A Brave New World? By Mwelwa Chungu

A Brave New World?

By Mwelwa Chungu

Published on Wed, Jan 21 2009 by Mwelwa Chungu

The new American president is the darling of the global media; as I flicked TV channels last night during his inauguration, it appeared that he was everywhere, including on Al Jeezra, who tend to be less intensely focused on the western news than the other channels. However, last night even they could not resist President Obama, broadcasting the events surrounding his inauguration in a programme that lasted several hours. I may be unaware of these things but I don’t recall an inauguration that attracted so much fuss and coverage, people celebrated as far away as India and Japan (and Kenya off course). Even Bill Clinton was not this popular.


And it is not just the press. Politicians the world over are trying to be his New Best Friend, to show their closeness to him and how much they have in common.? Much was made of a phone call that the British Prime Minster, Gordon Brown, made to him after his election back in November. In fact, a small playground squabble broke out between Mr Brown and Mr Sarkozy, the French leader, over who had managed a longer conversation with him. It transpired that Mr Sarkozy had the longer conversation, but half of it consisted of translations.


My favourite story involved a Zambian Presidential candidate, whose argument for his election was that he was the best person to meet President Obama, being young and handsome himself.


I have observed this Global love affair with the new President with some interest. Over the last few months, since the then Mr Obama became the Democratic candidate, I have been greatly surprised at the gulf between the interest of the British media and politicians in America in general and President Obama in particular and the disinterest of the British people.


Actually, let me clarify that. Most Black British people are very interested, very excited, very happy and very proud. A great number of them were out last night partying like it was the turn of the millennium. However, there are quite a few White British people who don’t really see what the fuss is about. For them all this is not of interest to them because it is about America.


Other arguments range from the irrelevance of the fact that he is black to a dislike of his rhetoric. Others comment on the fact that he is mixed race, in ignorance of the one-drop rule. In fact some white people make much about how offended they are that he is being called black. "What about his mother?" They ask. I am not sure here if there is genuine concern for the feelings of his white family members or whether this is simply a reluctance to give a victory to black people in general.


Sometimes I have been surprised at the vitriol behind some of the comments. There are even ignorant people who have come out and said they feel that all this talk about how wonderful the election of an African American man is after the oppression of black people should stop because it is no longer relevant. He should not make references to it because it no longer matters.


I wonder if the relevance of past oppression and genocide would be irrelevant if he was Jewish. Or why, if something as recent as the civil rights movement is irrelevant, do we still teach our children about the Crusades? These are the same people who say that Africans should get over centauries of occupation and oppression by the likes of France, England, Spain and Portugal, because it is in the past.

They forget that the results of the years of plunder and pillage of people, land and resources are still affecting the so called developing nations, as the effects of years of slavery and being second class citizens continue to be felt by Black Americans.? “What about Foreign Direct investment and Affirmative action?” They cry when challenged. I will not be drawn and refrain from getting into a discussion about the neo-colonialism that is foreign direct investment and ignore any references to Affirmative action. I don’t have the strength or the space.


The worst reaction so far was someone who simply grunted in disgust when I mentioned his name.? And all this from people who claim that not to be racist. Yes, I am worried about the motivations behind the apparent anger about the fuss that is being made over the historic nature of this President. I am worried that it stems from a less rational, logical and harmless place than is being admitted.


There has, in recent years, been a great deal of talk about the feeling that (non-white or English speaking) immigrants are sidelining White Britons. Apparently if these immigrants were white and from English speaking countries it would be fine for them to come here and take British jobs, housing and women. Is it any wonder that a man whose father was a Kenya international student with a PHD from Harvard makes some of these people feel uncomfortable?


Apparently, having said all this, the UK is the least racist country in Europe. This is despite the fact that it is here that support for the British National Party has been growing in the last few years, so much so that recently one of their candidates was voted onto the Greater London Assembly, to be given a ?50,000 salary funded by the taxpayer. Forget protesting about bank bailouts, where is the outrage about this? This is a country where the election of an African American US president is on an historical par with the wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. With this backdrop, it is no wonder that some people feel free to voice ignorant, angry views.


Where do I stand in all this? Well, I am not an American citizen. Although I empathise with the civil rights struggle and the current situation of Black Americans, I cannot claim to be a part of it.? That would make me a liar.? I have never lived in the United States and have very few American friends and acquaintances.

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I am from Africa, from a country that only shook off the yoke of imperialism 44 years ago last October; I have a different story and a different experience. Hence, I am used to black presidents - Zambia has had four already, even South Africa, where the blacks were oppressed by the Apartheid regime until the 90’s has managed to have three, though not by design.

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Thus, this is not my celebration. I am happy that enough white people in American have seen past Mr Obama’s colour and taken him to the white house but I can not pretend to be as proud about it as the black citizens of that nation, that would be insincere (and impossible). If anything I am most proud because he is the son of an African.

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And as I watch black British people celebrate, I feel sad for them, for in truth, it is not their celebration either. In fact if they analyse it more carefully, it might actually be a source of shame for them - where is their Obama?

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How far they are from that point, living in an environment where their fellow citizens cannot understand their story; where people state racism is over but still do not feel comfortable around them.

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