Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Obama

BARACK OBAMA: Black man’s dilemma.

This is written by Oga Tunji Lardner a foremost journalist and a self confessed Latte Liberal . He is my brother and he rocks.

As a black man, more precisely as an African born black man, I am a bit conflicted about the exquisitely improbable presidential run of Senator Barack Obama. My ambivalence has it roots in a previous run for president by another charismatic black politician, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

I remember how the news of Jesse running for the presidency of the US in 1984 impacted on our global political consciousness in Nigeria, literally a generation ago. As a young idealistic journalist working for a fledgling weekly magazine, and like the rest of my equally young and idealistic colleagues, the very idea of a black man as the president of the United States was a notion we readily accepted as a possibility After all this was “the United States” —with its self evident truths about the equality of man: the democratic ideal that we all so dearly wished for Nigeria, which was then in the grip of yet another predatory and distinctively vicious military dictator by name Ibrahim Babangida.

Looking back, I marvel at our naiveté and sense of moral certitude about the world ultimately being a good and just place. I suppose we were subconsciously projecting our hope and sense of justice and optimism on that great whiteboard called America. To look too closely at our selves, our country, indeed our continent would have been too painful and depressing. So we cast our eyes far, far over the rainbow to that mythical place where someone like us was running to be the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Even so, a little voice now and then whispered in our ears, the cold calculating facts of American electoral politics, there was no way any Jesse was going to beat the “Gipper,” an extremely popular incumbent Ronald Reagan. Nonetheless we persisted in our little game of self-deception, knowing fully well that given the tortured history of race in America, it was highly unlikely that a Blackman, indeed any black man would ever make to Pennsylvania Avenue in the foreseeable future.

“From the outhouse to the White House.” That prospect was heady and intoxicating for all of us. At a deep personal level we understood the semiotics of having a black man in the White House—no matter how naïve or improbable it seemed. We came back to earth soon enough as Jesse’s theatrical run for president turned out to be, well, the audacity of hype.

But today it is different. A remarkable black American with the improbable name of Barack Obama is running for the office of the President of the United States, and that little voice is telling me that he stands a very good chance of becoming America’s next president. A black man who in his own words boldly declares “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas… I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents.”

And I—even without the colorful heritage of miscegenation and the searing intellect, the laser focused drive, the bold self-assuredness, the charismatic personality, the moral courage, the balance, the poise, the words, or the audacious hope—totally identify with the brother; more or less.

I hesitate to fully identify with Barack Obama because I am still negotiating my way through the dark labyrinths of my own fears and self-doubt—the scars that I, along with, doubtless, millions of other Neo-Diasporan Africans, bear from the painful experience of unfulfilled ambitions at home in Africa, as well as in America. In the dark, arms outstretched I am tentatively feeling my way out by hand, even as I attempt to scrape away one sordid layer at a time, the baked accretion of the fears, uncertainties and doubts of being a black man in this world. With one hand, fingers splayed, I scratch at the indeterminate distrust that others project upon and that periodically shrouds me; with the other hand, claws drawn, I grate at the tectonic uncertainties that seem designed to keep me perpetually off balance; and with both hands, I rip away at the past setbacks that shadow me whenever I reach out to succeed.

Somewhat like Barack Obama, but quite literally, I inhabit multiple worlds as I commute between the US and Africa, and have to constantly weigh and balance my engagement in both. But unlike Obama, who clearly has found his way out of that maze, unified his universe, taken a firm hold on the three fates, woven his own design on the tapestry of his life, and lately stunned the world with the audaciousness of his hope; the worlds I inhabit, inhibit my aspirations in many ways. Or do they?

As I look back at my own continent’s fitful struggle for development and real independence I also wonder about my own culpability in my country and continent’s plight. No, this is not a quixotic desire to want to be like Obama. This cannot be, for after him, the fates broke the mold. Instead, this is a simple and all too human moment of reflective doubt, again, about my place in the world as a black man.

In urging Americans in his seminal speech on race in America, Obama states inter alia that “for the African-American community that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past... And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives…” He might as well have been speaking directly to us in Africa. He certainly resonated deeply with me.

That we have at this point in time another avatar rising from our collective blackness is quite profound. Obama is much more than the poster child that some in the mainstream US media so blithely describes, he has become the whiteboard or is it blackboard upon which the grand narrative of the black man is being written, and will continue to be so until another comes our way.

Nelson Mandela once remarked about how African men (and by extension Black men) are tentative about fully embracing their potential greatness, but not this brother.
As I marvel at the sheer chutzpa of the man, trying hard not to “hate the player, but to hate the game”—almost like loving the sinner and hating the sin—that niggling little voice is back, again. It is saying, and I render this with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, and bearing in mind the properly contextualized, albeit widely misunderstood rhetoric of Reverend Wright, “Damn you Obama… Damn you! Damn you for blowing our collective alibis as black men… Damn you for kicking away our pathetic crutches, now we must stand tall, with no excuses, and grab and shape the destinies of our people!”
This time I am responding to the imperative rather than the fearfulness beneath the surface of this dubious little voice. It is a new day. And there is work to be done.


Ayobami said...

Thanks Sir for posting this piece from Oga Tunji (Yes Oga Tunji cos I almost worked with him at WANGONet). This piece articulated another side of the positivity earned from the Obama phenomenon. A wake up call for all black men to wake up from the slumber of self-pity to one of action. I hope our Xenophobic brothers and the leaders whose negligence of the poor men in SA paints Mzansi in bad lights opposite of the spirit of Ubuntu they preach will also take a cue from a an American, son of a Kenya father.

SemiObama said...

This is a great post. A very smart unpacking of the semiotics of Obama and the semiotics not only of Obama but any black man running for president. You may have heard that Secret Service files recently uncovered included jokes by those protecting Jesse Jackson about what might happen if he were to be assasinated.

Without question, an African American man as POTUS is a rich, rich text.

Feel free to stop by our site, which is a collection of semiotic readings of Obama: semiobama.blogspot.com

USpace said...

I would dearly love to see a Jewish, African-American woman as POTUS. It's not race or gender that makes it for me though. It's political beliefs that matter, and socialism is bad for everybody, (accept those high in government or high-level academia) especially poor people, of all races.

His 'Change', 'Hope' and 'Progress' mantras are actually somewhat self-mocking. Making your own Obama posters is totally addicting, I laughed so hard I almost had a breakdown. LOL!
absurd thought -
God of the Universe says
befriend a bomber

pushing for change at all costs
sacrifices must be made

absurd thought -
God of the Universe says
only feel and hope

please force people to change
change can only be good

Make Some Obama Posters NOW!
Appeasement Talk Bothers Appeasers
Help Halt Terrorism Now!


Onibudo said...

It is a great post from a very talented writer. Maybe he should write more.

Ebun Olatoye said...

Again Mr. Lardner, the blackman can no longer offer his skin as an excuse for mediocrity or failure.