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World – US;‘The road ahead is going to be rocky’

Hannah Pool Everyone expected Hannah Pool to be delighted by Barack Obama’s election. Instead, it filled her with trepidation. Here she explains why. In January 2008, on a trip to Los Angeles, I was chastised by my cousin Biniam for not being sufficiently excited about Barack Obama and the idea of America having a black president. Biniam and his wife Amanda were spending their evenings and weekends campaigning for Obama, who had not yet won the Democratic nomination, and they couldn’t believe that I — a black Briton with family in Africa — didn’t share their enthusiasm. “It’ll never happen, and even if it does, who’s to say it’d be a good thing?” I said, when they told me to imagine him in the White House. They sent me home with a flea in my ear and a couple of Obama T-shirts. The thing is, I wanted to be more excited. But the idea of Obama succeeding, however remote then, seemed to me to be fraught with complexity — and danger. Not everyone felt so torn though, and over the next few months I watched with amusement as my Obama T-shirt became a fashion accessory: it became a gauge of how his campaign was going. I knew Obama had crossed some sort of a boundary when, while I was cycling through London, white van men would beep and raise their thumbs instead of making other, rather ruder, gestures. And then there was that joyful week last November when Obama won the election, Lewis Hamilton won the formula one world championship and suddenly the talk was of black success as opposed to knife crime. But even this, for me, was hard to embrace wholeheartedly. The situation wasn’t going to be simple — and sure enough, suddenly the debate seemed to be about whether or not Obama was “really black.” In fact, he was not black at all, argued some, he was “brown” or “mixed-race,” and by claiming him as their own black people were suddenly accused of “denying his white side.” (Please. No one is denying him anything, but let’s be realistic: it’s not the fact that Obama has a white mother that has made his presidency such a historically astonishing event.) Suddenly, just as I’d feared, the media was full of the kind of casual racism that I’d been bracing myself for. Of course, no one can be better prepared to deal with issues of race and identity than Obama himself. His excellent memoir, Dreams From My Father, describes how, in the playground, his schoolmates made monkey noises at him; at one point he talks about the “constant and crippling fear” that he would “for ever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.” I profoundly understood this statement — I too was brought up by a white family, in a white neighbourhood (I was adopted, rather than dual heritage) and in my 20s I too travelled to east Africa and met my African family for the first time, and returned to the west fundamentally changed by the experience. Yet I was still unsure that the election of this man, whose background was more similar to mine than I could ever imagine an American president’s to be, would have any positive effect on my life. I kept wanting to shout: does no one get it? The world’s most talked about man is a black man. The fact that Obama is black is not the most important thing about him, but it’s certainly the thing that makes him more compelling to me than any other American president. And when he fails — and he will fail, because he’s human — he will be a black man failing. And that will have consequences. From now until the foreseeable future, everything Obama does will reflect on black people everywhere. You can argue that it shouldn’t, but the fact is it will. Suddenly a black man is the most photographed person on the planet, a black family is under a global spotlight and their every move will be scrutinised. During the inauguration, when the ceremony started to run late, a friend turned to me and whispered that Obama was already on BPT — black people’s time. It’s not a phrase we’d use in other (white) company, but we felt we were among friends. But what’s to happen to these little in-jokes now that the world is watching a black first family? I am delighted to see Michelle Obama on the cover of American Vogue, but I have also found myself wondering what she would look like with an afro: wouldn’t that be amazingly political somehow? In an instant, millions of black women would think it was suddenly OK to wear their hair in its natural state. But then why should it be a political statement how Michelle has her hair? The pressure! What I’m saying is, in many ways this pleases me — I’m all for positive black role models — but it also makes me very anxious. During the inauguration, which I watched on a big screen at the Bernie Grant arts centre in Tottenham, north London, I did finally let myself feel something like the excitement everyone seemed to expect from me. But it was guarded none the less. That morning, the phrase I used most to describe my feelings was “cautious optimism.” I kept my lingering doubts pretty quiet; they were at odds with the