Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Color of Hope

I awoke before 7 a.m. on Election Day, but because I awoke in Vienna, it was still Monday in the United States.

I’ve been traveling in Africa working on a documentary about lesbian, gay, bisexual , and transgender African Christians. Now I’m in Vienna for the International Lesbian and Gay Association world conference, because this is a safer place than Africa for some of the African LGBT people to talk to us.

But today, I am thinking about my home, and the election. Everywhere we have traveled, people are deeply engrossed in the U.S. presidential race. Nearly all of the people we have encountered are for Barack Obama – especially in Africa, and even more especially in Kenya, home to his paternal family.

But even in Africa, the power of the Big Lie has been demonstrated. On Saturday, my production partner was told with firm conviction by a white South African on the plane from Capetown to Johannesburg that Obama is a Muslim. He was polite, but incredulous that she didn’t know that. After all she is from the U.S. When she responded that no, Obama is Christian, the man clearly thought she was the one who had bought into propaganda. Nothing she could say shook his conviction that he was right.

Black Africans are not so willing to believe the lies. They know a lot about Obama, including his stand on abortion, the war in Iraq, the economy. The ubiquitous CNN has done a good job of helping them stay on top of things, as has the Internet. In marketplaces, outside many little shops and inside restaurants and hotel lobbies, we encountered groups clustered around TV sets or a laptop, with the person who understood English best translating the news cast for those whose English was less proficient or nonexistent.

Everywhere, when they saw us Americans, they would ask, eyes sparkling, “Obama?” We would grin and say, “Yes, Obama.” And they would pump their fists, shake our hands, and say, “Ya! Ya!”

In Capetown, Nairobi and Kigali we saw Obama bumper stickers on car windows. But we had arrived in Kenya without luggage – it had gone on to Rwanda without us – and our bumper stickers were in Cynthia’s suitcase. We had to practically swear a blood oath that we would send the bumper stickers as soon as we caught up with the luggage before our Kenyan friends were mollified.

Why the enchantment with Obama? The obvious answer is that he’s the first black man to stand a credible chance of being elected president of the most powerful nation on earth. That fact alone is enough to win the hearts of black Africans. But Africa is not a monolithic continent. The Obama narrative plays differently in post-apartheid South Africa than it does in post-genocide Rwanda, or in Uganda with its continuing civil war in the north, or in the Democratic Republic of Congo, once again exploding in war, or in Kenya, ancestral home to Obama’s father’s family.

For black and “colored” South Africans, struggling to live into the promises of their new constitution that outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, the mixed raced Obama is a literal embodiment of what they hope for in the “new” South Africa. He is the incarnation of the dream they dreamed as they fought to dismantle apartheid.

For Rwandans, working to rebuild shattered bodies, lives, families, homes, cities, their economy and most of all, trust in the wake of the 1994 genocide, Obama’s confident hope in the future offers a model of a different way of being in the world. In the world Obama seems to inhabit, neighbors do not hack neighbors to death with machetes. Nor do family members betray family members to death squads. Nor do church leaders give up congregants to be slaughtered, or abandon women and children to be burned to death in the church in which they sought sanctuary.

In a land where every one of these nightmare scenarios were real, where post traumatic stress haunts everyone who survived the genocide, where peace and stability still seem terrifyingly frail, Obama offers a hope of sanity that can be counted on.

In Uganda, where Idi Amin's legacy still is seen in demolished buildings, wrecked roads, a struggling economy, soaring poverty, and an education system most can’t afford, Obama’s very existence offers a vision of what education can help one accomplish.

For refugees fleeing the most recent outbreak of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Obama offers hope that a new administration in Washington might at last begin to pay attention to the bleeding in their nation, and help bring stability.

And in Kenya, of course, he is embraced with burning pride as a son, as one of their own who has moved into the highest realm of power, position, and prestige. All Kenya claims him.

Having said all this, I believe that white Americans can only dimly grasp the hold Obama has on the imagination of the world inhabited by people of color. It is strongest, I think, in those parts of the world where people of color were colonized by white people. His achievements appear to be somehow helping to balance out centuries of oppression, humiliating occupations, and patronizing and demeaning laws and regulations imposed on them in their own lands by colonial masters.

Win or lose, they have taken him into their hearts.

If he wins, for the first time the majority of the world's people will see a president of the United States who looks like them instead of like those who have historically oppressed them.

If he wins, President Obama will enjoy an advantage in working with the governments of all these nations that no white person has ever enjoyed.

I cannot remember a time when so many people wished so much good for an American presidential candidate, or when people around the world held a candidate as close in prayer as they do their own families. Who knows what will come of this unprecedented outpouring of good will?

We are entering uncharted waters here, but the weather signs are more promising than they’ve been for most of my adult life.
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Note: Go here to see what would happen If The World Could Vote.