Our Historical Legacy

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 29, 2008

Barack ObamaLast night Barack Obama made history when he became the first African-American to be nominated to lead the Democratic Party for the presidency of the United States of America. On November 4, he will create history yet again by becoming the first black President of the United States.

In an ironic twist of history, Obama delivered his acceptance speech forty five years to the very day after Martin Luther King delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech to hundreds of thousands of people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. For those of us who have been studying and participating in American politics, Obama’s achievement is truly a dream come true. “We,” as Michael Powell suggests, “are the living connective tissue to the America of 1963.”

Obama’s nomination generated the same electricity I felt Sunday morning, February 11, 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island to the world’s acclaim. In 1975, when I drove Cosmo Pieterse, an exiled South African poet with whom I taught at Ohio University from Athens, Ohio to Dayton, we had faint hopes we would live to see South Africa free. When I got to Harvard University in 1975, I was one of the few faculty members to call for Harvard’s divestment from apartheid South Africa. On April 27, 1994, Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president.

The 1960s was a rough years for those who followed and/or participated in the civil rights cause of African Americans. Obama was a child then, having been born on August 4, 1961. No one every told him that it would be his burden to carry African-Americans to a new stage in their freedom struggle and to propel the United States to a higher stage of her political destiny: the perfecting of the union.

From 1789 to 1877 twelve US presidents owned slaves; eight owned them while serving as presidents. Up until 1865, blacks were responsible for electing each president as Garry Wills make clear in Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power. Although John Adams received more votes than Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson ended up as the president because of the Three fifths Clause (a bargain that had be struck at the Constitutional Convention) that proclaimed each slave person would count as three-fifths of a person for establishing the representation of a state in the House of Representatives and consequently in the Electoral College. Long before Bill Clinton was proclaimed the first black president, Timothy Pickering, secretary of State under President George Washington, described Jefferson as the “Negro President” and Senator Plumer of New Jersey wrote that “the Negro votes made Mr. Jefferson president.”

Alexander Hamilton, a West Indian and Founding Father of the USA, also paved the way for Obama’s ascendcy. He was responsible for the creation of the federal system and, “laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of president from passive administrator to active policy maker, creating the institutional scaffolding for America’s future emergence as a great power.”

In spite of his monumental achievements, Clinton was denied the chance to become the president of the US because of foreign birth, his racial identity (he was believed to be the offspring of white person and a quadroon), his illegitimacy and his connection to the British Crown. Ron Chernow notes that if Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton “was surely the father of the American government.”

In 1965 only 27 percent of blacks in Georgia; 19 percent in Alabama and 6 per cent Mississippi were registered to vote. In Selma, Alabama, black consisted of half the population but only 2 percent was registered voters. Prior to, every stratagem was used to keep them from registering to vote. The March on Selma was organized to stop the intimidation of black voters. When police tear-gassed the marchers televised scenes of violence, on a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” over 20,000 persons went to Selma eventually to protest one of the worst aspects of American democracy.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president of the day, could not let such outrage continue to sully the name of US democracy. His address to Congress paved the way the way for the Voting Rights Act of that same year. He noted to Congress: “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

After a short pause, President Johnson intoned “And we shall overcome.” He had taken the words of Dr. King to frame his appeal to his nation.

And so it is that as we celebrate Obama’s triumph let us remember that his is a culmination of work that begun as soon as the nation begun: the tenacity of the enslaved, the work of Hamilton; the audacity of MLK; and the heroism of black men and women throughout the country who fought to see this day come true.

May we all live to see the glorious day.

19 Responses to “Our Historical Legacy”


  • “Whenever a man stands tall, in the esteem of others, he must remember that he stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before,” Most Rev. Desmond Tutu, acccepting an honorary doctorate at UWI, St. Augustine, 1987.
    Obama knows that he is standing tall on the shoulders of all who have gone before; and we are glad of him. He has electrified young voters. I know how hard it was to get eighteen year olds to register. MAny felt it was no point, until this year. This is a sea change in American politics, and the world awaits the outcome. It is exciting that someone who can relate to those now in college, who will support us in our old age, is running on a platform dedicated to the changes needed for the country and the world. God Bless Him.

