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What Obama means to the world

People's obsession with Barack Obama says more about them than him, says Gary Younge

January 20, 2009
15 min read


Gary YoungeGary Younge is editor-at-large for the Guardian, a columnist for the Nation and the author of Another Day in the Death of America.


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When author and screenwriter Ronan Bennett was wrongfully imprisoned by the British in the infamous Long Kesh in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, 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 labour 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 recognisable 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 1971 or 1972, 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 1990s, 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 National Public Radio (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 anti-racism 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.

‘Would they vote for him? Would they kill him?’

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. ‘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?

‘Millions of whites cannot reconcile in their minds with the idea that a black man with his wife and children would move into the White House,’ argued Fidel Castro. He was right. It just turned out not to make any substantial difference, since those millions of Americans could not bring themselves to vote for any Democrat. It’s not clear whether white Europeans would be any more comfortable with electing a black leader in their own countries than some Republicans were here. Having basked in a smug state of superiority over America’s social, economic and racial disparities, Europeans were forced by Obama’s victory and the passions it stoked to face hard realities about their own institutional discrimination, which was not better or worse – just different.

With the exception of the Roma in eastern Europe, levels of incarceration and deprivation of non-white people in Europe have not reached the level of African-Americans here (although the descendants of Bangladeshis in Britain and Algerians in France come close). Black Europeans enjoy little in the way of black American success. Individuals may break through, but there is nothing on the scale of numbers or wealth comparable with the black American middle class.

Where are you from?

It only takes one, though. The question isn’t whether non-white Europeans are ready to run for national office but whether white Europeans would embrace them. Fascism is once again a mainstream ideology on the continent. When a black woman was chosen as Miss Italy in the mid-1990s, some officials complained that she was ‘unrepresentative of Italian beauty’, and the press crowned her ‘Miss Discord’. Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, joked that Obama’s grandfather was a cannibal. Even though the overwhelming majority of non-white Europeans were born in Europe, the fact that they are descendants of immigrants excludes them from the European national stories, which are understood to have only white protagonists.

‘Where are you from?’ an administrator asked me at university in Edinburgh in what has long been a typical conversation.

‘Stevenage’, I told him, referring to my hometown thirty-miles north of London.

‘Where were you born?’

‘Hitchin’, I said, referring to the town nearby.

‘Well, before then?’

‘Well, there was no before then.’

‘Well, where are your parents from?’

‘Barbados.’

‘Ah, you’re from Barbados,’ he said.

To this day ‘immigrant’ and ‘non-white’ are often used synonymously in France. Indeed, given the conflation of immigration and race in Europe, the fact that Obama’s father was an immigrant was in some ways as significant as the fact that he was black. In that sense every country potentially has its Obama, depending on its social fault lines. For the broader symbolism of his win has less to do with race than with exclusion. Just take the group that in the popular imagination resides furthest from power, pluck one from its number, make him or her the national leader and you have an Obama story. In Bolivia it was Evo Morales, the first poor Amerindian to be elected; South Africa’s Nelson Mandela went from jail to president in just four years; in Sweden it could be a Finn; in Bulgaria it could be a Turk. Banel Nicolita, a Roma and member of Romania’s soccer team, has become known as ‘the Obama of Romanian football.’ For a man who is one of eight children raised in a mud house, the accolade could easily be translated as ‘a man of unlikely accomplishments.’ ‘Obama’s victory is a motivation for us,’ said Gruia Bumbu, chair of the National Agency for the Roma.

There was, of course, more to the euphoria over Obama’s victory than the question of exclusion – however and wherever it is framed. The defeat of the Republican agenda, with all the war and global havoc it has brought over the past eight years, was enough to make the world jump for joy. After Bush won in 2004, Britain’s Daily Mirror ran a headline saying, ‘Doh: 4 More Years Of Dubya … How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?’ The Guardian’s features supplement ran a page all in black with tiny words saying, ‘Oh My God!’ Many understand Obama as America’s belated but nonetheless more considered, less cavalier response to 9/11.

As one of the few members of America’s political class not tainted by the Iraq invasion, he appeared a thinker as well as a decider. Worldly where Bush was parochial, consensual where Bush was confrontational, nuanced where Bush was brash, he struck the outside world as though he regarded dialogue and negotiation as strengths rather than weaknesses. With his Kenyan roots, multiracial upbringing and childhood experiences in Indonesia, he also struck a more global figure. Of twenty-two countries polled by Pew Research last July, in only one nation, Jordan, did a majority say they had more confidence in McCain than in Obama. In the remaining twenty-one, nine (ranging from Tanzania to Japan) backed Obama by more than thirty points. In only six was the margin in single digits.

This enthusiasm was not spread evenly geographically. Western Europe (particularly France) was elated, while the Middle East was wary. ‘In these nations, suspicions of American power are pervasive and extend beyond President Bush’s personal unpopularity,’ argued Richard Wike of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. ‘Unlike in many other regions, in the Middle East there is little optimism about the post-Bush era.’ Nonetheless, with America’s international standing at an all-time low, a change of direction was generally welcome.

But while antipathy toward Bush and what he had done to the world explains the breadth of Obama’s appeal, it could never explain the depth. Relatives of mine in Barbados and Ireland followed the primaries closely. Children of friends at home in England asked if they could stay up to see the election results. They would never have done that for John Kerry. In the Pew poll, taken during the primary, respondents in Europe favored Obama over Hillary Clinton by significant margins.

‘The American Negro has no conception of the hundreds of millions of other non-whites’ concern for him,’ Malcolm X observed in his autobiography. ‘He has no conception of their feeling of brotherhood for and with him.’ And yet as Ronan Bennett’s account of his time in prison shows, the identification went beyond race. Which brings us back to Obama, whose central appeal was not so much that he looked like other Americans as that he sounded so different – and not just in comparison to Bush. For if Obama represents a serious improvement over his predecessor, he also stands tall among other world leaders. At a time of poor leadership, he has given people a reason to feel passionate about politics. Brits, Italians, South Africans, French and Russians look at Obama and then at Gordon Brown, Silvio Berlusconi, Thabo Mbeki, Nicolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin and realise they could and should be doing a whole lot better.

Much of this is, of course, delusional. People’s obsession with Obama always said more about them than him. Most wanted a paradigm shift in global politics, and, unable to elect governments that could fight for it, they simply assigned that role to Obama. His silence during the shelling of Gaza, however, was sobering for many. As a mainstream Democrat he stands at the head of a party that in any western nation would be on the right on foreign policy, the center on economic policy and the center-left on social policy.

Come inauguration day, that final symbolic set piece, the transition will be complete. The rest of the world must become comfortable with a black American, not as a symbol of protest but of power. And not of any power but a superpower, albeit a broken and declining one. A black man with more power than they. How that will translate into the different political cultures around the globe, whom it will inspire, how it will inspire them and what difference that inspiration will make will vary. From inauguration day people’s perceptions of Obama will no longer hinge on what he is but on what he does. While it’s unlikely that prisoners in Guantánamo have been passing around samizdat copies of The Audacity of Hope, Obama has already given Maria Savu a different understanding of what is possible for her grandson and maybe something for little Obama Scoica and the people of Rusciori to look up to.

Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the New York correspondent for the Guardian and the author of Stranger in a Strange Land: Travels in the Disunited States (New Press).

This article first appeared in the February 2009 edition of The Nation

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Gary YoungeGary Younge is editor-at-large for the Guardian, a columnist for the Nation and the author of Another Day in the Death of America.


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