“I Barack Hussein Obama” … with these words US President Obama was sworn in on 20 January 2009 – and this completes in striking manner the long journey of African Americans from slavery to the present. Or as Rev Jesse Jackson was wont to say, the long walk "from the outhouse to the White House".
That arc of truth – the long journey of pain and mini successes and the slow meander through the wilderness – stretches from former slave Frederick Douglass to Obama.
Homage must be paid to a several leading lights in-between, including Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King. [In addition, although he is not in the same league, we should not forget the role of Jesse Jackson who paved the way for Obama by running (unsuccessfully) for President in 1984 and 1987.]
Douglass, who lived in the 1800s and was born of mixed parentage, physically resisted his master’s beatings, escaped, dodged recapture and went on to campaign in his own country and abroad for the abolition of slavery. Douglass riled the liberals when he pointed out that once free, the former slave encountered unjust restrictions and racist controls – and the struggle for emancipation was as real in the liberal North as in the hardcore South.
By far the most radical and subversive, Marcus Garvey became an icon to millions. In his short life (from 1887 to 1940), he rejected the notion of integration and urged black people to go it alone. He campaigned tireless for some kind of mass return to Africa. Garvey made errors of judgment and drew criticism from certain quarters, but – especially to radical groups such as the Black Panthers – become a powerful symbol. Garvey is also remarkable for his view that all black people, given racist oppression, should unite globally, and that a common movement for liberation should be built.
Martin Luther King’s pivotal contribution is well known and frequently cited. Appealing to a broad range of people, he led with fervour, moral authority and vision, and his drive for civil rights found potent linkages with the anti-war movement of the 60s.
Malcom X also made a singular historical contribution. Focused entirely on galvanizing the black community, he promoted black consciousness, self assertion for black people, militant action and armed resistance. His movement did not take off on a significant scale, but his ideas live on. X’s ideas fed into, among others, the Black Panther movement. (Some members of this movement are still in jail and there is speculation as to whether Obama will secure the release of these men.)
The experience of all these leaders – and the stages of struggle they represent – raises many questions about African Americans and their preferred strategies for freedom. Do they prefer a ‘blacks going it alone’ agenda or is integration more appealing? Will they support militancy and confrontation, or are they generally more comfortable with incrementalism and peaceful requests for change? In what ways do they see themselves as connected to black people in the rest of the world – or do most regard themselves as essentially and primarily ‘Americans’? Did Garvey have some hope of success in promoting a ‘back to Africa’ movement, or is this idea alien to rank and file African Americans? In South Africa, the thinking of all the major US black leaders has had some influence, although some would say that the King approach (inclusive organization coupled with non-violent action) had greater traction. It is also said that Thabo Mbeki reflects a more militant approach towards racism whereas Mandela is associated with strategies of inclusiveness and non-confrontation (although this is certainly not true of the early Mandela who embraced armed struggle).
Obama has achieved outstanding success, his inauguration a crowning moment that follows centuries of resistance to racism. His election is a powerful blow against racists and racist discrimination. But for many African Americans, it’s 'wait and see' time – will his rise to power significantly advance the battle against racism and inequality?
What is your view? In what way does Obama reflect or not reflect the history of black people in the US? Feel free to add your comment.