  • Mr. Obama’s speech last night was impressive beyond belief!! It was awe inspiring and forceful. As he spoke, I thought to myself, much of what he was saying (at least on the philosophical level)apply to the Caribbean. One of his closing comments (after refering to rev. King’s historic speech) was “we are all inextricably linked”. This should be the mantra of Trinidadians. Instead of squabbling about our differences, we should embrace our commonalities. that’s the only way forward.

    Something Barack once said “although we may not agree all the time, we are obigated to treat each other with respect”, is so basic, yet frequently forgotten. Yes disagreements may be non-compromisable, especially ideologically and politically based ones, but those of us participating on these blogs should apply this basic courtesy.

  • Kerry, do you believe that we have ideological and political differences in Trinidad and Tobago, if so what are they? I however share your views that it was a fine speech, and like the USA, we are linked and grapple with similar challenges.
    Please note, that it is not “us participating on these blogs,” who “should apply this basic courtesy,” but the folks that matters on the ground. Remember, we are the fortunate one’s to have escaped from our dreaded country, correct?

  • Obama: ‘We Cannot Turn Back’

  • Neal, I have not escaped from my “dreaded country”. I consider myself fortunate to have two nationalities/citizenships, two places where I can rest my head without a care, and two sets of people whom I love. I salute American hospitals(if you can afford them) availability of fodsupplies, and the prompt response I have come to expect from police, fire and ambulance services. The ease of banking is also a BIG plus.
    I prefer Trinidad and Tobago’s easy acceptance of people, the lengths we go for our friends, and the “no problem” demeanour with which we face life’s onbstacles. Our free beaches are fantastic. I couldnever get used to paying to go to the beach.

    So, do not put words in the mouths of others.

  • Linda no need to preach , as I am quite aware that you love your country just like myself. It was others however I was hoping that would put the cap on ,and “pull this string.” Sorry to get you all worked up with my feeble attempts at sarcasims.

  • I do not get “worked up”, nor preach, but I recognize my gifts(Two democracies, comfort in both). I also know that these columns reach the international arena, and I am a patriot of two places. Seeing the abject poverty and unequal wealth distribution in Asian and African countries, would cause each TnT national to get on his her knees or any other prayer position, and thank the God of Creation for being born Trini. Mauvais Langue, gone unanswered, masquerades as truth.

    May God bless the Land of the Trinity in its 47th year.

  • We are on the same page fortunately. Notice however that the phonies and destabilization agents that my comments were aimed at , are once more very silent as they place on record fake admirationS for the progressive mulatto kid from Hawaii , but simultaneous supports sectarian political policies by selected fragments of our population at home , yet seem surprise at the end results.
    It is proven that developing countries are fortunate, in that they can look at the history of developed ones to learn from their successes, and if interested ,avoid many of their foibles and failures.
    Rest assured, that many of the perennial country bashers are aware about how blessed they are for having our country as their place of birth , as opposed to the two continents mentioned. The proof of this is clearly laid out by the fact , that with all the T&T denunciations, no one is willing to permanently escape to any.

  • Why don’t the two of you get together and sing kumbiah? I get a sense that the two of you are getting closer in your political rheteric and savvy exhange of phylosophy! 🙂

  • Finally a felix sighting. Imagine that, and I thought for a moment,we had scared him away with fine examples of sound logic. I like that smiley face you attached at the end of this juvenile comment, shows clearly that unlike a few others , you still have some sense of humor attached to those mostly disingenuous bones of yours my friend. To think that I was beginning to develop doubts as to your real identity and nationality, believing instead that you were one of the new fortunate immigrants with the ingenuity to escape our well managed, English speaking, South American neighbor Guyana- a perfect example of what so called democracy would become when the politics of race and hate is pushed to the forefront.
    Your feeble attempts at banter proved otherwise, as this is the hallmark of a true Trini national; they never lost their distinctive humor -as the original creators of this harmless ‘social joisting art form,’ that we refer to as ‘peacong.’ Keep the flag flying.

  • Felix the loveless.”Rhetoric”, and “Philosophy.” This blog is about isues. Sometimes people agree, sometimes they do not. There is no mulatto kid from Hawaii. There is an African American in the truest sense of the word. One African parent, one American parent. Hawaii is the USA, not a separate country. This African-American calls himself a Black Man. Those who fail to recognize what he calls himself, may have a problem. Please work on it.

