Saturday, April 5, 2008

Obama Names Our Pain

Barack Obama
Observer column by Jean Lowrie-Chin

In this blessed season of Easter, it was good to hear US Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, speak of a moving religious experience. He was giving his landmark address on race last Tuesday, and quoted from his own book, “Dreams From My Father”, describing his first experience in the church of Reverend Jeremiah Wright: "At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh … Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish - and with which we could start to rebuild."
I take from this, that a young man who had been previously searching for a religion with which he could identify, found it “at the foot of that cross”, the cross to which Rev. Wright had led him. Those who have had this kind of spiritual mentor could explain to journalists like Anderson Cooper of CNN that one cannot be easily dismissive of a pastor who has guided one to a new level of spiritual understanding, a virtual resurrection of the spirit. There would be a lot of empty churches if we felt compelled to leave over differences of opinion with our pastors!
Norman Washington Manley
Obama also expressed empathy with ordinary white Americans who had become resentful over lost opportunities at work and in education because of affirmative action. Having heard the honesty and wisdom of that address, one would have thought that Obama’s ratings would have risen. Instead they fell, and we learned the power of YouTube and that the 800-pound gorilla of race was still sitting in America’s living room.
Despite Jamaica’s many other issues, we are proud that our leaders have starved that gorilla and he is only skulking around on a few backward verandahs. So we had to disagree with one statement in that great speech. In extolling his country, he said, “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue scattered across three continents. And for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” We have news for Barack – not only is it possible in Jamaica: it is old news.
In the ranks of Jamaica’s National Heroes, we have individuals of mixed race who have been inspiring leaders of this country. Alexander Bustamente and Norman Washington Manley, Jamaica’s famous cousins, were of African and European heritage; they championed the cause of Universal Adult Suffrage, built our labour movement, developed our Constitution and led our country into Independence.
Robert Nesta Marley 
Since Independence, we have had Prime Ministers of every shade between white and black. Robert Nesta Marley, the son of a white English soldier and a black Jamaican woman, has long after his death remained the global griot for the oppressed and downtrodden. Indeed, without fear of contradiction, I believe that Jamaica is the most racially harmonious country in the world.
Perhaps this is why 59% of Jamaicans are said to be happy with their lives. We are very secure in our selfhood. The wise and winsome Mrs Gerda Theobalds, our teacher of English at Alpha, told us a story about a Jamaican traveling in the Deep South of the US in the 60s. At a grocery store, Black customers knew that they had to place their money on the counter – they were not allowed to touch the white shopkeeper’s hand. Well one Jamaican man would have none of it. When it was his turn to pay, he reached across the counter, held on to the man’s hand and pressed his money into his palm, declaring, “You are no better than me – take the money!”
However, we should not become too cozy in this self-congratulatory blanket. Looking at our crime statistics and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, we could ascribe the happiness of our 59% to the bliss of ignorance. And then there is the unhappy 41% -- that’s just too much discontent to be crowing over! Does it matter really, if we don’t judge ourselves by race, while we continue to prejudge by other standards, including “shade” (look at the popularity of skin bleaching) and politics?
This is why Barack Obama’s speech still has something to offer a Jamaica that may have exorcised her racial devils, but has so many others yet to tackle. I remember coaching a brilliant light-skinned Calabar student for the National Speech Festival – his piece was Martin Luther King Jr’s historic “I Have a Dream” and he scored the gold medal with the highest all-island mark. Yet a lady of colour who watched him deliver the speech told me she thought it odd because “he looks too white to be talking about Black rights”.
Obama has had these challenges. “At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either ‘too black’ or ‘not black enough’.” he said. “We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.”
In Jamaica, we also have to address the distrust, disrespect and envy that exist between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, PNP and JLP. At this point in our history, most of us are of mixed blood, descendants of black, brown, yellow, and white Jamaicans, the majority of who started their sojourn in this country as slaves and indentured labourers on the plantations. We need to remember our common past, that we are all family, and like good families, ensure that all our children get the best education. When they can no longer be fooled or exploited, our system of political apartheid nurtured in our garrisons, the cradles of gun and drug running, will finally be dismantled.
As Obama urges, we need to acknowledge and move forward: “I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”
As I write this from Maryland, I am hearing that Obama’s speech has resulted in dialogue of refreshing candour. In Jamaica, we need more of this enlightened examination of the baggage we carry. Time to unpack, straighten our backs and look at each other with new eyes. With this speech, Barack may have risked his political ambitions, but he has demonstrated to the world that no matter how difficult the challenge, honest dialogue will help us name our pain and start the healing.

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