Some of those waiting to take part in the inauguration of Barak Obama as President of the United States had been standing for hours, many with tears streaming down their cheeks. Some others had been standing for decades and others for centuries – King Affonso, the Mani Kongo, Crispus Attucks, the Barbadian, Bouckman, the Jamaican/Haitian, Henri Christophe, the Haitian and John Brown, and Sohourner Truth and Rosa Parkes and Fanny Lou Hamer, all American. Marcus Garvey no longer has to ask where are the black Presidents and men of great affairs, and Nkrumah and Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Sukarno, Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela all know that the Long Walk to Freedom has really only just begun, and Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King would know that the dream of freedom belongs to all of us and that we have the power to make that dream reality.
Yes! We Can and We Have and We Will.
According to the statisticians the inauguration of President Obama ignited 35,000 news stories round the world, more than 30 times the number published about the last such occasion.
And I, as a Jamaican who has had so many quarrels with the United States, reflected on why the tears were streaming down my face as I watched the proceedings in Washington.
I remembered being at a party in Jamaica in 1965 at the house of the American charge d’affaires in Stony Hill, when Martin Luther King, the guest of honour, said that he had felt in Jamaica, and for the first time in his life, that he was a full and complete human being. That was part of his dream, that people should be judged by their character rather than by the colour of their skins. We are not there yet. We are certainly not there yet in Jamaica and the election and inauguration of a black President in the United States is not much more than another signpost on the road we travel. But it is an important signpost.
Children go to School
There are at this moment circulating on the internet, two pictures of children going to school, attended by massive security. The first is of one of the children the so-called Little Rock Nine, being escorted into the segregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 by federal marshals.
The other picture is of two little girls, Malia and Sasha Obama, being escorted to school by members of the Presidential bodyguard. The pictures are separated by 42 years and oceans of struggle and suffering, of tragedy and of triumph.
I remember Little Rock. The world stood fascinated to learn whether the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, would tolerate the challenge to federal law and authority posed by the Governor of Arkansas, one Orval Faubus. When Faubus used his National Guard to prevent black children entering Little Rock’ Central High School, someone suggested that Eisenhwer himself should take the children by the hand and himself lead them into school. Eisenhower, who allegedly spent more time golfing than on any other activity, was mocked by the comedian Mort Sahl. Sahl said Eisenhower was perfectly willing to take the children by the hand; what was giving the President pause was whether to use an overlapping [golfing] grip.
But Eisenhower did send the soldiers.
In his inaugural speech Obama related how ‘less than sixty years ago’ a black man like his father would not have been served in restaurants in Washington DC. Fifty years ago, in March 1959, when I was in Washington as a guest of the State Department, black Americans I met were amazed to learn that I had been served at DC restaurants, albeit in the company of my State department handler. One of my new black friends was a man named Taylor, who drove a taxi (Capitol Cabs) when he wasn’t working at his daytime job, a janitor at the State Department. We decided to see if we would be served in one or two of the places I had spoken about.
Washington had recently been officially desegregated because of the independence of Ghana and Guinea and the expected influx of black diplomats.
It was too soon, we discovered, to expect civilised behaviour. We sat, and sat, but, to all intents and purposes, we were invisible to the staff.
Race prejudice has long been an integral component of US society. The ecoomic backbone of the thirteen colonies and later of the United States was slavery and the Civil War was a disputation about economic development and not about slavery. Lincoln, the ‘Great Emancipator’ had the courage and the political wit to abolish slavery as a means of weakening the Confederates and attracting more hlacks to the cause of the Union.
Lincoln like Obama, was a principled pragmatist, a politician who understood his duty to the people he represented. In Lincoln’s case he was also conscious of his duty to those without representation, unable to regard them as had Jefferson, as being three-fifths human. One wonders how Jefferson squared his conscience as he mated with his black slave, Sally Hemmings and whether he considered their progeny altogether human.
There are still people in the United States and in places where American influence was most significant, who still have their doubts about the humanity of blacks. Many white South Africans - not all - bought the insane logic of Malan, Verwoerd and the others and supported not only a system to permanently oppress and subjugate blacks, but even set up a scientific programme to devise medical strategies and to invent new diseases to exterminate them. The director of this programme, a medical doctor named Wouter Basson, still lives, unmolested and un-prosecuted, among his inrtended victims in South Africa.
Among the people at Obamas inaugural you may have noticed some old men wearing blue caps.These were some of the most valiant fighters of the second world war, a group of bkack airmen in a segregated unit called the Tuskeee airmen. Recognition escaped most of them, but Obama made sure they were invited to witness his taking office.
Another group, also named after Tuskegee, was not among those present. These were the black victims of an official experiment run by the US Public Health Service. Beginning in 1932 the USPHS used 399 black men as laboratory animals. The men, mainly illiterate small farmers, had been infected with syphilis but were never told what disease they were suffering from
They were told they were being treated for ‘bad blood’, by doctors who had no intention of curing them. The data was to be collected from autopsies and they were thus deliberately left to suffer unspeakable misery under the ravages of tertiary syphilis—which can include tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity, and death. “As I see it,” one of the doctors involved explained, “we have no further interest in these patients until they die.”
Despite the fact that one dose of penicillin could have cured many, decades earlier, the depraved experiment continued until 1972
In 1997, seventeen years later, President Clinton apologised to the 7 survivors –
“The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens. . . . clearly racist.
There was curiously, another connection to Tuskegee. The founder of the Tuskegee Institute, the first black college, was a man named Booker T Washington, and he was the first black visitor officially invited to the White House.
And then there was the eerie coincidence that King’s 80th birthday was the day before Obama’s inauguration.
One of theose present on the inaugural platform was one who was subect to hatred,ridicule and contempt when, young, feisty and the best boxer in history, he decided to become a Muslim, changed his ‘slave name’ from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali. Worse, he refused even symbolic service as a soldier in Viet Nam. He had nothing against the Viet Cong, he said, they had never attacked him. Nobody expected a pugilist, a showman, an entertainer, to have a conscience or to be capable of expressing it.
Against all ideas of justice (and even against the canons of free enterprise) he was stripped of his hardwon championships. No matter, in law and the courts he finally prevailed, as he prevailed in the ring, disposing of all the pretenders, and he survived at last in the consciences of his fellow citizens when they too awoke to the iniquities of a wicked war. He sat on the platform along with his contemporary, only the second man to be head of the US armed forces and Secretary of State, another black, of Jamaican parentage, Colin Powell. And with them was Eli Weisel, the champion of the millions of those who died and of those who survived Hitler’s final solution of the ‘Jewish prtoblem’.
The chair of the proceedingfs, Senator Dianne Feinstein, cpuld not bring herself to call the new president by his full name. The sergeant at arms went one better. He called out ‘Barack H. Obama’. It was the President himself who first proudly announced his full name, Barack Husain Obama, forcing his countrymen to abandon euphemism and to face facts and their whole heritage. And he was not afraid to address the Muslims of the world, despite the blanket libels of the past eight years, promising to meet them and all people with due regard and respect to try to make a new beginning.
As we reflect on Tuesday, it may be possible to discern not only why the world believes Obama belongs to them, but why the world believes that the dream of liberty belongs to them too.
Ho Chi Minh said that when he was a waiter in a Paris restaurant he was fired by the words of Marcus Garvey. Freedom and Liberty are transcendent and they are not the property of any race, country or political system.
Bob Marley, the poet laureate of the last century got it right:
“We can make it work!”
YES, WE CAN!
Copyright 2009 John Maxwell
John Maxwell's column is also available in The Jamaica Observer