Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Postscript for a New President and the Precession of Ancestors

Obama Press Conference
President Obama's first press conference, February 9, 2009

I normally don’t write about politics, but Barack Obama’s election and inauguration as President are almost impossible ignore in a blog about Africa, African Americans and African descendants and their cultures. In December 2006, when Obama’s candidacy was still in question, I wrote “Barack Obama and the Dreams of an African Ancestor,” to explore what his election might mean from the perspective of his father and his Ancestors – and our Ancestors, as African people. But that was about two and a half years ago, and since then I’ve focused on many other things like broadcasting, technology, the environment, genetics, film, music and entertainment; I never felt compelled to write about the primaries, the Democratic Convention in Denver or the excitement of election night and the inauguration in January. But just as millions of Americans made the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to witness the historic inauguration of our first African American president, all across Africa, and especially in Kenya, people were celebrating. To be sure, in Kogelo, Obama’s grandmother’s village in western Kenya, they were slaughtering cows and observing traditional African ceremonies. These distant events are now symbolically linked to observances of power in the White House.
But don't get me wrong - Barack Obama as the symbol of African and African American aspirations is one thing, and Barack Obama as a president who faces constricting realities and political exigencies is someone else. Obama has varying support groups and constituencies, and he is bound to disappoint some. From the favorable treatment to banks in the economic recovery stimulus package to lack of support for gay civil rights, and now possibly wavering on a public option in national health care, President Obama has come up short of what I and others expected of his leadership. We have to live with these practical political realities and see how Obama navigates them, pressuring him at times - while still assessing the mass movement that put him in office and what his presence means to the progression of African-American history.
In my mind, “Dreams from My Father” should be required reading for all Black middle school or high school students throughout the world, as Obama’s book has lessons about Africa, tribalism, corruption, community, the urban inner-city experience, Black and white perceptions and identity, family bonds, education and excellence. I say this not out of hero worship or because of Obama's historic election; rather, "Dreams from My Father" is a lens and a focal point for exploring multi-facted dimensions of these issues in one lucid, well-written memoir. Now, 100 days into Barack Hussein Obama Jr.’s Presidency, it seems fitting to look for the signs of fate, intuition and providence in this prominent event and the Precession of Ancestors.

100 Days of Change
We’re not amazed anymore, not really. The glamour of the inauguration has worn off, and we’re no longer stunned to see a Black man commanding attention at a White House press conference, although a lot more of African Americans – and Americans in general – are paying close attention to the process of government and the actions of Barack Obama’s Administration. After 100 days in office Obama is receiving generally strong reviews from pundits, and for most of mainstream America the issue of race has faded into the background and the focus has been on the recession, the economic stimulus package, bank and auto industry bailouts, budget deficits and spending on education, health care, energy and the environment. Internationally, Obama has been inspiring the people around the world with charismatic, dynamic leadership – reaching out to Muslims, seeking dialogue with adversaries and having a palpable effect on world leaders from Russia’s Dimitri Medvedev and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, to China’s Wen Jiabao and the Summit of the Americas. Naturally, Obama has made mistakes and gaffes; at times he or his administration has stumbled, but his overall performance has been strong and he has the highest public approval ratings of any president in recent history. Obama has inspired hope with a new image of America as a country where people previously bound by slavery and segregation can transcend their history and reach a pinnacle of power. All this from a candidate people said was too young, too inexperienced and could not win - and that Americans would never elect a Black President.

Back in December 2006 I wrote “Barack Obama and the Dreams of an African Ancestor”, during the buzz period when Obama was initially contemplating whether he should even run for President. I predicted Obama would run and win. I see the United States as an idealistic nation, and when someone is able to strike the right chord, the idealism of America shines forth, and Americans turn in that direction. I knew Barack Obama could strike the chord, with a Kennedy-like charisma and leadership style, pulling America toward a Democratic, progressive agenda.
After the 2004 elections, I remember talking with a brother at my neighborhood gym who was depressed about politics, and I told him to watch Barack Obama. Then after Obama threw his hat in the Democratic Party primaries, I made a game out of betting Denver taxicab drivers – most of whom seem to be from Ethiopia or Sudan – that Obama would not only win the Democratic nomination, but he would actually go on to win the presidency. Much like many African Americans in the early stages of the Obama campaign – they could not imagine that a Black man could actually be elected to the highest office in the land. So I would bet these guys – at $50 a pop – that Obama would go all the way. Now mind you, had Obama lost any stage in the campaign, I’m sure a few of those brothers would have driven to my house to collect their winnings. But somehow, not one of them has been honorable enough to acknowledge I was right all along, and pay their due. There are various African cab drivers out there who owe me a total of about $250, and I can certainly use that cash in this recession. Well, I’m glad that Obama is President if for nothing else than I don’t have to pay off any of those Africans.

