Obamarama: Our Love Affair with Obama
November 3, 2008
I know I am not alone in wondering why the most random Jamaican person is all a ga-ga over the possible outcome of the US presidential elections.
I mean, seriously. Why has so much adulation and interest – from editorials to letters to nonstop chatter at the taxi stand – been generated among us about Barack Obama? It just seems unthinkable, extolling a level of support and investment in the election outcomes of a country that we have just loved to criticize, and as recent as the Olympics, at which we have hurled all sorts of vitriol, homophobic remarks included.
Ok, so a lot of what we glam on to and work ourselves into a lather about doesn’t always make logical sense, although it makes perfect emotional sense. I think this love affair spans across these categories, but definitely leans towards the latter category. That is, beyond the obvious – history being made in a country whose history of being relentlessly racist and anti-black is being redirected in a most spectacular way, and whose role in the world, including in Jamaica, has been nothing short of problematic – why do we even care, and make such effort to communicate that investment in such public ways? I have counted no less than ten editorial columns in the Gleaner over the past three months going on and on about the US elections. You would think we had a direct stake in the outcomes! Even the daughters of the soil have gotten short shrift! Yvette Clarke’s (who’s such a part of the NY Democratic machine that she supported* Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama) and Yvonne Graham’s campaigns for elected office have been virtually ignored!
Given the amount of ink shed, one is left thinking that there is not really much going on in Jamaica; even our Senate has not bothered with the paltry business of showing up for work. Perhaps many are at home watching tv and glued to their computers following all the polls about Obama’s progress, while the rest who were “travelling” were really in the US, using their American citizenship as an opportunity stumping for Obama? Who knows?
Anyway, I figured that blogging about these thoughts – however incomplete or half-baked – might just be the way for me to stop trying to figure out an answer to these questions. Besides, I do think that there are some aspects to the mass media’s wilful enabling of this love affair that are worth examining further.
WARNING: This is a very long post. It was not intentional. Sorry.
[In the interest of full disclosure, let me just say: I supported the Obama campaign with my hard-earned monies and got my t-shirt as proof; I voted for him via absentee ballot; I have also made phone calls for the campaign, and had the absolute misfortune of talking to a Jamaican woman who has lived in Indiana for umpteen years and who plans to vote for McCain. I promptly set some other Indiana-living Jamaicans on her; hopefully they succeeded in converting her.]
Reading between the lines of the chatter in Jamaica, here’s what I have discerned that informs why many Jamaicans at home are so psyched about Obama, as well as my take on the issues.
1. More than anything else, the level of the suspense, drama and spectacle of it all – done and broadcast in a thoroughly dominating and blinding fashion that is only possible by Americans, of course – allows us some temporary relief from our own homegrown, maudlin and less spectacular drama, which is experienced as more of a deathwatch, and does not show any signs or possibilities of happy endings anytime soon. So, getting drawn into somebody else’s story gives us something to talk, and even to feel good about.
2. We in Jamaica love to big-up famous black people. Just so. One part of this is our penchance to fall in love with success, power and charisma, and anything that helps us keep the “hard work equals success” mantra going, even if that’s not or ever entirely the whole story of how a single individual came to our attention.
3. Being so intimately familiar with the story of the oppression of black people in Europe and North America, and in such denial about what that oppression looks like for black people here at home, we [can certainly be convinced to] feel some kind of personal vindication when a black person in belly of the foreign beast rises to a level of visibility and power that otherwise seemed improbable.
4. [a combo of 2 & 3] Its even worse when they [appear to] embody all the characteristics that we already assign to decency and respectability at home: the “biracial” factor plays here in Jamaica in a way that it can’t play in the US.
Don’t even bother to point out that Barack does not identify as “biracial” but as “African American.”
And yet, that’s the very point that we in this “out of many one people but please help the black people not to embarass us by not speaking proper english” neurotic space will hold on to. He has a white mother. Because, to too many of us still, his white mother and ancestry DOES modify and even neutralize any elements of his not-so-civilized African blackness. For us, he could have been “too black.” That racist logic that helped make many white Americans more accepting of Barack also does work wonders on us as well: we can feel much better and rest much easier because his parents are not ONLY or JUST black. And certainly, he doesn’t look or present like the “type” of black person that we can’t simply cannot stand [don’t all turn to look at Portia, now!]
I remember last year when a columnist (I think it was Jean Lowrie-Chin but don’t quote me on that) made the comment last year about 2007 being the year that Golding and Obama, being light-skinned black men (half-black, half-white, whatever) were slated to become elected leaders, suggested that they had this lineage as something in common, and how this signals a new era for biracial people in politics. I remember being totally bemused that anyone would think Golding and Obama had anything in common. I mean, are you kidding me?? Besides Golding’s obvious deficits on – well, pretty much everything that counts for me – public conduct, knowledge, problem solving, empathy – the skin colour thing is completely irrelevant.
