Were You Up For Obama?

by Sheyi Oriade

Not since the regaining of liberty by Nelson Mandela and the displacement and replacement of minority rule by majority rule in South Africa, have I felt this exhilarated by the occurrence and outcome of a political event. I did not wake up on Wednesday morning, because I did not go to bed on Tuesday night. I was up for Obama. Prevented, as I was, from observing events first-hand by the small matter of a vast ocean and a significant difference in time-zones; there I was horologically ahead of America, but behind in the historic unfolding of events. So I chose, like many others, I suspect, to observe a vigil in order to be a witness to the possibility of history in the making. Losing sleep, but gaining history was a much better prospect. Oh, what a night; oh, what an outcome; oh, what a candidate!

In spite of the promising signs going into the election, one’s optimism had to be tempered with caution; for this was unchartered territory and an unprecedented event. And there was that lingering feeling that something could still go wrong. Thankfully, it was an unfounded feeling. The powerful images of winding queues of voters in a manner almost redolent of, and comparable to, the scenes from South Africa in 1994, pointed to the fact that something major was afoot. And so it turned out to be.

Obama’s historic victory, of which so much has been made, and much more still will be made, has come to be seen – and rightly so – as a triumph for African Americans. But it is much more than that. His victory also represents a triumph of a coalition of progressive forces of blacks, whites, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and I suspect Orientals too. Progressive whites turned their backs on the ancient prejudices of their forebears, linking hands with their fellow black citizens and using their fingers to vote and point the way of change.

Much, if not most, of the credit for what took place on Tuesday in America has to be placed firmly in the context and arena of the Civil Rights movement. The seeds which sprouted in rich and full bloom on Tuesday night were planted in the hostile soils of oppression of years gone by; soils which were fertilised and watered by the blood and sacrifice of the ‘marchers and martyrs’ (Rev. Jesse Jackson’s words) who made the expensive down payment in their darkest hour in order to able to secure Obama’s impending residence in the White House in the full and bright light of day.

One of the most beautiful quotes to emerge from this historic and successful campaign, which encapsulates the evolutionary progress of African Americans on their long and arduous journey towards political actualisation – to wit:

‘Rosa Parks sat down, so that Dr. King could walk, Dr. King walked, so that Obama could run, and Obama is ran so that our children can fly’

Others too, though not a formal part of the Civil Rights movement, also played significant roles towards Tuesday’s outcome. One group in particular, a much later incarnation, often derided and a constant butt of condemnation, but whose contribution is every bit as significant, and deserving of special mention and gratitude, for the present political outcome, is the Hip-Hop movement. For years, through the expression of their art form they elevated a ‘coolness’ consciousness above that of skin colour thereby blurring ancient dividing lines.

Not even the great and magnificent Dr. Martin Luther King, when he gave prophetic and poetic utterance to the rich stirrings of God’s spirit within his soul – to wit – ‘that the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners would one day sit together at the table of brotherhood’, could have envisaged the role that ‘Hip-Hop’ would play in bringing about the fulfilment of his prophecy. This movement, much more so, than religious houses has been instrumental in tearing down ‘the middle wall of partition’ that has for too long kept blacks and whites apart from each other in mutual enmity and suspicion. The Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform; his ways are past finding out.

The beautiful and kaleidoscopic images of people of all colours and complexions huddled together in Chicago, united in celebration of the successful outcome in America on Tuesday night is a testimony to the work and influence of this group and others; a powerful indication of what may be possible going forward.

Another powerful and poignant image of the night was Rev. Jesse Jackson’s very public outpouring of tears. It was an image worth more than a thousand words. Whatever may be said of Rev. Jackson – good or bad – he is and remains a significant, defining, and colourful thread running through the fabric and tapestry of America’s Civil Rights history. He marched with Dr. King and saw him martyred. And more importantly, he saw to it, that the flame of the torch of the hopes and expectations of millions remained ablaze, through his audacious and captivating runs for the presidency in 1984 and 1988. Declaring as he did in 1988 with poetic and historical profundity – to wit – that:

‘‘Providence has enabled our paths to intersect. His foreparents (Michael Dukakis’) came to America on immigrant ships; my foreparents came to America on slave ships. But whatever the original ships, we’re in the same boat tonight’.

Indeed no matter the original sea vessel, the American ship of State has now come into port with, Barack Obama, at its helm, as Captain. Much of his success, I am sure, even he will recognise, is due to his standing upon the broad shoulders of giants like Rev. Jackson.

In Rev. Jackson’s profuse tears must have been the recognition that Obama’s victory represents the final passing of the baton, from his generation to a new generation of leaders. It also signified the easing and removal of a huge burden of responsibility and expectation from off his shoulders.

Different people have provided different accounts of their reactions to that momentous night of victory. Some shed tears; others were dumbfounded; and others still, were ecstatic. On my part, at that moment of victory, I wished that I had the ability to pierce the veil that separates mortal man from the immortals; if only momentarily. Through such a piercing, I would love to have caught a glimpse of the heroes of the Civil Rights movement now resident in that realm. To have seen the faces and reactions of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Sam Cooke, and countless others, to the events of Tuesday night would have been the most fulfilling experience.

Real progress was made on Tuesday night. And I hope that it will be maintained. I also hope that it will not be another 200 plus before we see another non-white American occupy the seat of power in that nation. But nonetheless, we are grateful for the shifting that occurred on Tuesday night.

And against the background of this historical victory, it is fitting to conclude with the uplifting words, albeit in paraphrase, of that great visionary and personification of the Civil Rights movement Dr. Martin Luther King:

‘(let) freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, (Hispanics and Orientals, Asians and Arabs), Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Change at last! Change at last!
Thank God Almighty, Change at last’

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