Sunday, November 16, 2008

The gift of the Obama family

Jamaica Observer Column - Monday, November 10, 2008

Will we ever tire of seeing the defining moment in history when Barack Obama and his beautiful family emerged onto the stage in Chicago's Grant Park, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of cheering, weeping fans? We're chuffed that we correctly called the US presidential elections, and so moved at the scenes of celebration around the world.

Who knew that there was a Japanese town called Obama where the citizens joyfully donned Hawaiian leis as they watched the US election results? They cried in France, they cheered in Sydney, they killed a fatted bull in Kenya and we can say with certainty: they partied in Jamaica.

Watching Obama in triumph, then British racing driver Lewis Hamilton's heroes' homecoming, and the incessant reruns of Tiger Woods' exploits on the Golf Channel, I harked back to that "flower power" anthem of the 60s by Blue Mink:

"What we need/ Is a great big melting pot/Big enough to take the world and all it's got /Keep it stirring for a hundred years or more/ Turn out coffee-coloured people by the score."

This was the age of Obama's idealistic mother, who fell in love with a young Kenyan student she met at the University of Hawaii (the same university where Sidney Poitier's character fell in love with a white student in the prophetic movie, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?).

They produced the handsome coffee-coloured Barack Jr and after their divorce, she married the pragmatic Indonesian Lolo Soetero; young Barack lived with them for about four years in Lolo's country. Obama's description of their neighbourhood in his book, Dreams from My Father, reminds us of Jamaica - animals in the backyard, beggars in the streets.

As I heard commentators discussing Jamaica's continued expectations from the US under its soon to be sworn-in president, I harked back to a telling passage. His stepfather tried to guide him when Obama was moved by beggars:

"How much money do you have?" he would ask.

I'd empty my pocket. "Thirty rupiah."

"How many beggars are there on the street?"

I tried to imagine the number that had come by the house in the last week. "You see?" he said, once it was clear I'd lost count. "Better to save your money and make sure you don't end up on the street yourself."

This incident happened during Obama's most impressionable years and his campaign speeches have reflected this thinking: be compassionate but don't ship American jobs abroad.

As a skinny kid, Barack was taught by Lolo to defend himself from bullies with neat boxing moves: "Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They're just like countries in that way. Better be strong. if you can't be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who's strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always."

Even as Lolo taught him the street smarts, his mother was ensuring that he read prodigiously and woke him at daybreak to do English lessons. If we examine the Obama campaign, his quiet, nimble fighting spirit, and the brilliant minds he brought together, we see he has learnt his lessons well and has gained what President George W Bush describes as "capital" - tons of it.

But he is not resting on his laurels for a single moment. The day after his victory, Obama breakfasted with his family, worked out at the gym and met behind closed doors with his transition team. He is rousing himself and his team early o'clock to deal with the challenges faced by their extended family - the nation of over 300 million Americans.

Jamaicans had better know that our little rock of 2.5 million, with none of the challenges that bitter winter brings, will have to wait for America to solve her pressing problems. A friend who lives in Florida said on a recent visit to Jamaica that she was seeing more opportunities here than in her community there - campaign news has overshadowed the details of massive job loss, displacement and desperation among once comfortable Americans. Like any leader, Barack Obama will be sorely tested and will not always look like that cool, confident leader that strode out onto that Chicago stage last Tuesday night. 

Americans throughout the world have regained their national pride, being congratulated at every step after the Obama victory. "Long live America!" many non-Americans are cheering.

On a tour bus in Beijing in August, an elderly American tourist walked up and down the aisle, collecting tips for the driver. I said to him, what I have said many times to my American friends, Republicans and Democrats alike: you are the most generous people on the face of this earth. We need to share this generosity of spirit, and understand that the average American is now suffering from the economic downturn, and that the country needs time to recover before it can once again pour out its munificence on the world.

There is a way out of our own serious issues, one that requires no help from anyone but our very own selves: family. The gift that Michelle and Barack Obama have given us is worth far more than any millions they can dole out. They have shown us what a strong black family looks like, sounds like and can achieve. Barack Obama found time during his campaign to spend two days at the side of his gravely ill grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, to take his wife to dinner for their anniversary, to talk each night with his two daughters. They showed us how hard work, high achievement, and righteousness took them to the most prestigious address in the world.

1 comment:

  1. Thx Jean...I LOVE MY PREZ & so do u from this article....