  • What a color blind society indeed. It is the only one in the world that many accepts the distorted view that black and white equals black.Is it any wonder that the many by products -including the young Obama- are so confused? We can teach them a thing or two , I am certain.

  • Linda, I am surprised at your naviety and your wishful thinking. Barak Obama is a brilliant politican who would on any given occassion call himself black , white , mullato or bi-racial, depending on who is audience is! In reality , it does not matter what his racial identy is. He is an inspiring, intelligent, forward thinking inspirational leader who will lead America out of its stagnant morass as he glides his way into the White House.GO Barak!

  • I am totally confounded as to why Felix and Linda seem to want to claim Barak with such enthusiasm and ferosity. After all he is simply a human being who is primarily interested in gaining entrance to the White House.I think I qualify as one of those “phonies and destabilizatian agents” described by my friend Neal.Look, let’s all calm down and realize that Barak is just another politican who is overly ambitious , but has the qualities required to sway an entire nation. He is going to win! As an old Trini who has been in North America for over 40 years , who prides himself on being impartial and free from biases, I deligently watched Barak deliver his brilliant message on the final day of the convention. I got a full dose of reality when my son who is not political but intelligent and of mixed races(several varieties) patiently listened and finally exclaimed, ” How can this guy accomplish all of that in four years , he is promising the world to these Americans. Are they going to buy that? I became very disenchanted with my son because he did not react as I wanted him to.But he reacted and defended his reaction using logic and solid reasoning.I realized at that point that as proud as I was of Barak Obama, I was just as proud of my son who has African, Indian, and European blood running through his veins.Here was a young Canadian who was objectively going to judge this contest, fully aware of his history.However, in the end, I am hoping that he would support Barak.

  • I am not, I hope, niave. In American law, if you have a Black or African parent, you are Black or African. You have to have two white parents to be white. The other choices, data which we collect in school annually, by law, include Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander. There are no other choices. This issue came up earlier, when Tiger Woods burst on the golf scene at 18, and one may raise the same question about Kobe Bryant, and a number of other basketball players.

    The categories do not change because a Black man is running for President. The whole world knows what he is. He could have gone to Wall Street to work, according to his bio, but he chose to work among the poor on Chicago’s south side- among the poorest of the poor blacks. Was this calculating? No, I think he found himself among them, because he embraced them as his. He could have gone to Appalacia- the mountains of Virginia where there are lots of poor non-Blacks, John Edwards’ country. He did not. He married a Black woman, while the Kobes, Tigers and Parkers did not.

    The only other people he could identify with would be the untouchables of India. I bet if he was not running for President, he could have gone there and help uplift them. Give the man his due. He is an American phenomenon. He is a black man. Choice, and blood.
    When you guys find you can not defeat my argument, you use words like naive, and so on, one accused me of not knowing the facts, but when i chose to quote verse and chapter, he became totally silent on that issue.
    I consistently bother to respond to these comments, because somewhere, there might be one young woman who would read what i write, and find that these are facts, and opinions bolstered by facts, and she would say “Yes!” and defeat the old idea that women could not give valid testimony, because we had no testicles. I speak truth to power, to empower the powerless.

  • Thanks Neal, for recognizing my “dis-ingenuine” sense of humour. It pleases me to see that as a countryman has such an excellent command of expressive jargon that very few from T&T has but is bent on using it to highlight your love of country and question the patriotism of others due to their lack of unconditional love and concerned criticism of the direction in which it is headed. You logic in the defence of the country is transparent and while it is incongruent with the sentiments of the majority of it’s nationals you certainly entitled to your opinion.

    It appears that you take offence with the measure of democracy extended to it’s citizens and the way in which it is used. You have attacked the internet as being to “democratic” when people use it to voice their negative views. Perhaps you think that democracy in Trinidad should only extend as far as “Castro” has allowed; say only good things or be shot!” My attempt at humour has led me to become “ingenuine” if not “unpatriotic” if the context of your summary of me is accurate.

    You refer to your ananlysis and opinion whether right or wrong,of the current national shortfalls as “sound logic.” Your experience, education and patriotism does not make you and expert in mine or anyone elses experiences that causes us in general to have a difference of opinions.

