Monday, November 03, 2008

Auntie Zeituni and Obama’s African Burden

I was still digesting the news of Obama’s Auntie Zeituni, living in the US illegally since 2004, when the doorbell rang. It was after 5pm on Saturday afternoon, and I wasn’t expecting anybody on a cold November day at the onset of the Michigan winter. I went to see who it was, and was greeted by a tall elderly man, in a baseball cap. “I support Obama,” he announced, “and I am here to ask you to vote for him on Tuesday. Are you registered to vote?” We talked a little bit, before I thanked him and wished him good luck in his efforts.

My mind went back to Auntie Zeituni, whom I first encountered on the pages of Obama’s first autobiography, Dreams From My Father. It struck me as quite intriguing that an auntie, a blood relation of the person widely expected to become the next president of the United States of America, was an illegal immigrant in the very country her nephew was poised to be the most powerful person. If the information was indeed leaked, as was suggested by Congressman John Conyers, chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary, what specific damage to Obama was the leak supposed to inflict? That Obama was keeping an illegal immigrant? That Obama had relatives who were not ‘American’? Or that Obama was indeed not “one of us,” as had been not-so-subtly suggested during the campaign?

Obama’s presidential campaign has taught a lot of us some really important, if not paradoxical, lessons about American politics. Clearly, something has moved in the galaxy as far as race relations are concerned since the civil rights era. At the same time, clearly very little has changed inasfar as the associations many Americans make with the continent of Africa and African people. And Obama has been perceptive enough to know how to keep his distance from that continent throughout the campaign. How does one explain that paradox? Even commentators and news analysts, especially in Kenya where Obama has blood ties, have been cautious, warning that Obama is first and foremost an American, and not an African.

While Obama was movingly sanguine about Kenya and Africa in his first autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he was much less so in the second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope. But even then, he did not hesitate to inform his readers about the global face that his extended family represents. He wrote:

As the child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and a niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe (p. 231).

On a March 17, 2008, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote of Obama’s global profile: “If elected, Obama would be the first genuinely 21st-century leader. The China-Indonesia-Kenya-Britain-Hawaii web mirrors a world in flux.” At the time, one would have imagined that cosmopolitan aspect of Obama’s biography to have been an attractive trait of an American presidential candidate. It clearly hasn’t been; if anything, it has been one more potential bomb waiting to explode and sink Obama’s campaign.

A few days after that column’s publication in the New York Times, which was also a few days after Obama’s much-praised speech on race in America, I sat on a plane from Johannesburg to Amsterdam. I had picked up a number of newspapers to read about Obama’s speech, and had downloaded the video of the speech whilst in the field in a remote, rural part of Malawi. The gentleman next to me introduced himself, and we got talking. I asked if he had heard of Obama’s speech, and he said he hadn’t. He hadn’t used the Internet for two weeks, he said, during which time he had been doing missionary work in rural parts of South Africa. His two teenage daughters had accompanied him on the trip to bring the Christian gospel to black South Africans and help them build a church. He also confessed that he did not vote Democrat, and therefore did not have much interest in a Democratic presidential candidate anyway.

He went on to tell me that he did not understand where all the talk about racism in the US came from; if Black Americans didn’t work hard enough to uplift themselves, they should really not blame racism for holding them down. He pointed to his daughters as evidence that there was no racism in the United States: “those two daughters of mine, they don’t know what racism is. They have friends of all races.” His words left me fearing for what was really going on in latter-day missionary endeavors in Africa. I didn’t know whether his daughters’ lack of awareness of racism was the same thing as an absence of racism in the United States, which seemed to be his conclusion. Were young Americans today less racist because racism was dying in America, or was it rather because its existence was being denied strongly enough, as it had always been, that young Americans were being shielded from its existence?

