How Barack Obama changed my perspective of Americanah

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    The only time I have seen Barack Obama live was in 2017, when he visited Delhi on a paid speaking engagement. While the experience of listening to Karan Thapar, a senior Indian journalist, try to extract a headline on communal relations in India, out of the 44th President of the United States was certainly not equivalent to witnessing the soaring rhetoric of his campaign events, it was worth my while to just be present in the same hall and witness in the flesh, one of the historic figures of our times. I had lived in Washington through his second term from 2013 to 2017 while studying at Georgetown University. Washington D.C. not only is the seat of the nation’s capital but is also one of the more politically and socially liberal parts of the country. Although the city was segregated till the mid 1960s, demographically there are an equivalent number white persons as there are black. Living and learning in this environment, I not only added an American layer to my liberal-constitutional outlook but I learned to admire the story of the incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In addition to following daily news developments and listening to Obama’s speeches, my perspective on Obama has been informed so far by not only reading his two auto-biographical works but also by understanding through visual and textual material the economic and political environment he operated in and created. A viewing of a new three part documentary series titled ‘Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union’ has made me revisit and formulate old thoughts about the impact that this man from the South Side of Chicago had on my perspective and preconceived notions of people and communities of the United States. Additionally, almost 5 years to the day of when he and Michelle Obama took their last sortie on Marine One over the Potomac to Andrews Air Base and over 4 years since I returned to Delhi, one can better appreciate and contextualize not only the positive impact he had on minority communities but also the larger symbolic forces that resulted in the reaction to Obama’s presidency. 

    The ‘Yes We Can’ Generation

    Candidate and Illinois Senator Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan ‘Yes We Can’ sought to convey a message of aspiration and hope that a coalition of various hues and colours could rally around the flag of an African-American leader. In his campaign message, he sought to extend his personal story of having close relations with all communities, having had a Kenyan father/Indonesian step-father and white mother from Kansas as well as having been raised in large part by his white World War 2 generation maternal grandparents. His 1995 book ‘Dreams From My Father’ and his historic 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention are the best starting points to better understand his personal struggle with identity as well as the foundation for his presidential campaign and what followed in his years in office. While his 2008 election victory is understood to have cemented him in the firmament of the Black community as the leader of the Joshua generation earning the baton from the Moses generation led by Martin Luther King Jr., it has also had a clear and visible effect on Asian, Indian and Latino communities’ sense of belonging and inclusiveness. It is not the case that the promise of the ‘American Dream’ did not exist pre-Obama, but it may be the case that Obama’s hugely symbolic victory qua these communities added an element of belonging to that of prosperity, recognition and upward social mobility enabled by equal opportunity and industry that have been core characteristics of the American Dream. This observation is made, eight years after my arrival in the capital of the United States and is not entirely consistent with my views going in as an eighteen-year-old fresh out of school.

    Personal Experience And Evolution In Thinking

    In my experience when I arrived in the United States in August, 2013 my conception of Americanah was simple, that this most prosperous and powerful land was the product of the ideas and work of Caucasian persons. This naturally led me to believe, having traversed oceans and continents for my education, that I should make a conscious effort to ‘fit in’ and do that by befriending persons consistent with my view of Americanah. It is important to concede that it is not out of the realm of possibility that India’s colonial hangover of being obsessed with the white man was not a contributory factor. In this initial pursuit I did relegate making efforts to befriend Americans of other colours, particularly Indians and I took the term American Born Confused Desi (“ABCD”) as gospel truth. This understanding led me to believe that while these persons may have become wealthier relative to their sub-continental antecedents, that they would never truly be accepted in American society and would continue to find themselves in static confusion qua their identity. 

    Two years into my degree program, on the back of sustained engagement and a more empathetic understanding of fellow students, mostly second-generation immigrants, my idea of Americanah had most certainly grown more informed and had evolved. Georgetown University was a stone’s throw from the White House and most students were political buffs, conversations about the latest event in America and beyond were not in short supply. Passionate political conversations with ABCDs, who spoke as true stakeholders, about a land I did not think was accepting of them as well as a better understanding of personal aspirations and future career paths helped gain a far deeper understanding. As an aside, it is entirely possible that their views and feeling of inclusiveness would certainly be a study in contrast to that of their parents’ generation, given that the first generation’s credo is relatively more functional, to survive, adapt and provide.

    It is possible that this generational change in attitudes has in large measure been made possible due to the spirit of fraternity engendered by Obama’s campaign and his subsequent years in office, making efforts to ensure the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. His track record with regard to the Indian American community gives teeth to the aforementioned abstractions. It is a known fact that his administration had the highest number of Indian Americans compared to previous Presidents. It was estimated that at one point there were almost 75-80 persons, of Indian origin working in the Obama administration, not to mention that Obama’s Ambassador to New Delhi, Richard Verma is also a second-generation immigrant. Therefore, while the power of Obama’s symbol/example naturally has a more express link to the Black community, his ability and political need to take all minority communities along has had a great impact upon moving the country closer to a perfect union by way of generating a feeling of belonging and consequently splitting wide open the mental floodgates of possibility. 

    Power Of Symbols and Obama

    Unfortunately, however historic Barack Obama’s powers of coalition building were he was unable to cement his legacy in Hillary Clinton’s election. This is due in large part to discomfort caused to the old elite and sections of white persons by the powerful symbolism evinced by such a competent coalition of various hues who’s African – American First Family was dignified and scandal free. Ta Nehisi Coates, American author and journalist, has appositely written in the introductory portion to his collection of essays titled ‘We Were Eight Years In Power’, “It has been said that the first Black presidency was mostly symbolic, a dismissal that deeply underestimates the power of symbols. Symbols don’t just represent reality but can be tools to change it. The symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency – that whiteness was no longer strong enough to prevent peons from taking up residence in the castle – assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries. And it was that fear that gave the symbols that Donald Trump deployed – the symbols of racism – enough potency to make him president…” With a Trump White House till most recently as well as the challenges posed by Covid, the last half-decade has certainly has been an existential one for the generation that experienced a black president in their pre-pubescent years, we may call them the Obama/ “Yes We Can” generation an approximate result of the 2008 campaign. While almost all fault lines in society seem to have been lain bare in the Trumpian age, with the regime relegating to the back burner, the idea of a post-racial nation, it would be rather surprising to not see a continued and progressive march of civilization given the presensce in the United States of this “Yes We Can” generation, powered to some degree for their lifetimes by the Obama presidency. 

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    Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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