By Raffique Shah
January 25, 2009
IT was an emotional moment, watching Barack Hussein Obama take the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States of America. While hundreds of millions around the world must have experienced joy on seeing the first non-white take that historic leap for “Black man”, for people of my generation and those older than us, the emotions were different. Joy, yes. But that was a miniscule part of the memories that filled our minds as we watched the swearing-in, barely able to hold back the tears welling up in our eyes.
I don’t know that Obama can deliver half of what he promised en route to the presidency. Would the real powers-that-be in America, the military-industrial-technological complex allow him to go down the new path he has outlined? If he fails to implement some of the far-reaching measures that would make America, and the world, a better place, he won’t be the first to have fallen short. But that’s hardly the point, at least not for those of us who lived through an America that measured man by the colour of his skin, that denied the descendants of slaves their rightful place in the country they were born in, a country their forebears gave their sweat, their toil, their lives to build.
It’s difficult to explain these things to those who came after us, who have no sense of history, no social conscience. Last Thursday evening, at the launch of a pictorial book on Black Stalin, a project piloted by calypso-lover-supreme, Diane Dupré, several such discussions took place among the guests. Duke had been laid to rest hours earlier, so it was natural the conversations took a certain tone. Do our young people recognise those who pioneered what they take for granted today?
Lord Superior, Martin Daly, Earl Crosby, Winston “Gypsy” Peters and several others who had rushed from Point Fortin to the Angostura complex for the launch, delved into this darker side of our present.
University graduates who know nothing about intellectuals like Dr Williams, Dr Capildeo, William Demas, Dr Lennox Pawan-to name just four of our scholars. Or young West Indies cricketers who have no idea who Gary Sobers or Rohan Kanhai are. Young calypsonians never having bothered to learn about the likes of Spoiler, Lion, Attila, Dougla, Melody-hell, even the giant that was Kitchener.
Similarly, large numbers among those who cheered as Obama became President knew nothing about the bitter struggles waged by those who went before him, who, with bloodied hands and unmatched courage, paved his path to the White House. Rosa Parks, who, in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a “segregated” bus to a white man when ordered to do so by the driver. Her arrest triggered a “bus boycott” that soon escalated into a massive civil rights movement that propelled Dr Martin Luther King to leadership of a nationwide fight for equality.
We were young but informed when King delivered his “I have a dream” speech in Washington. We were outraged when Malcolm X was gunned down in 1963, when King met a similar fate in 1968. We wept when we read of the Ku Klux Klan lynching poor blacks across America, and even killing whites who supported desegregation. In 1963, a KKK activist placed a bomb under a Baptist church in Alabama, killing four black girls and injuring scores of worshippers. A white man who was subsequently arrested and charged for murder and possession of a huge caché of dynamite was fined $100 for having dynamite! This latter outrage would have its sequel in 1977, when the racist murderer was re-arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
We who lived through the 1960s and 1970s, the global awakening of the oppressed, had a different interpretation of Obama’s ascendancy to President. We were part of that great global movement that fought for peace, for equal treatment of all human beings. It manifested itself in song, in music, in protest demonstrations, and yes, in taking up arms against the oppressors.
Obama as President might not have happened if Trinidad-born Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power movement he led with unmatched oratory and fierce courage, had not changed the face of America.
Obama might have remained a back-room senator but for the massive outcry by people of all races against apartheid in South Africa, their call to free Nelson Mandela. The end of apartheid might not have come when it did had Fidel Castro not sent Cuban troops to Angola to help defeat South African forces.
Obama as President of the USA must be seen in this context. It’s not just a case of a black man entering the White House. He owes his success to all those who fought for equal rights, to those who died in the process, to the ailing Fidel whose Cuba has suffered so much at the hands of Barack’s predecessors.
Obama said this is a time for healing. Let it begin-in the Gaza, in Guantanamo, in Zimbabwe-wherever man’s inhumanity to man causes so much pain and suffering. Can he do it? Yes, he can.