Femi Ojo-Ade’s ‘thought-provoking collection of essays’ and poetry addresses three fundamental questions, writes Peter W. Vakunta: Who is Barack Obama, what makes him tick and what does his victory mean both for the US and for the global community?
Obama as once-in-a lifetime phenomenon; Obama as symbol of success against racism; Obama as personification of nonpareil commitment to community and national service; Obama as conflation of dream and reality; Obama as trail-blazer; Obama as culmination of a historical process – the crystallisation of the dreams of black generations, and Obama as agent of transcendence and transformation in America and the world at large. Such are the themes that constitute the fifteen chapters of this thought-provoking collection of essays that concludes with a poem recounting the telltale history of blacks in Africa and those in the diaspora. ‘The Obama Phenomenon: Change We Can! Essays and Poetry by Black Critics and Creative Artist’ is a tale of the meteoric rise of Barack Hussein Obama to power in the United States of America. Femi Ojo-Ade’s volume addresses three fundamental questions: Who is Barack Hussein Obama? What makes him tick? What does his victory portend for the United States of America and the global community?
Barack Hussein Obama is portrayed as a multifaceted persona in each of these narratives. Genetically, Obama is the product of racial miscegenation. On this subject, Femi Ojo-Ade has this to adumbrate: ‘His uniqueness emanates from the particularity of his birth by an African man married to a white American woman’ (288). Barack Hussein Obama, son of an African from Kenya, was born and bred in the United States of America. His father, Barack, came to America as a student to study at the University of Hawaii where he met Barack Junior’s mother, Stanley Ann, and married her in ‘just a small civil ceremony, a justice of the peace’(Dreams, 22). Obama does not bemoan his bi-raciality. On the contrary, he recognises the synergy inherent in his racial hybridity. Obama comes to terms with his genetic and cultural bipolarity when he notes in his ‘The Audacity of Hope’: ‘I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally’ (236). Little wonder that as a product of cultural hybridisation, Obama is preoccupied with the creation of a new American society that will give everyone the opportunity to be themselves without fear of losing their pride or dignity on the basis of physical make-up. As Oluropo Sekoni notes in his essay titled ‘Neither Black nor White Enough: Obama as Forerunner of the Multicultural Leader,’ Obama wants to move America ‘beyond the race society into a post-race ethos, a truly postmodern and multicultural reality’ (235). His commitment to change, inclusiveness and bi-partisanship has remained consistent as evident in his victory speech in 2008: ‘This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace… Yes, we can’ (238). The only reasons that can be advanced for Obama’s electoral victory are his thirst for change and the identification in his singular character of the ingredients for bringing about such a change. In his musings on the extraordinary qualities of Barack Hussein Obama, John Rex Gadzekpo wonders aloud:
‘How many political leaders in living memory can match not only the sartorial but more specially the rhetorical eloquence of this student of great presidents of America and African American heroes? How many world leaders, past and present, have been able to hold out with such aplomb, consistence, rhythm and elegance, without reading from a piece of paper, through major policy and ceremonial speeches full of complicated details, as Obama has done during and after the presidential campaign, especially his swearing-in ceremony, and more recently, in congress during his brilliant defense of the health insurance bill?’ (207)
Barack Hussein Obama’s portrait is that of a man of the people, a man determined not to forget his lowly origins and black race. His overriding attribute as a public persona seems to be his innate capability to bestride the two conflicting worlds without perforce letting either side down. This character trait is grist to the mill of Obama mania. He is a community organiser par excellence who projects beyond the self and embraces his subjects’ egos. In his essay ‘Barack Obama and the Promethean Burden,’ Ade Kukoye observes that the one dominant feature of Barack Hussein Obama is ‘his clinical observation of people and phenomena at all times and in all situations’ (246). He further notes that Obama possesses a singular ability to enter into a dispassionate dialogue with others without necessarily engaging his own emotions in the process. Barack Hussein Obama is endowed with unparalleled talents that have catapulted him onto the pedestal of world renowned freedom fighters, namely Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi to name but a few. The spontaneous magnetism that he exudes, the boyish grin, the disarming simplicity, the oratorical swagger that remains in control even at the most trying of times, his calm disposition to provocative taunts, his sensitivity to the role of the underdog, his clear-headed introspection and a healthy sense of humour are attributes of a man called upon to deal with issues of popular destiny. They account for Obama’s meteoric rise on the political horizon. As Kukoye notes pointedly, ’his dramatic emergence on the political scene is the targeted result of a silent, seemingly mysterious preparation’ (245). He hits the nail on the head when his describes Barack Hussein Obama as ‘an enigma, a “living legend”’ (244). These are only the tip of the iceberg of the mountain of stuff that makes the 44th president of the United States of America tick. The Obama phenomenon is all that has been broached above. Sekoni defines the Obama phenomenon as ‘the special circumstances that construct Obama’s political personality, especially as such circumstances relate to Obama’s postmodernist impulse and style’ (233).
