Prelude to History
Two conversations today helped me frame my thoughts about the historic inauguration Tuesday of Barack Obama as the 44th President of America. Prior to these conversations, I was probing and searching for a common denominator that would intimately connect me with the pomp, pageantry and purpose of this truly historic moment. What else can be said about this moment, about this improbable avatar that promises so much hope in these difficult and uncertain times? More precisely what else could I say beyond my own exposition Barack Obama: Black Man’s Dilemma, written many months ago, and reprinted below for the record. Not much I thought, until I had the conversations.
The one was with a senior member of the Nigerian cabinet, whose personal and professional experience in my books makes him one of the few people that I have encountered lately in government that “gets it.” The call, made on my dime was supposed to be a follow up call on some other matter, but we easily segued into the Obama phenomena and what it means for all of us.
I provided my own take of the heighten state of warmth, hope and even euphoria that has engulfed the US, contrasting the warm feeling of possibility with the arctic temperatures outside my doorsteps. His insightful comment was to point out that there seemed to be a fatal disconnect between our joyous (Nigerian) embrace of the iconic Obama, a black man as the President of the United States, and our sense that it is possible for us to aspire, work and achieve the kind of monumental change that Obama represents.
And in a remarkable act of candor and openness, referencing his own present existential angst added that perhaps our challenge as Nigerians is more of a personal one; personal in our respective inability to resolve our internal contradictions, fight our demons and fully embrace the possibility of greatness, as individuals working toward a great nation. In short perpetual doubts of whether “Yes we can” or as I prefer to phrase it “Yes we fit?”
Our conversation drifted into his ongoing experience of working in the public sector, and I raised the issue of the tyranny of civil servants, perhaps the most corrupt cadre of the Nigerian elite, and he surprisingly rose to their defense in measured and reasoned tones, explaining that in fact, not all of them as bad as is generally believed. In his experience, there were some competent and dedicated officers embedded in the grime and sordidness of the service, toiling away to hold up the ramparts against the rapacious hoards of politicians and other rent seekers.
So in a sense, his position was that all was not lost and there were increasingly small victories that were adding up potentially to a tipping point. I expressed my perennial concern about Nigeria collapsing under the weight of its own graft and incompetence long before some of the salvage work is done, but he expressed a guarded optimism that all was not lost. I half believed him.
The other conversation was a brief but pithy exchange with my dear friend Chukwudum Ikeazor who called me quite unexpectedly from Atlanta. “Tunji my brother” he said almost breathlessly, “guess where I am calling you from.” I knew he was in Atlanta, but before I could reply, “I am at the Martin Luther King memorial, we’ve just finished the church service and I am standing at his memorial about to sign the guest book.” “Tunji, we must learn to cherish our history” he said as his voice trailed off, “I’ll call you later.”
Anyone who knows Chukwudum would understand the history he spoke about. Not for him this narrow definition of who we are, and against the backdrop of Obama’s inauguration, I knew he would be in the US to partake in some way in this auspicious celebration of the “Rebirth of a Nation,” D.W Griffith be dammed!
So sandwiched between the historical bookends of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, I can understand why this moment is so important for all of us, and even more so for black people all over the world. As for our laggardly compatriots in Nigeria they better wake up and smell the Obama.
BARACK OBAMA: Black man’s dilemma.
As a black man, more precisely as an African born black man, I am a bit conflicted about the exquisitely improbable presidential run of Senator Barack Obama. My ambivalence has it roots in a previous run for president by another charismatic black politician, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
I remember how the news of Jesse running for the presidency of the US in 1984 impacted on our global political consciousness in Nigeria, literally a generation ago. As a young idealistic journalist working for a fledgling weekly magazine, and like the rest of my equally young and idealistic colleagues, the very idea of a black man as the president of the United States was a notion we readily accepted as a possibility After all this was “the United States” —with its self evident truths about the equality of man: the democratic ideal that we all so dearly wished for Nigeria, which was then in the grip of yet another predatory and distinctively vicious military dictator by name Ibrahim Babangida.
