I remember exactly where I was that night that history was made. I was fast asleep in my bed and was determined not to get out! I’d resigned myself to the fact that Barack Obama’s defeat was imminent, that no matter what they said, the American people would never vote for a black man for the White House. Consequently, I’d decided to go to sleep early and put the optimism of the past behind me since the future was looking decidedly bleak. But I was awoken prematurely by the sound of my phone ringing endlessly. It was about 5 am. My people were desperate to tell me that the scenario we dared not hope for had, in fact, materialized. I was elated. Never had a US election been so closely watched in the UK. Parties were held in towns across the country as black Britons everywhere celebrated with African-Americans. We were all validated that night. Yes we can and yes we did!
Twelve months later and I honestly don’t think that the world has yet grasped the enormity of what the American people did when they voted Barack Obama in to office on November 5th, 2008. Just last week a survey for the Prince’s Trust, a UK youth charity, found that of 1,095 13-to-19-year-olds who were asked who were our greatest leaders, number one was Martin Luther King, number two was Barack Obama and number three was Nelson Mandela. Three black men leading the way and Obama has only just begun!
In my lifetime, I’m certain I won’t see a black British prime minister and yet us Brits take great pride in our liberalism as compared to our US cousins. Yet in America where, just forty years ago, black people were denied basic civil rights, a black man and his black wife and black children occupy the White House having got the mandate of Americans of every race, class and creed. We are proud indeed!
During the presidential election campaign last year I interviewed social commentator Jeff Johnson for Clutch. During our conversation, he spoke about the impact that the election of Barack Obama would have on aspiring politicians in Europe. It was something I hadn’t considered in any depth until Johnson explained: “I don’t think we’re acknowledging the potential global impact that a Barack Obama presidency can have in places like Great Britain and France, Portugal and other European countries where there are large populations of Diaspora people, where those people have been on the fringes or lower level of political electoral policy for a decade but where there’s still a question of will there ever be, or when will there be, a Diaspora president. I don’t hear black Americans talking about the global impact of a Barack Obama presidency and I think him becoming president of America has global implications in Western European countries that have large populations of Diaspora people who are saying, just like we’re saying in America, “When is the right time for someone who looks like me to lead this nation?”
And Johnson was right. Since then, there has been a black female mayor of an Italian city and a black Russian aspiring MP. Even conservative academic John McWhorter was backing Barack. “If there is that black man in the White House,” McWhorter opined, “suddenly a lot of black people will start feeling a lot more connected. And they might stay that way. That’s the sort of thing that works.”
My fear for Obama is that by being a pioneer, the first, whatever his achievements or lack of success he will always been judged through the prism of him being a black president, and even more unfortunately, future potential black leaders will be judged because of him. Whereas Bush’s failing are considered his and his alone, Obama’s perceived shortcomings will forever color the decisions of the electorate such that people will feel justified in saying, “Well, we voted for a black president once and look what happened.” The competency of a future black president will always be judged in relation to Obama.
One year on and I’m satisfied with our president’s performance. What Obama has brought is hope to the world, and hopefully, he’ll soon bring universal healthcare to America! But for me, it is a hope that we as black people all around the globe can believe in, that we can do better for ourselves and must aspire for more, regardless of the obstacles that inevitably stand in our way. Hope and change we still believe in. Yes we can and yes we do!
When Americans voted for Obama, they voted for so many things that I believe in. They voted for liberalism and diplomacy, for social reform over the protection of private equity. In short, they voted for change. It wasn’t about seeing the back of Bush because he was on the way out already. A man of direct African descent being the leader of the “free” world was genuinely exciting. I’m not a mindless optimist. I don’t think it’s now a case of ‘everything is possible’ for black people now we have a black president. I didn’t think opportunities would be any more plentiful and, so far, they haven’t been. But things have changed since Obama’s election. For a start, he was America’s Black President for about five minutes. Now, he’s just America’s President. The world has taken his black self, his black wife and his beautiful black children for granted. He doesn’t represent his own, he represents his nation, a president who happens to be black. I believe that he’s helped us, as Europeans in our own way, become Europeans who happen to be black too. — Athena Kugblenu, 27, England