When all is said and done, the question that begs to be asked at this juncture is what Obama’s ascendancy to power connotes for America, Africa, and the world at large. Why does it matter that Barack Hussein Obama, an African American, is tenant at the White House today? In an attempt to respond to this nagging question, Femi Ojo-Ade compares Obama to South Africa’s legendary leader, Nelson Mandela, noting that the election of Obama is the crystallisation of the struggles of all black people: ‘Taken in tandem with the liberation of Madiba Nelson Mandela from the apartheid gulag on 11 February 1990, Obama’s victory is one event that makes our struggles worthwhile’ (xiv). This statement foreshadows a process of continuity in the political rise of blacks in America and beyond. The following remark culled from Melise Huggins’ essay titled ‘Barack Obama: Beyond, Between, Betwixt and Parting the Deep Blue Red Sea’ sums up this vision. As she puts it, ‘In essence, Obama is the Black man who accomplishes a lot with great aplomb, charisma, and humble greatness’ (66). One hopes that Obama’s message will make African and other Third World leaders, embroiled in mutual distrust and developmental retrogression, think and change. In the words of Marius Anagonou, ‘As we bask in the sunshine of Obama’s victory, we Africans must think of change on our continent. If he can fulfill his dream, so can we’ (61).
In a race-conscious society like the United States of America, the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the Oval Office must mean different things to different people. To African Americans, the formerly enslaved, this victory symbolises a dream come true. John Rex Gadzekpo observes: ‘Now the storm is real. Obama has been elected president of the greatest power on earth. He is the first president of African origin in a country where his ancestors had been enslaved, and where, at a given moment in the history of that land, people like him could not share the same space with whites’ (190). While most African Americans consider Obama’s presidency as a sort of miracle, an event they never expected would happen in their lifetime, the other side of the racial divide holds a different view. The majority of European Americans and those minorities who did not vote for him look down on his African ancestry, his ‘funny’ name (note that he has been described as a black man with a funny name – ‘Dreams from my Father’, viii), and supposed Muslim religion. Notwithstanding Obama’s mixed racial background, there are Americans that are mentally unprepared to accept the fact that a black person of any type should occupy their sacred White House. The demeaning cartoons and privately shared racist internet messages taken together with public queries of the so-called ‘birthers’ all offer ample testimony. The self-ascribed ‘birthers’ question whether Barack Hussein Obama was born in the United States of America. Lansana Keita opines that ‘Were Obama’s father European instead of African, his persona would not have suffered any such indignities ‘ (225). On the other hand, the influential liberal elements who promoted his candidacy see his unusual cultural experience as a psychological advantage. For those bothered by their conscience in a historically racist society, the election of an African American to the office of president has a cathartic effect, unburdening them of history’s abominable realities, not least of which is the trans-Atlantic trade in human cargo. To Africans who would like to appropriate America’s first black president, there is bound to be disappointment because Obama as president of the United States of America is principally committed to the defense of America’s interests and the projection of American power worldwide.
Regarding Africa, the following excerpt called from a speech Obama made in Ghana makes Africa’s apprehension all the more evident: ‘Africa is part the world, a fundamental part of our interconnected word—as partners with America…Africa’s future is up to Africans’(319). In the final analysis, Africans should not dream of Obama as messiah, as provider of manna from heaven, as solution to their myriad problems symbolised by corrupt and clueless leaders. They as the people must make a change, and make their leaders change. For their part, Africans could benefit from economic and cultural cooperation with Americans. In Other words, Obama’s election could be much more than a source of racial pride for continental Africans. For the United States, Obama’s presidency could be seen as a step in the direction of refurbishing the nation’s global image as a symbol of democratic promise. There is no doubt that in the wake of Obama’s election to the White House, the standing of African Americans in the world will be elevated.
The Obama ascendancy to the White House has mightier ramifications for European countries like France where blacks stand no chance at all at being elected into political office. Again, Gadzekpo’s remarks are an eye-opener: ‘there is no room in the French establishment for an “outsider”, the “other”, especially those from ordinary ranks’ (199). In brief, the prospect of a French Obama is a nonstarter. By way of illustration, Elise Mirette Mbock evokes instances in which French institutions systematically block attempts at creating a formula of equal opportunities, especially in the field of education, the key to the possible making of a French Obama. She notes that ‘Quality education in France, especially access to the so-called grandes écoles, or elite schools, and similar prestigious institutions, is the preserve of children of the rich and powerful, so that they can inherit their parents’ (202). One can only hope that the Obama phenomenon would have a tonic effect in the Hexagone and beyond.
In the guise of a conclusion, ‘The Obama Phenomenon: Change We Can!’ depicts President Obama’s tenure at the White House as one of great expectations. As the world holds its breath in anticipation of the sort of baby his administration will deliver, significant questions continue to linger in the back of the minds of citizens and denizens alike. Does Obama’s tenancy at the White House signify the demise of racism in a race-sensitive America? Could his presidency signal the start to a morally pragmatic solution to the ongoing racial angst that has characterised the history of the US? Should he focus on black–related issues at the expense of political expediency? Given the array of daunting odds he is confronted with, is it safe to perceive him as a one-term president? What is crystal clear in the Obama narrative is the fact that the president is aware of who he is, where is coming from, and where he is going. For those interested in American and, indeed global politics, this book is a monumental document to be perused meticulously. Like the story of his life, it is a complex web intricately woven with variegated strands dotted by smaller details, with contours and detours aplenty, to borrow words from Femi Ojo-Ade (312). The didactic value of this book brooks no questioning.
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* Femi Ojo-Ade’s ‘The Obama Phenomenon: Change We Can! Essays and Poetry by Black Critics and Creative Artists’ is published by Africa World Press, Inc, 2010, 348 pp (ISBN 1-59221-760-5).
* Dr Peter W. Vakunta is professor at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey-California, USA.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.
Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.
The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.