If you grew up in the Caribbean during the seventies and eighties, chances are you paid close attention to American elections. We had to. American policy had often run itself aground on Caribbean shores. It had happened in Jamaica, in Grenada, in Cuba, in Haiti. We had to watch to see where it might happen next. Plus, ever since the advent of satellite TV, American culture had dictated how we saw ourselves. It had sold America to us as a kind of paradise, with shopping malls. Even so, I’d never paid closer attention than I did in 2008, when news about Barack Obama was everywhere.

In some quarters, the frenzied reaction to his candidacy seemed to be entirely of a piece with the irritating metaphorical pats on the head you’re given when you’re black, as if he was being told, “My god, you speak English so well”, or being complimented on being “articulate”, on a global scale. But black excellence is not news to black people. My certainty that Obama was the better candidate was exceeded only by my anxiety that his candidacy would fail, for all the same old racist reasons. And yet despite the odds that were stacked against him, he found a way of telling his homeland the story it wanted to hear at the exact time it wanted to hear it. He became a messenger of possibility. While he made it seem as if he had been born to do this, he had in fact been taught. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, he recounts how his mother, who was white, encouraged him to celebrate his black heritage, bringing him books on the civil rights movement and exhorting him to see himself in a certain way. In her mind, “Every black man was Thurgood Marshall, or Sidney Poitier…”, therefore in her son’s mind that was also who he was.

Obama’s experience underscores why black children must be given the tools to carve themselves out of invisibility. They must be able to look out into the world and find mirrors somewhere. The thrill of finding familiar reflections on the page or onscreen happened so rarely during my formative years traveling between boarding school in England and Grand Cayman, that there’s a catalogue in my mind of the times it did. The first time I plunged open-mouthed into Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for example, or The Autobiography of Malcolm X; the afternoons I spent channeling Baldwin and Angela Davis, and dancing along to Whitney Houston; my own parents telling me about Poitier and Belafonte, and Bob Marley, and Miss Lou. In those days, mainstream images centering black people as powerful or influential, as geniuses or artists, as members of a happy family, were so rare they came as a shock. Coming of age was partly a period of evidence gathering: an earnest young woman gathering images and ideas like sandbags with which to shore up her psyche against racism’s constant disturbances. Finding her own self, glimmering in the dark.

That feeling sprang upon me again as I watched the President-elect striding onto the stage at Grant Park hand in hand with Michelle and Malia and Sasha that night in November, twelve years ago. The image combined all the rare elements that had constituted the buried treasure of my childhood. It didn’t matter that I was far away in London (where it was early morning), on my knees in front of the TV. For the first time in all my years of watching American elections, the outcome felt personal. I was excited not so much by the fact that the moment was revolutionary, but rather the belief that it could become commonplace. Twelve years later, most young people have no idea what it felt like to live in a world where it was unthinkable that an African-American could win the American Presidency. This is a way of seeing, and therefore of being, that was made possible that night.

As I type these words Kamala Harris has just become the first woman and the first person of black and South Asian descent to be elected as Vice President of the US, while in the UK, Lashana Lynch, a black actress with Jamaican heritage, has been tipped as the next 007. Moments like these lead to others, with exponential effect. They have their own power to communicate, to whisper in a young child’s ear that, “Every black person is a Barack Obama or a Michelle Obama, a Kamala Harris or a Lashana Lynch.” I still believe that this was the lasting symbolic legacy of Obama’s presidency. In challenging Americans to engage with what Toni Morrison described as his “creative imagination”, to dare to believe (as he put it) that his story was part of the American story, in reminding them that the ‘American Dream’ is built on the conviction that one day their country will outrun its terrible history, Obama became the first truly American President. But his Presidency belonged to all of us.

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  • A Promised Land


    A riveting, deeply personal account of history in the making-from the president who inspired us to believe in the power of democracy.

    'Gorgeously written, humorous, compelling, life affirming' Justin Webb, Mail on Sunday

    In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency-a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.

    Obama takes readers on a compelling journey from his earliest political aspirations to the pivotal Iowa caucus victory that demonstrated the power of grassroots activism to the watershed night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected 44th president of the United States, becoming the first African American to hold the nation's highest office.

    Reflecting on the presidency, he offers a unique and thoughtful exploration of both the awesome reach and the limits of presidential power, as well as singular insights into the dynamics of U.S. partisan politics and international diplomacy. Obama brings readers inside the Oval Office and the White House Situation Room, and to Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, and points beyond. We are privy to his thoughts as he assembles his cabinet, wrestles with a global financial crisis, takes the measure of Vladimir Putin, overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act, clashes with generals about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, tackles Wall Street reform, responds to the devastating Deepwater Horizon blowout, and authorizes Operation Neptune's Spear, which leads to the death of Osama bin Laden.

    A Promised Land is extraordinarily intimate and introspective-the story of one man's bet with history, the faith of a community organizer tested on the world stage. Obama is candid about the balancing act of running for office as a Black American, bearing the expectations of a generation buoyed by messages of "hope and change," and meeting the moral challenges of high-stakes decision-making. He is frank about the forces that opposed him at home and abroad, open about how living in the White House affected his wife and daughters, and unafraid to reveal self-doubt and disappointment. Yet he never wavers from his belief that inside the great, ongoing American experiment, progress is always possible.

    This beautifully written and powerful book captures Barack Obama's conviction that democracy is not a gift from on high but something founded on empathy and common understanding and built together, day by day.

    'What is unexpected in A Promised Land is the former president's candour' David Olusoga, Observer

  • Buy the book

Read more

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