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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