emotion around me. When I voiced my concerns, when I said that perhaps we should be a little careful of how much expectation we put on one man’s shoulders, especially a man whose primary role is to protect a nation not known for its consideration for others, I was told “today is not a day for negativity.” Eventually I started to wonder whether or not I had perhaps got it wrong. Was I just a cynical old trout who didn’t know how to be happy? In the end, I thought OK, fine, I’ll throw caution to the wind, I’ll stop assuming everyone is out to get the black guy and, who knows, maybe I’ll even enjoy myself. So for the next 24 hours I let myself be swept along with the collective euphoria, and eventually, somewhere after Dick Warren’s creepy sermon, but before Aretha Franklin (and her hat) sang a note, I thought yes, this is a great day, we are all about to witness something momentous. Later, I had butterflies in my stomach as Obama made his way to the podium. That evening as I went to bed I thought, “Yes, this was a spectacular day. Maybe it’s true, maybe the world has changed.” And then, slowly over the next few days, as I waded through the souvenir newspaper supplements, my sense of gloom returned. As person after person kept telling me how proud I must feel of Obama, my deep sense of unease began to escalate once more. In a world where racism, overt and covert, is still thriving, and where many racial divisions still exist, we’re in a complicated situation, and the road ahead is going to be rocky. Perhaps my unease is best explained by looking at the coverage of Obama we’ve already had, while all is going relatively well. It’s bad enough listening to commentators marvel at how articulate Obama is (what they mean is: articulate “for a black man,” and, as Prince Harry might say, “he doesn’t sound black”), but since he’s become president I have had to read about how well he dances (ah yes, that’ll be his natural rhythm) and don’t even get me started on the Sun’s headline ‘Obama does it 10 times a night’ (it was actually referring to the number of times he danced with his wife, but hey, you get the point). All this and we’re still in the honeymoon period. Goodness knows what kind of racism will come out of the woodwork when the backlash starts. Other black Britons feel cautious too about what lies ahead for Obama, although maybe not as cautious as me. Chuka Umunna, the prospective Labour parliamentary candidate for Streatham, south London, tells me: “At the moment it’s still wonderful that he’s in, but you can’t help but think they’re setting him up for a fall. Though of course the one big advantage he has is that though expectations are high, he is going to be following the man who will go down in history as one of the worst presidents America has ever had.” Umunna is 30 and has already been touted in the New Statesman as a potential “British Obama” — he is a lawyer and is also of dual heritage. Does he feel the comparison does him any harm or is it lazy? “It’s very flattering. [But] I’m no Obama, I’m me.” Diane Abbott cut her own slice of history when she became the first black female British MP in 1987. How does she feel about Obama now the dust has settled? “You know that when the honeymoon is over it’ll be more challenging for Obama than it would have been for a white president, but that’s part of the deal. In that sense he’s just going through what black people in public life have to go through. We take it as read that he’s going to be challenged in a way a white candidate wouldn’t be and he just has to deal with that. Certain things he does will attract more hostile coverage than if he was white, but that’s all in the game.” Abbott, who got a lot of criticism for sending her son to a private school, knows all about how hard it can be to be a successful black politician: “You pay a huge price for being in the public eye, especially if you’re black,” she says. Beyond worries about the racism that’s going to emerge — and how it will reflect on black people everywhere, part of my worry is that I’m going to place too much hope on Obama, and then have that hope dashed. It’s all well and good when he is shutting down Guantanamo, or draping his coat over Michelle’s shoulders, but how will I feel when he says or does something I don’t like? So far I’ve not had to criticise him, but when that time comes, will I feel as if I’m shafting one of my own? For me, the most interesting thing will be how an Obama administration deals with Africa. When I was visiting Eritrea last summer (a country that has always had close ties to Kenya), I asked friends and family whether they were excited about the prospect of an east African as president of America. “It is good to see his face, he looks like an east African,” said one of my cousins. “But he is still an American, and what kind of a friend has America been to us?” Well, quite. (My Fathers’ Daughter, Hannah Pool’s book about being reunited with her African family, is published by Penguin.)

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February 17, 2009 Posted by | The Hindu | Leave a comment