Black Christians like to say ‘tears are a language that God understands’. When I saw Jesse Jackson cry it seemed to me that those tears were being shed as he felt the weight of history on his shoulders. The expression, ‘tears are a language that God understands,’ is borne out of that experience of slavery and colonialism and hardship and racism and, in the case of America, the hundreds of years of trying to make it over there for black people. Not only that, but the feeling, in 2008, that the highest office in America was still out of reach for black people after all the sacrifice, all the suffering, and indeed all the victories. That weight of history was summed up so eloquently in those tears. It has been a long journey, a very long journey, and it was great to see the fulfilment of that journey in this one act of electing a black president.
A lot of people doubted Obama’s election would happen because America was not ready for a black president. There is a sense in which America will never be ready. Nowhere and no one is ever ready for something new or unprecedented. How do you get ready for it?! Will a white church ever be ready for a black vicar? It will be ready the day it gets one! There are things you can do in terms of preparing for something new but the fact is that most of us do not know how we will behave when something that has never happened before happens. There is a sense in which you never can be ready for it. Barack Obama titled his book ‘The audacity of hope’. What audacity to think that as a black man in an America that is so highly racialised you could aspire - credibly - for the highest office? But Obama mustered enough self-belief to do that and that is audacity indeed!
There are some who have said it could never happen here in this country. If it were up to them Obama would have never won the election in America! I do not accept that we have the right to stand and say things like “this can never happen here”. The problem with that kind of thinking is two-fold. Firstly, it sows the seed in the minds of those who aspire for the top that you can only go so far and so you only go half-heartedly. And, secondly, it feeds those who are determined to stop people of colour from getting into certain positions. You embolden both of them to ensure that it never happens. The genius of Obama is that he lived with black people saying he couldn’t get to the top and with white people saying ‘not on your nelly!’ and yet somehow managed to cut a path through the pack and get there.
There are obstacles, there are difficulties, there are challenges here in this country as elsewhere. But I think what we ought to be saying to anybody, whether you are black, Chinese, working class white or whatever, is that you must not allow others to set your boundaries for you. Obama declared “Yes we can” and I think that is inspiring people. The overwhelming majority of people see his becoming President as an inspirational act – the most inspirational thing that has happened in most people’s lifetimes in terms of black progress.
The church aspect is an interesting one because on social issues Obama is very liberal and on social issues Pentecostals and Evangelicals are not liberal and there are people who are in support of Barack Obama because of the bigger picture yet would find his position on gays and abortion and so forth problematic. There is a real challenge there and there are some compromises that have to be made, but that is exactly what you get when you find something that is iconic, because people gravitate towards it and they leave the small print for later. Once again we find, however, that the phenomenon of Barack Obama winning the presidency overrides even those theological differences. What everybody recognises is that whether you are a Pentecostal or Evangelical who has issues with abortion or not, Obama winning the presidency stands out as a beacon of an example of what can be achieved and is therefore a great example for every child. And everybody wants to align themselves with a great example of achievement and say to your child, yes, you can achieve, despite the fact that racism is all around you.
None of us should be in any doubt that Barack Obama’s win does not at a stroke cure racism in the world. It simply doesn’t. But at the same time racism needs something doing to it. Racism needs to be reworked because I think for too long black people have allowed white people in general to have one over us in the sense of ‘if we don’t like you, you can’t succeed’. I have heard some people say ‘I don’t consider myself English because white people don’t see me as English’. ‘I don’t consider myself British because white people don’t see me as British.’ My challenge to them is: why would you allow the white person’s view of you to determine how you view yourself?
Racism in one form or another has been with us for time immemorial and my suspicion is that it will always be with us in one form or another but if we forever believe that being black means there are some things you can’t achieve then I am afraid therein lies the inhibitor forever and a day. What Barack Obama has approved is not that there is no racism in America or the world but that in spite of racism you can still achieve. And that is a big lesson for black people to learn.
What we have in Obama is an iconic figure who will stand out as a model of achievement. But more than that, the role model I see in him and that we will teach our children of is not only one that you look at in an ivory tower. What is important is to look at what he did and how he actually did it. Because Barack Obama didn’t just stand up and win and some of the things said about him were true. He didn’t have much experience. He was a freshman in the Congress. But it shows that you don’t have to tick all the boxes to get on and that there are ways to offset your inadequacies. Obama is eloquent and very bright but he also found ways of offsetting his inadequacies. He planned well and got bright people around him. When I think of him as a role model I want to think of him both in the things he did well but also in the deficits that he had and how he overcame those deficits.
Obama promised change we can believe in and who knows if he will deliver. My hope is that because of his history he will be less of a warmonger than some of his predecessors and more of a peacemaker, and that because of his African roots he will lead on championing the prosperity of the people of Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. In his DNA is this world person and I hope that because of that he will be more inclined to be someone who looks for peace and sees America as less of the promised land and more as a country that needs to take its place among the league of nations and punch its weight but not feel that world dominance is by any means necessary.
But for me at least, simply planning, strategising and achieving this presidency like he did is an achievement all on its own that has already changed a lot of things, not least of which is the perspective of what is possible. In terms of his presidency, I don’t have any great ambitions of what he must achieve and I don’t buy into the messianic perspective of Obama. Or if I do, then it is not in terms of what he may achieve as the greatest president of all times but rather his example as one that who will help many people see that the circumstances into which you are born need not determine where you end up. What I hope for in his presidency is more wrapped up in what he has already achieved in becoming president rather than what he will do as president.