Part of my vision about where we were going with this election and my view of Obama was based on a feeling that our country was ready for this seismic shift in leadership and America’s image of itself – and part of it was based on something inner, something intuitive. Reading Obama’s memoir, “Dreams from my Father” and following his life story, I had a feeling about the forces of fate, of destiny, of what Africans refer to as their Ancestors, whose presence and guidance is a part of the fabric of their lives – particularly their good fortune and blessings. I came to see Obama’s path as a fulfillment of his father’s unrealized ambitions, and a natural foundation for Barack Hussein Obama Jr.’s fascinating emergence into America’s national political scene. The sense of connection, guidance and providence between the living and African ancestors, is vibrant in African life, in African dreams, ceremonies and everyday society.

Along with Obama’s election, I felt like there was a passing of the old guard for African people as a whole as many of our artists, musicians, writers and cultural leaders made their transitions this past year. I’m thinking of Miriam Makeba, John Hope Franklin, Eartha Kitt, Odetta, Isaac Hayes, Norman Whitfield, Bo Diddley, Freddie Hubbard, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, Es’kia Mphahlele, John Matshikiza and even Marpessa Dawn and Bruno Mello from the beautiful classic film, “Black Orpheus” who oddly enough, died 42 days apart, both from heart attacks. Well, maybe it’s just me and my sentimentality. Maybe it’s just that more information is being channeled through more kinds of media, and I'm just seeing a natural progression of generations moving through their corresponding phases of growth, youth, maturity and death. Maybe that’s what makes the loss of these exemplars stand out in my mind.

Reflecting on these beautiful souls I see struggle, pain, victory, divine direction, guidance, providence; I see people who rose often from poor or obscure backgrounds to find a path of creativity, intelligence and influence that somehow advanced all of us, all African descendant people. Perhaps every year we will look back at those who have passed and have become our Ancestors, and we’ll be more astounded at what they have taught us, the distance we have traveled with them and the phenomenal tapestry of who we are as a people.

I believe Obama has the makings of a great president because of his fascinating journey as an African American. Obama demonstrates extraordinary intelligence, wisdom and judgment because he looked for his mind, his heart and identity in the South Side of Chicago, in the inner-city urban experience, through his family and African roots in Kenya – in addition to pursuing his education at Columbia and Harvard. His life and consciousness embodies the duality of the reasoning and concrete knowledge of the Western world and the imagination, intuition, feeling, creativity, celebration, spirituality, struggle and strength of being Black, of being African American, of being African. This is why Obama is proving to be such an extraordinary leader; he demonstrates a remarkable wholeness, a synthesis of these different minds and identities.

As African Americans and Africans, we can all find the same synthesis, and we can build a bridge between two worlds, and we have the Precession of Ancestors. We have The Souls of Black Folk. We have those souls who guided us, who showed us the way, who carried light in overwhelming darkness, who took pain, anguish and strife and fashioned it into beauty, jazz, blues, gospel, hip hop, style, dance, art, literature and aesthetics. We have souls that shined a light under the weight of a civilization that has thrown the whole planet – not to mention Africa itself – out of balance. Obama is obviously a milestone in our journey, and his election represents a sea change in America’s consciousness. But where we go from here and what his presidency really means for Black people is another question. There are still vast overwhelming forces that contrast the experiences of Africans everywhere, from cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles or London, Johannesburg and Nairobi, to many little-known villages scattered throughout Africa and the Americas. There are deprivations and poverty, lack of resources and educational opportunities and obvious brazen disparaties. I think we will still need to turn to those Ancestral voices to find the essential truths that will carry us through complexities of our evolving global civilization.

The great African writer Es’kia Mphahlele passed away on October 27, 2008; I had the honor of meeting him and interviewing him in August 2005 in Denver, when he made his last visit to the United States, where he spent a good number of years as an English professor at Denver University. I was deeply saddened by his passing, because I understand what a towering figure he is in South Africa and Africa as a whole. The breadth and depth of his life work as a novelist, academic and arts activist is astounding as a vision of African ideas and possibilities. Even if Obama's position symbolizes that we may be entering into an era of new possibilities, we still must heed the voices of our Ancestors, which gives us perspective on who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. Es’kia understood this, spoke about it, wrote about it, and lectured about it often.

“Yes, Africa speaks to me, because I listen too much to the wild voices of now, of present day politics and ethnic problems and conflicts. I listen to the subterranean voices, the voices coming from the past, from my forefathers and our ancestors. That’s how Africa speaks to me. Never mind the political noises that one hears, this way or that way. I’m talking about something much more solid, as well as spiritual… But if you stop and listen to the voices of ancient wisdom—and you hear the voice in the metaphors of our languages and in the mannerisms in which we as Africans approach each other... If we listen to the voices of those forces, you get somewhere. You realize that you have some protection from other kinds of foes and forces that work on you.”

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