How about the arrests of the two neo-Nazi youths in Tennessee recently who had mounted a plan to steal guns and use them to massacre African American students, culminating, according to the plot, in an assassination of Obama himself? After initially dismissing the story as another insignificant episode in what was probably a one-off prank, I later learned from a National Public Radio interview that in fact there was increasing agitation amongst white supremacist groups who believe that the election of Obama would force Armageddon. His election to the presidency will be the ultimate threat to white power, said a former white supremacist during the radio interview, which will galvanize all white supremacists to act, rise up and retake the country.

In February 2007 Morris Dees, Co-Founder and Chief Trial Counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), spoke at a University of Michigan social justice forum, in Ann Arbor, about the proliferation of hate groups in the United States. He said hate groups had increased by 30 percent between 2002 and 2007. He said immigration was the biggest motivator for the proliferation. Hearing Mr. Dees describe how the SPLC uses a criminal justice approach to dealing with hate crime in the United States, it led me to wonder what that really entails. Is it possible to end hate by mere recourse to law and criminal justice? Does this approach challenge racism and bigotry, transforming people into love-filled individuals who embrace and appreciate racial, ethnic, religious and gender diversity?

I ask these questions because I do think that there’s a role for the criminal justice and corrections system, but there’s also a far greater need for long-term, transformative change beyond corrections. I am not sure that the law is enough without a personal effort to transform oneself and rid oneself of hate and bigotry. As one student told our class recently, there’s a whole family and community structure where such vices are bred and cultivated. Clearly there are many young people who indeed embrace love and an appreciation for diversity, who are also aware of the real and practical existence of racism and its consequences locally and globally. But there are also those whose belief in diversity has been more a result of the denials of the existence of racism than a true transformation and awareness.

Coming back to Aunt Zeituni, the entire question about her having been served with deportation orders four years ago speaks to the hierarchical ladder the fabrication of races has manifested. In the documentary Life and Debt about the effects of IMF’s structural adjustment policies on Third World economies, by Stephanie Black, there’s a contrast made about what it takes for an American to enter Jamaica, and what it takes for a Jamaican to enter the US. For the former, it is a mere driver’s license at the port of entry. For the latter, as with most Third World people around the world, it is a herculean, heart-rending process that stretches for months. Several thousands of visa applications get rejected every single day, each of them having paid the equivalent of a non-refundable US$100. The inside of the embassy itself is a place that reduces one to fear and humiliation, requiring one to prove one’s humanity before one is considered worthy of entry.

Obviously there's a good argument to be made about the impossibility of granting a visa to each and every applicant, given the enormity of the numbers of people who want to come to the United States of America. However, the whole atmosphere attached to the process and to some inexplicable visa denials can be filled with dread and heartache for some.

Still, something has moved at a galactic level, and a lot of people around the world are filled with undeniable greater hope and admiration for the United States of America. The burden for the kind of change the world is anticipating ought not to be carried by Obama alone, if at all. As Dr. Makau Mutua, Dean and Professor of Law at State University of New York at Buffalo wrote in June 2008, the US presidency is very different from the African presidency, and most other presidencies for that matter. If elected, Obama’s constituency will be the numerous interest groups who wield influence in US domestic and foreign policy. Obama may personally understand the importance of changing the image of Africa and Africans in the eyes of Americans, but it will have to be a slow, gradual, deliberate process, or else it may merely provoke unintended consequences. And in the meantime, Aunt Zeituni has to accept her place in the hierarchy, follow the law, and return to Kenya.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Peace Studies and ‘Africa’: International Day of Peace Reflections

