(‘African Writing Online’) 2008
Oh Barack. Dear, dear Barack. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
Number one, you’re a smoker! It seemed barely credible, in these days of the New Health and with that practice now barely legal, that one of ours could regain the world’s most powerful office. You, in your twenty-two month great adventure, have proved yourself the most inspiring cigs-man since football’s Johann Cruyff. I thought of you as a pair of young women from my local estate accosted me by the newsagent’s last weekend and asked me to do them a favour. ‘Puff on these,” I eased my conscience, as I handed over the goods, “and you may become Barack one day.”
Smoking is not important, but I read it as a sign, along with the other evidence – your one time dabblings with drugs, your lingering relationships with radical former tutors, your poker-playing, your liking of hip-hop and that clever, nuanced TV show ‘The Wire’, that you are, basically, a hip, ‘down’, college boy, a type that many millions around the globe get and have no problem with. You’re at the slightly naughtier end of that set, to be sure – you are, in Jimi Hendrix’s phrase ‘experienced’, but that, as regards your role-model prospects, is even better. For too long, the minority-thick, poorer communities of this hemisphere have been swayed by the entertainers, by the street-educators of Rap’s capitalist classes, by the streets of many of their lives; now there is blatantly another way, also achievable, also solvent, also cool enough. You, your college-professor self and your equally-qualified, wife, buttressed no doubt by the added authenticity that a country with a long-time sizeable black middle-class furnishes you, and that the rest of us in the west can only envy, have dramatically raised the relevance and the leadership-potential for us black intellectuals, black ‘elites’. Now, both street and scholar have one excuse less.
I like you too because, though I’ve had many issues with your party down the years (not least with the one you’re most often compared to, John F-didn’t have the-balls-to-invite friend Sammy Davis Jnr to his inauguration-Kennedy), as I have with your nearest equivalents on our side of the pond, I’ve always rather it was your lot than the others. I fancy I’ll welcome your foreign policy more than I did the Iraq-bombing Bush, indeed more than I did the last Democratic incumbent, the Somalia-bombing, Rwanda-avoiding Clinton. There seems to be a hope, as you’lll know, in some parts of the world that you will be somehow President-for Africa, President-for-the-south: I do not expect that – you have to be America’s President and act in its interests, but I do expect more, because you are, as I say, experienced.
Experience, inexperience. Funny things …Some years ago, at one of our big literary festivals, Hay-on-Wye, I had the pleasure of meeting one of your literary ‘greats’, the late New Yorker Norman Mailer. Across a crowded ‘Green Room’, our eyes met, as they will when one is the author of ‘The White Negro’ and the other is the only black in the house. So, we spoke and although, I’m embarassed again to say I don’t recall so much of it – Suzanne Vega wafted across and I quite wanted her autograph – we did chat about New York and I remember leaving with the distinct impresion that I – for all his New York talk down all these years – may have seen more of that city than he because I had seen all his bits – the Village, the upper East side, but he had seen little of some of mine – the Flatbush Avenues, the Fort Greenes, the Bed-Stuys. That black is so often discussed as if it’s ‘less’ when in fact, especially, I guess, at the elite end, it tends to be more.
You have that moreness in spades, and that counts for so much in a country as insular and as ethnically segregated as your own. With Hawaii, Indonesia, black and white America and, crucially, Africa, you have a fair chunk of the world in you. The Africa is key because it is likely to give you, in the many racially-accented matters you will face, a difference in spirit.
We Africans seem to have a milder take on these things. Hard to say why it might be, except the fact that our relationship with European masters was much briefer than the hundreds of years for which black peoples were subjugated in the Americas, during slavery, the plantations, and after. Our cultural practices were less disrupted, our mass entry to the West more recent, less traumatised on the whole. I’m sure you’ve noticed that subtle but clear difference between say, an African-American gathering and an Africans-in-America one, as I have between a British Caribbean- gathering and a Brit-African- one; between, dare I say it, you and your African-American wife whose still burning upset was apparent when she said that now, for the first time in her adult life, she was proud of her country. There is a deeper ease of spirit amongst Africans of direct descent. I’ve increasingly suspected that it would take an African or a biracial person, these who could to some degree stand outside the heavy history of the Americas, to see beyond, and make white America relax sufficiently for the game-changing breakthrough. And it does fit so sweetly; the African returning to America, but this time not in a slave hold; now the captain of the ship.
That you have ‘got beyond’ is a tribute to your vision and to what I really, really like about you. that you are the first person to execute a near-perfect ‘post-black’ campaign and, in so doing, solve the disconnect that has long plagued minorities and the coalitions they have forged in the west.
