“Black people still catchin’ hell all over the world, you know.”
-Lawrence Fishburne, School Daze
President Obama wound up his seven day trip abroad in the African country of Ghana, going black to Africa as President not just as prodigal son. He gave a speech to the Ghanaian parliament, echoing many of his themes like responsibility. In Accra, he was met at the airport by the President of Ghana, the defeated opponent in the recent elections, and thousands of Ghanian citizens. The most powerful man in the world then ventured with his wife and daughters, like my parents only a year ago, through the Doors of No Return at Cape Coast Castle, from which Africans were sold and shipped by other Africans away from their lives and across an unknown ocean forever.
What does his return to Africa mean? Even as I write this, I’m not sure. I know that my own journey to the Mother Continent was filled with a desire to come home, the realization that Africa is a foreign land, the sublime joy of finding the connections between African and African American culture and heritage, and a deep affection for what was lost, and what I’d found. Does walking that earth impact Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha in that way? I believe so, since the President’s comments at the slave castle were noticeably “emotional”.
Why was his voyage only covered on the internet (thank you, Jake Tapper) and in ten second snippets on Fox News? The pictures of his alleged glance at a young woman’s backside provided forty-eight hours of wall to wall news, still pictures and video, morning shows and talk radio. But the powerful black man stepping off Air Force One, saying simply by standing at the top of those steps with the descendants of enslaved Africans, “Up You Mighty Race, Accomplish What You Will,” wasn’t sexy enough, though it was by volumes more important.
The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Columbian Exchange deposited Africans as a source of labor and social angst on North American shores two hundred years ago, and we as a society have been dealing with the echoes of that theft (racism, lynchings, discrimination, affirmative action, ghettoes, swimming clubs, etc.) ever since. The issues are writ large (Judge Sotomayor’s experience as a wise Latina is racist? but Senator Session’s calling a black man boy isn’t?) and small across our national psyche. In this new milennium, people who have been historically, educationally, economically and politically advantaged appear to believe that Barack Obama’s election means racism doesn’t exist anymore. The lack of coverage this weekend is a lagging indicator that this is not the case. Whether by omission or commission, blacking out the black president on the dark continent to show black people incarcerated is a statement which says much about the speaker and the subject.
From the doll experiment in the early 1950s to the Obama effect in two thousand nine, it is obvious that perception of one’s standing in society plays a role in the shaping of the individual and collective persona. President Obama inspires black people all over the world simply by continuing to excel, and it is frustrating that that inspiration was “blacked out” this weekend. It is curious that the First Hueman wasn’t, as he has continually been, present on the tv machine. And though he was, like in Iran and China, modern technology enabled those of us reflected is his gaze, his visage, his experience, to stay connected.