When I stumbled upon peace studies as an academic discipline in 2003, I saw the myriad questions I had developed over a life time, some of which I was unaware of, begin to gel into an intelligible, coherent pursuit. I wondered why it had taken me five years into graduate school to learn of the existence of peace studies as a discipline. And had it not been for a dissertation research fellowship, I can not tell whether I would have become acquainted with the discipline, and gone ahead to adopt it as an intellectual and activist framework. What seemed even more peculiar was that it felt so natural and intuitive; I realized I had been using it all along, only I hadn’t called it peace studies. Five years later, I have come to regard it as indispensable for the way I understand the world and our attempts towards solutions to its intractable problems. The tell-tale moment came in 2004, during field work in Malawi, when it occurred to me that it was what uMunthu/uBuntu demanded of us as human beings. I had set out on a sojourn to the global North, in search of truth, and had returned home at the height of that search, only to find that the object of my searching had been lying in plain sight all along. On this day, September 21, International Day of Peace, I would like to reflect on how the discipline of peace and justice studies brings together a host of multidisciplinary approaches to understanding Africa, Pan-Africans, and their place in the work of promoting global peace.

It was whilst I was in the field that I learned how to appropriate peace studies to make sense of the uMunthu/uBuntu imperative which lay at the center of the pursuit for local and global peace. In order to achieve this, I began thinking, it was necessary for peace studies to take Africa and Africans seriously. As yet, this is not the case, an argument made by Marvin Berlowitz (2002), professor of Educational Foundations at the University of Cincinnati. Berlowitz wrote in an issue of the journal Peace Review that the discipline of peace studies was plagued by Eurocentric bias. He said several African American peace leaders and activists were ignored in the scholarship, and his list included one African peace leader, and one Caribbean scholar activist.

Berlowitz’s conclusion was that Eurocentric bias pervaded the field of peace studies, and he attributed the problem to an “ideological split” that represented differing historical experiences between Euro-Americans and African Americans. In explaining why Eurocentrism was a problem in peace studies, Berlowitz listed two main reasons: it distorted our view of peace studies and the peace movement, and it precluded any viable understanding or alliance between African Americans and Euro-Americans. For example, historical events such as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and anti-colonization were active topics of research and activism in the African American community, while they were paid less attention to in mainstream peace studies.

While Berlowitz’s main concern was the place of African American peace leaders and activists in the peace studies canon, the same questions are relevant regarding the place of African peace leaders and activists. In this quest, a much more comprehensive persuasion for Africans and African contexts in peace studies has been made by Matt Meyer, a founding member of the Peace and Justice Studies Association and co-convener of the World Resisters League, and Bill Sutherland, a co-founder of the Congress for Racial Equality, and a leading thinker and activist of Pan-Africanism. Not only have Matt Meyer and Bill Sutherland asserted the place of African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and other African leaders and activists in the study of peace and justice, they have also argued for the place of Pan-Africanism and African independence and anti-colonial movements as legitimate subjects of peace studies.

Bill Sutherland and Matt Meyer’s 2000 book Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation in Africa, accomplishes what no other study that I know of does: merging together Pan-Africanism, African independence and anti-colonial struggles, and Gandhian nonviolence into a coherent exploration of African contexts in the study of peace and justice. The book chronicles detailed accounts and narratives of Africa’s experiments with violence and nonviolence. The narratives are developed through interviews with African leaders and political activists, and personal reflections from Bill Sutherland. Bill Sutherland’s experiences go back to the 1950s when Ghana was fighting for its independence with Kwame Nkrumah as its leader, to the 1990s when Sutherland and Matt Meyer traveled across the continent to personally meet and interview several African leaders and activists. The book thus offers deep insights into the confluence of violence and nonviolence in Africa’s struggles for independence from Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jerry Rawlings, Kenneth Kaunda, Graca Machel, Sam Nujoma, Nathan Shamuyayira, Emma Mashinini, and Walter Sisulu, among many others.

In his preface to the book, former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, states that Matt Meyer and Bill Sutherland’s work evokes uBuntu ideals. Tutu says Meyer and Sutherland begin to “develop a language that looks at the roots of our humanness beyond our many private contradictions” (p. xi). Tutu says Meyer and Sutherland challenge us to “better understand concepts often seen as opposed to one another—like nonviolence and armed struggle.” In so doing, they “help to focus our attention on the larger struggles we must still wage, united: for economic justice, for true freedom and equality, and for a world of lasting peace” (ibid.). Tutu goes on to inform us that Gandhi’s philosophy of soul force and nonviolence originated in a South African context, and “were based on some concepts he learned in South Africa,” during Gandhi’s stay there (xii).