Looking back, I marvel at our naiveté and sense of moral certitude about the world ultimately being a good and just place. I suppose we were subconsciously projecting our hope and sense of justice and optimism on that great whiteboard called America. To look too closely at our selves, our country, indeed our continent would have been too painful and depressing. So we cast our eyes far, far over the rainbow to that mythical place where someone like us was running to be the leader of the most powerful nation in the world.
Even so, a little voice now and then whispered in our ears, the cold calculating facts of American electoral politics, there was no way any Jesse was going to beat the “Gipper,” an extremely popular incumbent Ronald Reagan. Nonetheless we persisted in our little game of self-deception, knowing fully well that given the tortured history of race in America, it was highly unlikely that a Blackman, indeed any black man would ever make to Pennsylvania Avenue in the foreseeable future.
“From the outhouse to the White House.” That prospect was heady and intoxicating for all of us. At a deep personal level we understood the semiotics of having a black man in the White House—no matter how naïve or improbable it seemed. We came back to earth soon enough as Jesse’s theatrical run for president turned out to be, well, the audacity of hype.
But today it is different. A remarkable black American with the improbable name of Barack Obama is running for the office of the President of the United States, and that little voice is telling me that he stands a very good chance of becoming America’s next president. A black man who in his own words boldly declares “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas… I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents.”
And I—even without the colorful heritage of miscegenation and the searing intellect, the laser focused drive, the bold self-assuredness, the charismatic personality, the moral courage, the balance, the poise, the words, or the audacious hope—totally identify with the brother; more or less.
I hesitate to fully identify with Barack Obama because I am still negotiating my way through the dark labyrinths of my own fears and self-doubt—the scars that I, along with, doubtless, millions of other Neo-Diasporan Africans, bear from the painful experience of unfulfilled ambitions at home in Africa, as well as in America. In the dark, arms outstretched I am tentatively feeling my way out by hand, even as I attempt to scrape away one sordid layer at a time, the baked accretion of the fears, uncertainties and doubts of being a black man in this world. With one hand, fingers splayed, I scratch at the indeterminate distrust that others project upon and that periodically shrouds me; with the other hand, claws drawn, I grate at the tectonic uncertainties that seem designed to keep me perpetually off balance; and with both hands, I rip away at the past setbacks that shadow me whenever I reach out to succeed.
Somewhat like Barack Obama, but quite literally, I inhabit multiple worlds as I commute between the US and Africa, and have to constantly weigh and balance my engagement in both. But unlike Obama, who clearly has found his way out of that maze, unified his universe, taken a firm hold on the three fates, woven his own design on the tapestry of his life, and lately stunned the world with the audaciousness of his hope; the worlds I inhabit, inhibit my aspirations in many ways. Or do they?
As I look back at my own continent’s fitful struggle for development and real independence I also wonder about my own culpability in my country and continent’s plight. No, this is not a quixotic desire to want to be like Obama. This cannot be, for after him, the fates broke the mold. Instead, this is a simple and all too human moment of reflective doubt, again, about my place in the world as a black man.
In urging Americans in his seminal speech on race in America, Obama states inter alia that “for the African-American community that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past... And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives…” He might as well have been speaking directly to us in Africa. He certainly resonated deeply with me.
That we have at this point in time another avatar rising from our collective blackness is quite profound. Obama is much more than the poster child that some in the mainstream US media so blithely describes, he has become the whiteboard or is it blackboard upon which the grand narrative of the black man is being written, and will continue to be so until another comes our way.
Nelson Mandela once remarked about how African men (and by extension Black men) are tentative about fully embracing their potential greatness, but not this brother.
As I marvel at the sheer chutzpa of the man, trying hard not to “hate the player, but to hate the game”—almost like loving the sinner and hating the sin—that niggling little voice is back, again. It is saying, and I render this with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, and bearing in mind the properly contextualized, albeit widely misunderstood rhetoric of Reverend Wright, “Damn you Obama… Damn you! Damn you for blowing our collective alibis as black men… Damn you for kicking away our pathetic crutches, now we must stand tall, with no excuses, and grab and shape the destinies of our people!”
This time I am responding to the imperative rather than the fearfulness beneath the surface of this dubious little voice. It is a new day. And there is work to be done.