Nonetheless, apparently it doesn’t matter to the Jamaican media that Barack does make it perfectly clear that the fact of who his parents are does not determine the identity he chooses to claim or political stances. He’s not the wishy-washy “I’m half-black and half-white so that means I can’t recognize or say anything critical about white people’s complicity in racism.” In other words, he’s not Tiger Woods. Being black is not marginal to how Obama sees the world; he’s just found a different language to advance his own thoughtful [if sometimes moderate and pragmatic] political agenda.
5. [combo of 2, 3 & 4] Listening to people talking about Obama, it is as if he, as the new famous black person, is the new EXAMPLE of how we are all supposed to be. The perception is that his shadow is so long, it will invariably fall over all of us, and we might want to be happy to be in that shadow. In a not unexpected tone of sarcasm, I laughingly noted to a friend that if even if he does not wins the election, Barack, Michelle, Malia and Natasha will become the Cosby family writ large and international. I mean, he will certainly satisfy those of us who are crying about “marginalized black men” who who so badly want a Black Patriarch, won’t he? Who wouldn’t want Obama to be THE representative Black father and quintessential family man? We chuckled, knowing that, it was only time before yet another set of cultural wars about the problem of fatherless black families would be waged. What we don’t know yet is how, and using what methods.
Funny how this racism thing works, isn’t it? We don’t like when the “lowest common denominator” for black people is defined in the worst possible terms – criminality, poverty etc. But rather than fight for the dignity of the most maligned among us, we can’t wait to jump up and identify with the ones who have “made it”, only to then turn around and tell the downtrodden others that they need to learn to be like the successful ones. We don’t seem to care too much about what that black person stands for, it seems. Until now, Colin Powell has been the darling of many of us, the Black Man who has reached the highest echelons of American politics. Superlatives abound. We didn’t, and still don’t seem to care what Colin Powell thinks and the stances he has taken. He wasn’t just duped by Cheney to support the Iraq war; he has been part of the American war machine for a couple decades now, but who’s paying attention to the substance of things? Not us, we are so invested in the facades of position, status and public performance of respectability that we can easily be blinded, dazzled and hoodwinked by the spectacular displays of propriety, as we were by Powell, and will continue to be.
Mind you, Barack Obama is miles ahead of Colin Powell in most respects when it comes to political credibility. And, there’s also the small matter that the stances that Jamaicans here at home take on most issues look remarkably similar to the Republicans. Colin Powell was and is a Republican; he could have changed his party affiliation but has not. That tells me something about his commitment to certain ideas. By virtue of how we in Jamaica do politics, how we define political issues, and behave politically, we are really offshore Republicans.
And don’t think Republicans haven’t noticed. Why do you think its been so easy for our local reactionaries to get the so-called pro-lifers in America to come to Jamaica and set up shop and influence the abortion debate, and further undermine our democracy? Even though Republicans say they like “small government”, while we have maintained an unhealthy dependence on the predator state to do and solve everything for us, when it comes to using “morality” arguments like an uzi against women, poor people, gays and lesbians, Jamaicans – here and abroad – and US Republicans are like bench an batty.
6. By virtue of the light shining on Obama in such a positive way, I think that many of us do think, in unconscious as well as conscious ways, that we – as a majority black country – are going to get something out of it. What we are going to get might not be sent by personal courier, wrapped with a bow, or in the form of large sums of money, but we believe there is something to be gained in the long and shortterm. First, there’s the decency factor. As a friend told me on Saturday, “he’s just such a decent, principled man. If only our politicians could take a leaf out of his book.” Yes, he’s definitely the kind of role model that some of the men (and women) who make decisions about our lives could benefit from emulating.
Then there’s the stuff that might trickle down or skip across the waters to us. Since we don’t really know that much about how American politics and policies work, we are wont to think that of course immigration policies will be more friendly towards us; of course Americans who come to our country won’t be [quite] as racist as they often are, and we won’t have to put up with the crap that we do when we try to enter their country. Of course, Barack will look on us with favour in terms of trade policy when he finds out how much Jamaicans supported his candidacy and how many Jamaican-Americans voted for him. Of course, we expect tit for tat. Because that’s how we see politics in general; one hand washing the other.
I do think many working- and middleclass Jamaicans who live in the US will benefit from the policies that he might introduce, if he is successful at his bid for POTUS. I just came across this video that I think is useful to underscoring that point. Given that many, many Jamaican women labour as home healthcare workers with very few benefits and crappy pay, it should hearten some of us that Barack is interested in understanding the conditions under which mostly women of colour, including immigrant women, labour, and willing to consider doing something to ameliorate their situation.