In Ghana’s struggle for independence, we learn from Sutherland that Kwame Nkrumah, a leading Pan-Africanist and anti-colonial leader and activist of his time, was also a committed nonviolence advocate, and published a pamphlet in the early phase of his leadership of Ghana’s independence movement. The pamphlet was titled What I Mean By Positive Action. Positive Action was Nkrumah’s version of nonviolence, informed by the Ghanaian context of the colonialist and imperialist nature of the oppression Africans were under. Speaking decades later to Matt Meyer and Bill Sutherland, one person who had been one of Nkrumah’s close associates, Komla Agbelo Gbedema, confirmed that Gandhian nonviolence was indeed the model Ghana followed. Sutherland and Meyer quote Gbedema as saying “The Gandhian movement was a our model. Some considered Positive Action a strategy or tactic, others a principle.” But for Gbedema himself, he learned his nonviolence from a Quaker teacher who taught him that violence begot violence. The Ghanaians attributed the success of their struggle to Nkrumah’s brand of nonviolence. They even invited both WEB DuBois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to their independence celebrations in 1957. WEB DuBois was unable to go, but Martin Luther King Jr went, and heard Nkrumah shout the words “Free at last! Free at last!” Six years later MLK himself would use those very words to end his famed “I Have Dream” speech.

Another African anti-colonial leader and activist who also believed in nonviolence as an effective approach was the first president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda. Meyer and Sutherland write that Kaunda was an early advocate of nonviolent direct action, and pursued these ideals in the Africa Freedom Action and World Peace Brigade, a precursor to Peace Brigades International. Kaunda wrote a book titled The Riddle of Violence, in which he directly addressed the relevance of Gandhi to Zambia’s struggle for independence. In his life after the presidency, Kaunda told Meyer and Sutherland he had established the Kaunda Institute for Peace and Democracy, where there would be courses in peace studies and democracy.

In their discussions between Meyer and Sutherland and the now deceased first president of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the problem of achieving true independence still remains a legitimate peace and justice struggle both at the local as well as the global level. Nyerere’s role in this struggle took on a visible Pan-Africanist outlook, as had Nkrumah’s. Both African leaders invited people of African descent from outside Africa to participate in the intellectual life of Tanzanian society. Bill Sutherland was one of these figures. The late Guyanese scholar and activist Walter Rodney was another. Nyerere, like Kaunda, also hosted South African and Zimbabwean political leaders in their struggle against their respective white minority governments.

Amongst African countries, South Africa’s presence in peace studies is much better represented. There is widespread recognition that the anti-apartheid movement garnered support amongst peace activists outside Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been researched and written about extensively in peace research, as has the story of Nelson Mandela and the debates inside the African National Congress about the efficacy and problems associated with nonviolence. What is perhaps not widely acknowledged to the extent that it deserves is the philosophy of uBuntu, of which Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a leading advocate. Whereas Pan-Africanism and the anti-colonial independence movements enter the peace studies discourse by what can be called an activist political project, the uBuntu connection to peace studies can be said to be much more organic and internal. uBuntu, which I like to refer to as uMunthu, in it’s Chichewa version, belongs to the peace and justice studies framework through its ontological definition of the collective bond of humanness, rendering responsibility for one’s neighbors on the planet an inherent core value.

If we accept Berlowitz’s claim that African American peace leaders and activists, with the exception of MLK, are absent from peace studies, African leaders and activists are even more so. If we accept Sutherland and Meyer’s argument that the African leaders they write about in their book provide an African perspective to the global peace and justice movement, then it is fair to use Berlowitz’s questions to ask why African leaders and activists are not given the attention they deserve in the peace studies scholarship. The same goes for the philosophy of uMunthu.