    I’m happy to see in you, a soldier of dedication and perseverance toward your country. But to attempt to chastise others who hold a difference of opinion does not help to build better government but rather encourage a hiearacy of leaders that only provides for those that support it.

  • I admit that I went over board Felix and T- MAN , you guys are good soldiers that obviously care for your country . My apologies . I certainly was out of place on every score. Keep the flag flying , and warm regards.
    Your humble voice of reason- sometimes.

  • There is nothing that I love more than construct criticism with regard to my opinions. Sometimes I get highly emotional especially when the loss of life/lives is at the headlines of the national newspapers. It bothers me beyond a headache or cramps in my stomach. Being critized helps me develop a personal relationship with topic that brought about the criticism. I find comfort in documenting my thoughts and feelings because action is mute as the life/lives are already lost.

    At times I lay at night after a hectic day and lose myself in a “self induced coma” in the fight against murder and mayhem that is taking place in my country. I imagine i’m in charge of protecting the citizens and use every resource available in doing so; the army, the police, the coast guard and train special forces to combat the war on drugs and it’s peddlers.

    I plant soldiers on every cross-road that leads to the hills and mountains that could be used as a heaven for drug peddlers and kidnappers. I get the soldiers out of their barracks with their AK47’s and have make shift baracks in the remote areas that could possibly be used for illegal activity. I invest on at least 2 bullet proof vehicles for every police stations as well as vests for it’s officers.

    I create special OPS to protect witnesses, judges and jury members. I make the superior court the final court of appeals for death sentence cases;after that, it’s honorary members on death row meet their date with the executor; eliminating the Privy Council mode of defence for a delay.

    I invest in the best of forensic science in investigating crimes with access to the world wide criminal data base. Working collectively with the rest of the world in bringing in criminals. I pass law that mandates every single vehicle registered in the country be equipped with a gps tracking device. Cameras are installed at every major highway designed to identify stolen vehicles via the gps tracking device.

    I’ve also passed law for mandatory for jail sentences for crimes where a firearm is used and a minimum jail sentence for other weapons. My coasat guard are mandated to secure our ports of entry legal and or illegal.

    Hospitals are to have a minimum of10 doctors with 5 doctors working around the clock and another 5 on emergency call. Every community has a health centre with at least one doctor available 24hrs/day 7 days a week. Each facility has 2 ambulances working around the clock and every emergency vehilces every 20miles throughout the country; it should take no more than 10mins for the arrival of an emergency bus.

    Every house must have a phone equipped for 911 calls free of charge, regular phone use is at the expense of the user. The elderly and disabled are provided free home visits from doctors and nurses; as well as free medication. Unemployed citizens are reciepients are free medication for one year and employed citizens making x amount of money and under are given a medical subsidee of at least %50.

    My system is not perfect but has inherently improved the quality of life for the under privilidge and helps preserve the life of others from the criminals.

    Then the morning light comes into the bedroom and I awake from the coma; geezus, I’m here and it was all a dream. If only dreams did come true, i’d rather wake up in Trinidad than where i induced the coma. There is still hope with some of you that uses this blog. I’m betting if each of you had the opportunity to contribute in any small way to make T&T the way it was in 1960 you’d take it to task without another breath. Hope is a fools paradise, some say, but it’s all we have.

  • Like Linda, I don’t consider myself “escaped”. I loved the life in T&T, had a good job, and tons of friends. But we came to Canada for my wife to study (she’s a teacher). I quickly found a job in my field (hydrogeology), and when she finished, she also went to work here. Unlike me, she prefers here. But we have two young kids, and well, we think that their future, opportunities, etc. will be brighter if we remain.

    Re: politics and courtesy, you are so right Neal. It’s just that I don’t brood too much on T&T politics, and tend to give flippant observations, that can sometimes be taken the wrong way, with our more “sensitive” compatriots. My overall view on T&T politics…politicians are all sh**hounds looking out for their own interest. They should take a page from Mr. Obamas book..”it is not about me, but about you (the electorate)”. He was so damned graceful, especially in contrast with the war mongering, conceipt that the Republicans, especially Sarah Palin, spewed last night. She glorified her family in the iraq war, and used the term “dangerous foreign governments” that gives a startling indication of what is in store were the Republicans returned to office. Watch out!

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