And, after all these years of taking on [the most problematic aspects] of American cultural practices, while openly criticizing many of Americans policies, I think there is a sense in which many of us want to feel that we could embrace American society identity more easily if it was a black person “in charge”. The sticking point – not wanting to identify with a country run by white people – would be resolved, albeit temporarily. Who knows, this might be the time for the 15th Parish (the eastern seaboard of the US) to really show its political weight. Of course, we are forgetting that its not, or only, the person “in charge” who makes America what it is. And that America has never been a simple, homogeneous society where the one in charge acts like king and tells everyone what to do. It may feel and look that way to us when we watch TV, but it just isn’t so.
Neither the substance of Obama’s politics nor the nuances of the American political culture come through very well in the editorials. For the most part, all we get are sweeping claims that do absolutely nothing for us, besides get us further caught up in the rapture of the possible win by Obama. Even in today’s paper you can see how dazzled and uncritical the editors of the Gleaner have become [or are?], presenting as incredibly seduced by and almost drooling over the notion of a black man becoming “commander-in-chief of the only superpower on planet Earth.” Now, I thought the President of the United States was Head of State, but to listen to this, you would think the column was being written by a most patriotic American!
You would not even know that Obama would have any other responsibility besides overseeing the army and the navy, and running a war. For that, you can thank George Bush, John McCain and the Repiglicrats for successfully changing the language and the terms of the recent presidential contest so that its now all about who can run the best war. But, we can’t expect our local media persons to provide such basic analysis, can we?
Thankfully, Obama is aware that he is running for the job of president, and that he has several other jobs and important responsibilities besides spending off American taxpayers’ monies on killing people in Afghanistan, Iraq and torturing and disappearing people in the various “black sites” the US has created around the world.
This particular editorial (although other columns do it as well) goes on to champion “America as the leader of the free world” as if this is something desirable, mind you – there is that American patriotism again! – and to caricature and reduce American racial politics to terms that resemble the 1970s, and not the 2008. This is decidedly unhelpful to us in interpreting what has gone on through this election campaign, and what is to come.
For example, the editorial claims that ” it is conceded that many white Americans say that they can never vote for a black man to enter the White House.” Well yes that is a truism. But it is also a truism that millions of said white Americans are voting and agitating to make sure that said black man gets into the White House. But they don’t mention this detail, so we are left to assume – what? That’s its only African Americans who are voting for Obama? That its a few token whites who are voting for Obama?
The editors who wrote this certainly don’t understand or recognize that the most pervasive forms and expressions of American racism are least found in those staunch refusals to embrace a black candidate, and more clearly expressed in the refusal of many to vote for someone who has “Hussein” as a middle name, or is not Christian [I swear, If I didn’t endure this on the Indiana and Missouri phone calls, I would be tempted to say that CNN was overstating this issue]. In relying on their shorthand definition of American racism, the editors have failed to communicate to its readersthat the core of American racism and racialist practices have shifted significantly, and is not necessarily reflected in these blatant statements of anti-black attitudes, but in the more pervasive cultural attitudes that informed people’s stances on election issues such as “leadership”, “experience” and “religion”, and more importantly, how they responded to the question of who is a “real American” – McCain or Obama.
It turns out that this latter issue has been drummed home quite often in this recent campaign. But, African Americans like James Baldwin, Ella Baker and even Malcolm X spoke to this issue about citizenship and race back in the 1940s through 1960s! That is, they pointed out the contradictions inherent in the experience of African Americans, who are rendered non-citizens on one hand through the denial of civil and social rights which defined access to and participation in the core aspects of American life. On the other hand, African Americans (like Colin Powell) have consistently demonstrated their commitments to America, but never gotten the rewards they anticipated. This citizenship issue is a deeply racial question that has been very, very important to white working-class people in the US. If white working class people have been considered nothing else, they have been considered to be true-blue Americans.
African Americans have had to fight to be considered American on their home turf, and we know the fight is not complete because Michelle Obama made that contradiction apparent early in the campaign; Hillary Clinton also made it plain in her language about “hardworking Americans” wanting her to be the nominee. That’s also why Palin and company can drum this issue about “real Americans” home, and why it continues to resonate among white working-class people who see someone with the name “Hussein” as not American. Because, for many – including us! – American still means white, and that’s a core argument that election of Barack Obama will disrupt.
I could say more, but that’s it for now. My priority right now is to find a way to get to Barack Obama’s election rally in Chicago tomorrow night. Will let you know if I reach.