Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack Hussein Obama

Some early, perhaps scattered, thoughts:

Throughout today's monumental, historic, inspiring, and emotional events, my thoughts have continued to wander back to two individuals other, of course, than Barack Obama. I have written thousands of words about both and probably exhausted nearly as many hours thinking about them. One is Congressman John Lewis. The other, bizarrely, perhaps, is Robert Mugabe.

John Lewis is one of the central figures in Freedom's Main Line, and is someone who has earned almost universal respect for his courage and convictions. One of the central figures in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, Lewis never fulfilled the role of charismatic leader. But charismatic leadership was always only a tiny slice of what the Movement was all about, the visible tip of an often obscured massive operation that may have required a Martin Luther King, Jr. for public consumption but that needed determined leaders like John Lewis to make things run. As a Congressman Lewis has similarly spoken out for justice and human rights, rarely (he is a Congressman -- to say "never" would be to protest too much) grandstanding, and always impressing with his strength of character and commitment. Seeing John Lewis in such a visible seat during the inauguration proceedings gave me joy on a day that all of us can celebrate, but that most of us have to recognize means that much more to African Americans. Barack Obama is our president, but to deny pride of place to African Americans would be churlish at best.

And yet as I listened to Obama present a speech that by his standards was merely adequate, but that instantly re-elevated the level of presidential speechmaking exponentially, I also thought about Africa and Africans. About Kenya, to be sure, and Obama's heritage, of course. But also about how someone like a Robert Mugabe has so abandoned his claim to speak for his people. About how Mugabe's ruthlessly thuggish kleptocracy has forsaken the people of Zimbabwe, has abused power, has made a mockery of democracy. About how perhaps a President Obama will be able to stare down Mugabe and his demonically clever machinations whereby all criticisms derive from the fiendish colonial past. Obama's earnest beliefs about both democracy and freedom place into stark reality the barrenness of Mugabe's claims to the country he so promisingly took control of nearly three decades ago. The Age of Obama should spell the end of the Age of Mugabe and his ilk. Not through Obama's force of will or use of force, but rather simply by his very presence. No longer should a Robert Mugabe be able to hide behind his people and stake a claim to Africanness that allows him to abuse other Africans.

As I am writing this, I am watching the Obamas walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and am listening to David Gergen speak of his fears about the first couple walking openly down the streets of Washington, fears I have shared (and repressed) all day. And yet as I listen I hear not fear or anxiety, but unfettered joy. More than that, I hear relief. The relief of generations. The relief of hope. The relief of possibilities unleashed.

The Washington, DC we all see and read about is the Washington of wing tips and power ties and constant jockeying for power and status anxiety raised to the level of sacrament. But the Washington that Washingtonians experience is the original Chocolate City, a black city. The shrieks of joy are also the shouts of a people. Michelle Obama received the slings and arrows of self-righteous outrage when she commented on her feeling pride in her country for the first time, an assertion as unobjectionable as her critics were ferociously obtuse. It would be facile to claim that we have overcome the country's tortured, demonstrable, long, shameful past, or to allow conservatives to seize upon Obama's inauguration as evidence that racism is a factor no more. But a specific era of racism, long dying, is dead. We are not at Dr. King's mountaintop. But on this, one of the truly great days in American history, its peaks are clearer than ever they have been. And that's something.

[Crossposted at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog.]


Mark said...

I agree that the Age of Obama could very well spell the end of the Age of Mugabe and his ilk. But before Obama should stare down Mugabe, I think he should stare down Mbeki, and bring him around to seeing that protecting Mugabe is harmful not only to Zimbabweans, but also to South Africans.

Slicer said...

It amazes me that just about 40 years ago people who looked like our President were refused service in certain restaurants, battered with fire houses, and incarcerated without cause. Forty years just doesn't seem like that long a time over the entire course of history. I suppose this speaks to the power of the Movement?

If only I could find a good book that addresses the topic. :)

Steve said...

An eloquent and moving commentary! In British soccer management parlance, "the boy done good!"

dcat said...

Mark --
Keep in mind, Mbeki has little leverage now, as he is no longer South Africa's president. Plus, as I wrote in an article for the FPA some time ago (it's linked on the right side of the main page, below the blogroll. The article is called "South Africa's Foreign Policy Dilemma" I believe) I am not sure precisely what people think South Africa should do with regard to Zimbabwe.

Slice --
It's interesting to see my students perking up over questions of race in my classes. It has a new resonance for them now.

Steve --
Thanks. I've always wanted to be praised premier league-style!


Anonymous said...

Great piece Professor Catsam. I wonder what questions your students are bringing up about race and identity. In addition, since I'm African American and was raised in West Texas, I wonder what type of questions they are raising and I'm sure they are probably the same as the questions my students have here in Dallas. In addition, I personally loved "Chocolate City" for so many reasons. The first place I experienced African American culture in so many ways. These are exciting times!

Mark said...

You're right. I was going to add Zuma, but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt to get his feet wet. I do still think Mbeki is important, though, if only for his personal stature. If he were to say to Mugabe: "It's time for you to resign, because you're not only hurting your country, but doing so in the most disastrous way," then that might start to get through Mugabe's delusions. Unfortunately, that probably wouldn't be enough. As Colbert said last night, historic change in Zimbabwe means inaugurating the guy they elected.

I haven't had a chance to read your stuff at FPA, but will try to soon.

dcat said...

Mark --
Zuma is supposed to be more hard-line on Mugabe than Mbeki was. Right now South Africa is at an interregnum, as Zuma, the presumed next president of the country, has not yet taken office. The interim president is Kgalama Motlanthe, and he and Mbeki recently flew to Harare to try to kickstart the negotiations in Zim, to no avail.
Leaders of SADC will be meeting in South Africa this coming week in hopes of breaking the logjam. We'll see how that goes.
If you are interested in African affairs, i keep busy at the FPA Africa blog, which is I believe the first link in my blogroll.

Best --