to make new stories. In Obama's words, "We are the change we have been waiting for." Ashé.

What is significant about Obama’s call to power is that he is asking his people to hear themselves being called too. In Obama’s own words, he did not win this election, the people who campaigned and believed and hoped and voted did. The people who decided to transform old stories into new ones did. And he reminded the people of their responsibility to carry on this powerful work of change in his victory speech:

“What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek -- it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you” (

Listen, the truth is, people, ordinary everyday people, have been telling new stories already. And Barack Obama is a visionary leader precisely because he has been able to hear those new stories and articulate them in a way that the majority of people in this country were able to hear. He is a product of those new stories, and it is his job now to act on them and bring about the changes they call for. It is the job of everyday people to imagine new stories (many of which are really marginalized stories that have been struggling to be heard for generations) and speak them in our homes, in our mosques and churches and synagogues, at work and on the streets, loud enough for the neighbors and the President to hear.