Here is the problem: whites, as your campaign has proved beyond doubt, don’t like race, but we do. They don’t fully ‘get’ race, and this is particularly true in countries like mine which, unlike yours, was not founded on race. Many western whites do not even see themselves most of the time as being part of a ‘race’, their race being the norm. For them, race is something that happens to other people and when it does, it is something they feel embarassed or threatened by or defensive about or uncomfortable with, or wary of or weary of or impatient with, and this is just as true among the progressive whites with whom we have done most of our dealings. The left love racism, my God, how they love racism – the great proportion of black stories that get attention or get commissioned are to do with or reduced to racism, the one black story they can examine themselves in – but they don’t truly respect race; they see it, the stuff that still has to be done because of it, as second-rate, parochial, temporary, something that all bright, right-minded people surely wish to get beyond, so we can all be happy, hanging together and having children who look a bit like you. Blame it on a commitment, to the universality of man, I guess, plus their tendancy, in concert with certain one-note blacks, to always problematize race, but for most black people, race is only a problem when it’s racism. The rest of the time, race and what goes with it is fine. It’s is normal, they understand, for human beings to bond and racial-cultural bonding, is one of the ways, in which we do it. Race, for minorities, is mainly about resources. Race is what has allowed a bunch of newly arrived, mainly illegal Nigerian and Congolese immigrants to find haven and a job at my north London barbers, One of them would have had a cousin who worked there, and so he comes first cap in hand, and soon the word spreads to his countrymen and then to fellow Africans. Race and culture what accounts for that shared-secret smile at that black party, a hundred strong , when some rare groove tune comes on that their parents had and that didn’t make the charts Race is what has made 90+ percent of African-Americans who turned out Tuesday vote for you. Race is true.
In our post-Civil Rights, post-Windrush period, when racism can no longer be relied upon to be the ring to bind us all, this disconnect is now impacting in-house. We have the emergence of our own black middle-class, still a relative sprinkle, but many of them feel they’re doing perfectly well thank you, and race-as-problem has proved no hindrance in their careers; who feel that racial calls are the refuge of the weaker ones, though race may have fasttracked them, as it may have you. Or some like me who, in various journeys through lands like yours and mine, hasn’t seen the amount of racism he might have expected to if certain stories were true, and so was not surprised at the scale of your victory yesterday; who has seen, if anything, racial suspicion, usually diffused when people meet and discover other matters to connect through. Still others who are blacks-in-Britain but not part of a black community they perceive as being too race-minded. And running beneath, the coming thing, certainly in our neck of the woods – a nineties/ noughties generation, less ideological, more materially-driven, more ‘post-racial’ in aspiration. One more inclined to believe they can have it all in a Leona Lewis-X-Factor, Olympics, inclusive Britain kind of way, just as this big Britain has begun to turn the screws on what it expects from its newer arrivals. Witness the numerous attacks we’ve been having these last few years, stepped up since our 07/ 07, from central government, from Trevor Phillips at the Equalities and Human Rights Commmision, to this year’s UK Defence Report, on the dangers and failures of multiculturalism, on the need for a revitalised, more enforced sense of Britishness. It is seductive, this velvet-glove-in- toughish-fist offer, not least because the alternative – our established, Civil-Rights-filtered black British-approach, despite certain hype to the contrary, still seems a thing that is failing too many; the many black youth underachieving at school, the many black actors and directors still getting rusty on British film sets (not). The answer, the likeliest route though all these camps, all with their claims to legitimacy, could only be ‘Post-Black’: in my Britain-oriented conception (because Britain seemed most where it was needed), an acknowledgement that the race-centric methods and philosophy we’ve employed for doing black culture since the Windrush have had their time, and the search for more viable alternatives and strategies that still have a progressive, pro-black agenda.
I have been talking up ‘Post-black’ for a while now, and I have to say nothing I’ve ever broached over many years of public fora raises the hackles of black audiences quicker. It’s because they assume I mean ‘post-racial’, some neutered, ‘sellout’ thing (proof, if any were needed that, notwithstanding our own youth-tendancies, the ‘post-racial’ lens through which white commentators have seen you has been largely yet another race matter in which whites are interrogating their own hopes and fears). But it’s not post-racial or even post-black really, I explain, just post-this black, this present way of doing things. Our new approach has to be more layered, has to speak to people who want to hear different things. Layered in the way that yours was a campaign of majority-targetted words, and quieter signs.
No, not post-racial, not just a one-stop-shop. Better, newer than that – that much has been clear by the choices you’ve made, the church you attended (and which person of colour did not know someone, after 9-11, who said, like Reverend Wright, that these were America’s chickens coming home to roost?), and that wonderful speech on race you then had need to give. You’re more this sweeping line in the sand. A hundred years ago, your African-American forbear WEB Du Bois said that the problem of race, ‘the colour line’, would define the 20th century. The 21st century’s equivalent, for black westerners at least, will be the line dividing those who are race-centric and those who aren’t.
era, now you’ve finally got it up and running, will bring richer
dividends, wider reach, without doubt, to black artists, entrepreneurs
and politicians alike, certainly on our less-race battered, and less
black-populated side of the pond. It will mean some re-focus of
energies, a change in some of the debates we get engaged in. If Britain
is more averse now to a certain kind of black identity, to fleshen out
just one possibility, then why not put ourselves at the forefront of the
citizenship debates that are currently of so much import to old and new
Europe? After all, us black Britons, with our newer, particular take on
citizenship, should have much to offer here that’s useful to new
others, or old ones remaking themselves.. I feel a film coming on: a
Pole , a black Briton and a Romany, a wry , hunam comedy; funds from the
big paymaster that is the European Union… New coalitions, new
Any winning idea to win through must have both economic and charismatic or ‘dignity’ appeal. You with your charisma, the reasonableness that shines through you, and, darn it, all that power, are the poster-boy we’ve been looking for.
I put a bet on you, Barack, a while back at the start of your grand adventure, at lovely long odds, to do the Double – the Democratic nomination then the presidency. I only collected, you see, if both came through. So what can I say, bro? You’ve not only done this mighty thing you’ve done, you’ve solved a quiet, little, credit crunch too!