Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Obama - The black man with the inside scoop

I have just recently finished reading Barack Obama's first book: "Dreams from My Father". Which is as honest a book as you are likely to find written by a politician. In it he catalogs his earnest quest for identity, the Son of a Black African father and a white mid-west American mother. In it he makes a choice very early on. Barrack sees himself as a Black man. This choice is made all the more easier by a white mother who reaffirms his black identity in the absence of his black father. With his own identity resolved Obama has a perspective on the world and himself as a Black man in it, that is afforded to very few black men.

The racial divide is propagated by myths each side tells itself in an attempt to reconcile their own history. These myths can be paralysing, preventing us from seeing the people on the other side of the racial divide for what they really are: Just people.

Black people are just as guilty of these myths as whites. For blacks, the myths focus on the heart of the white man. The central theme being that the white man is heartless and some kind of devil not to be trusted. Now this myth doesn't survive intellectual inspection, but at an emotional level it does make sense. If whites were human, then how could they enslave us the way they did? And how can they still oppress us in the way they do?

I have just started reading Obamas second book: "The Audacity of Hope". Towards the end of his first book, Obama talks about him coming to terms with his Kenyan family and his African family history. In his second book he chooses to focus on his American heritage and the values and dreams of the American people. I get the impression that Africa taught Obama a valuable lesson. That people can be cruel to other people, irrespective of race. That there is no nirvana void of the white man, where black people live in loving harmony. Cruelty and injustice exists in Africa too.

So after not finding a pot of gold at the end of an African rainbow, it appears that Obama came back to the US and decided to settle down to real politique.

Race is not the only fission in American society. There is a more pervasive fission over values and culture, with liberals on one side and hard core religious conservatives on the other. I think that Obamas own life experience and his need to fish through myths to reconcile his own identity has prepared him well to deal with the gamut of myths Americans propagate about each other, whether about race or cultural values.

For black Americans, the need to dispose of myths and engage with reality is greater than most. Blacks are the only American tribe who did not come to America under their own volition. So they have no collective narrative of endeavour and seeking a better life in a new world to pass on to each generation. No, at the core of the Black American experience is the initial injustice of being brought against their will, in shackles, to a distant continent on board a Slave ship. So isn't this the acid proof that the myths held about whites are in some part true?

Well even here the truth is more complex and less easy to consume. The simple truth is that the whites payed for their Slaves. Blacks weren't stolen from Africa, but traded by fellow Africans in the same way you would trade Cocoa beans. If whites are heartless for buying slaves, then aren't black Africans heartless too for selling them? An uncomfortable truth that the black diaspora chooses to ignore.

For Obama such inaccurate myths were easy to dispel, because the family that loved and cherished him in his formative years was white. Far from the back stereotype of white devils. So Obama had to seek out more complex motives for the behavior of whites towards blacks.

Reading between the lines, Obamas explanation for the attitudes of some whites, are just the usual bunch of human failings. Greed, fear, guilt, shame etc. Because of these failings whites propagate myths of their own. Black people are lazy and won't help themselves is a common white myth, and there are many more. The most insipid of white myths is that Blacks are some how less intelligent then Whites and deserving of their low social station. The most scariest consequence of this myth, is that it has seeped into the black psychic too. Blacks well aware that their own myths can't totally explain their condition, find themselves succumbing to the white mans myths, undermining their own self belief and self confidence. So white myths become a self fulfilling prophecy in the minds of blacks.

Obama is a very astute politician. Just the way he managed to circumvent the cesspool of racial politics in the recent presidential election without ever falling in was a major testament to his political nous. I think he knows that beyond the myths the races have a quite admiration for each other. His mother for one had a romantic view of blacks, painting a picture of his father, that would have been difficult for any man to live up to. Personally I believe that many Whites secretly admire black culture and black resilience, and in return blacks have a smoldering admiration for white organisation and economic success.

Obamas telling legacy may be finding away to get past the fear and distrust and allow these grudging admirations to blossom into something tangible. I believe he as already succeeded in showing whites that there is nothing to fear from Blacks in positions of power. His next challenge is showing blacks that they can indeed compete on equal terms with whites, despite the historical legacy.

His slogan "Yes we can", is pure genius in this regard. It appeals to both blacks and whites, who all know deep down that the myths they hold about each other are merely an internal defence mechanism. A way of shielding themselves from deep rooted inner doubts and uncomfortable truths.

If whites don't feel the need to man the ramparts in front of the black hordes, and blacks feel comfortable in stepping up to the plate and taking their rightful place at the American table without seeking refuge in victim hood, then "Yes we can" will prove to be the most important political slogan in American history.

It is still early days, but somewhere in some town in America, there will be a Black child thinking I too could become president. In years past that child's dream would have been snuffed out by well meaning elders who saw it as their duty to explain the realities of black life. Today however, that same child is likely to be met with a resounding chorus of "Yes you can".

Monday, December 31, 2007

The legacy of Slavery

As someone of Jamaican decent, born and living in London, the whole issue of identity and roots has always been important to me. I have long since concluded that I'm different in many ways to my white English counter-parts, and I've always valued this difference.

Jamaicans are very interesting people. Anyone who knows the history of the island would not argue that to have survived that experience, that Jamaicans must be very strong. This spiritual strength manifests itself in many ways, and is readily visible in the music and the arts. Along side the strength, Jamaicans poses a warmth and a gentle humility, which is scarcely found in other parts of the world.

I have always been curious to know how much of Jamaican culture is African and how much European. For political reasons, and because I seldom see these traits in the English, I've been happy to associate the positive Jamaicans traits with Africa. Also, some negative social traits found in Jamaica, like a propensity to use violence and a wide spread tolerance of discrimination and cruelty towards people of low social standing, I've been happy to assume that these are social traits inherited from Europe.

It comes as no surprise I suppose to find that the truth is not this simple. African complicity in the slave trade is a well known historical fact. What isn't well known though is that slavery in Africa was a normal part of life. The social issues in West Africa over land and natural resources were very similar to those in pre-industrial Europe. The people who possessed land were those who had the military and political means to hold on to it. They organised themselves into family based clans with marital and lineage systems that ensured land and property inheritance within a ruling class, much like in feudal Europe. Those without land and the conquered provided labour for the elite with land. This system worked much like serfdom and peasantry in Europe where a local (war)Lord would swear loyalty to a King and be granted land which provide him and his family with private wealth through the agricultural labour of Serf tenants. West Africa in the 15th century was no different to this. In the same way that a Lord had responsibilities for the well being of his peasants, an African Chief had a responsibility towards his slaves.

The social order was more complex of course, with the land owners representing an aristocracy, and middle classes populated by people with valued skills like priests and metal workers, and then there were the slaves, the agricultural labourers of their time. I've read that in some West African societies as much as 30 percent of the population were slaves.

With the discovery of the new world and the growth in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Slavery in Africa became a booming export industry. The ownership of slaves was no longer a natural by-product of the "prevailing social order", but a means of gaining access to European goods like cloths, spirits and most importantly guns.

As far as I can tell, being a slave in Africa did not entail the same social stigma as it did in the new world. Slaves were a by-product of wars. The conquered were made captive and used as slaves. Over time many of these slaves were assimilated into society, and marriage between slaves and non slaves was not uncommon. This assimilation was often necessary as slaves were often required to replenish a lost in population as a consequence of war. In fact the King of the Ashanti's went as far as to pass a law banning the open discussion of a persons family back ground so that people who had first entered society through captivity could be more readily assimilated without stigma.

With the arrival of the trans-Atlantic slave trade all this changed. The ability to supply slaves as an export commodity became a means of massing great power and wealth. The Europeans and and the African elite fought to control this trade with control moving amongst several powers such as the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Fante and the Ashanti over many years. On the African coast the traders whether European or African shared a common scant regard for human liberty and dignity and were all equally implicit through common greed. What had been a small scale local system to deal with the dis-enfranchised, had now become a global industry responsible for the mass transportation of over 10 Million people to the new world. To meet the demand, the African powers needed more captives which they traded for guns which then fueled more wars, which delivered more captives. The driver for all of this was an insatiable demand for sugar in Europe. Slaves were needed in the new world to produce the addictive substance sugar. So a growing demand for sugar in Europe ensured a growing demand for African slaves.

It seems that only in the new world and in Europe, that Slavery took on a racial connotation. Here race became the justification for what had become an ungodly trade. In the new world the new slave owners felt no responsibility towards what they saw as chattel, and slavery here was a de-humanising and barbaric practice justified by labeling the enslaved as some how less than human. This assessment was based solely on race, as black Africans who had converted to Christianity, and had adopted European ways were still seen as some how less human then whites.

It is into this social setting the early African Jamaicans found themselves. Disenfranchised at home and sold off to foreigners who saw them as less than human. It is difficult to imagine how they must of felt. Becoming a captive is bad enough, but loosing your humanity at the hands of people who saw you as a savage and nothing more than 'chattel', must have been completely sole destroying. In this situation, having hit rock bottom, they had no alternative than to fight, and fight they did. The history of Jamaica is dominated by rebellion. Jamaicans have rebellion in their blood. As a Jamaican plantation owner, you stood a very good chance of amassing a fortune, but you also stood a good chance of getting your throat slit too. The British Army fought many wars against the Maroons - run away slaves who chose to live high up in the Jamaican hills, until finally they were forced to grant the Maroons independence and sue for peace.

So it is this legacy that makes me who I am. Thinking it through, as far as attitudes to social inequality is concerned the Europeans and the West Africans at the time of the trans-Atlantic slave trade seem pretty similar. The main difference being the willingness of the Europeans to reduce human-beings to the status of "chattel", a situation which was sustained through racial bigotry. So perhaps it is mostly the Jamaican experience that has made Jamaicans who they are today? The experience of struggle and surviving such a huge social trauma must have had a massive impact on the Jamaican psychic. It is definitely a unique experience. One that brings shame to both Europeans and West Africans alike!