Amongst the texts that constitute the peace studies canon, very few of them treat Africa in a substantive, meaningful way. Matt Meyer and Bill Sutherland’s are the only exception. Meyer has a couple of books on Pan African peace studies forthcoming in the next months, which will add to Guns and Gandhi in a way that ought to begin to change the peace studies landscape. The recent achievements of Kofi Annan in resolving the Kenyan post-election crisis, the fledgling, much-criticized efforts of Thabo Mbeki in Zimbabwe, and the work of the environmentalist and scholar Wangari Maathai, amongst others, ought to add to the canon.

The absence of African contributions to the global peace and justice movement poses two kinds of problems. The first problem is that of language and definition. On the one hand, the language I am most familiar with, Chichewa, does not have definitive terms for peace, violence, or nonviolence. Even in English, the best we can do to offer a response to violence is nonviolence, itself a negative formulation. And when we look at the definitions used in the literature, some of my students have a difficult time understanding why the problem of peace is worthy of their attention in a college classroom. They point to the difficulty of finding universal agreement on what peace entails as evidence that peace can not be achieved, and that therefore the study of peace itself is a futile, empty endeavor.

The second problem, like the first one, also deals with teaching peace studies. On the few occasions that African contexts get mentioned in the texts we use, students see a confirmation of the stereotypes they inherit about Africa as a place of hopelessness, helplessness and despair. There can be no denying that Africa has peculiar problems that defy easy rationalization. Even the African leaders and peace activists that Meyer and Sutherland describe in their book acknowledge this. However the persistence of Eurocentrism in the curriculum, both in Africa and outside Africa, lead to a distortion of the underlying contexts that create the problems Africa and Africans face. Those distortions entail policy prescriptions that over the decades have done little to teach students about difference, interdependence and imperialist exploitation. Even with well-meaning and critically-minded preparation for American students going to do study abroad in African countries, it is still very difficult to orient students to abandon a missionary-savior outlook and adopt an attitude in which Western societies can also learn from Africa in an equal exchange of knowledge production.

It is a reasonable claim that peace and justice studies is well disposed to provide a comprehensive and meaningful understanding of Africa’s problems, but the discipline can not accomplish this when the knowledge of Africa’s contributions to global peace and justice remains as underdeveloped as it currently is. The current crop of university students who feel compelled to study marginalized societies will be much better served by a peace and justice studies approach that does not ignore injustices at home, and that offers an Africa that is an integral part of historical and contemporary efforts to promote global peace.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Son of the Soil? Pan-Africanism & Third World Prospects in a Possible Obama Presidency

The exclamatory commentary that has accompanied Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the nomination of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate has excited, beneath it, the question of what the nomination itself, and a possible Obama presidency, might mean for the Pan-Africanist world as well as the Third World. While much of the commentary has been laudatory, there have also been cautionary tones, not to mention ambivalent ones. Beyond the excitement, caution and ambivalence of what a possible Obama presidency might entail for Pan-Africa and the Third World, what Obama himself has said in his writing, and has not said, might prove to be revelatory in attempting to explore the discussion that has exercised many minds around the world. 

We take this exploration by examining some of the issues that have been raised by editorialists and columnists, bloggers and other commentators in Africa and beyond. We also delve into what Obama himself has said in his two best-belling books, as we ponder how the significance of a possible Obama presidency may be realized more in the symbolic transformation of perceptions of race, racism and racial identity in the US and in the world, than in what the office of the US presidency itself is capable or incapable of achieving.

First, a word about my use of the terms “Pan-Africa” and “Pan-Africanism.” The Pan-Africa I am referring to here is the one that builds on the ideological consciousness of the global historical experiences and identities of people of African descent, and others who share that ideology for political and solidarity purposes. It is a Pan-Africanist consciousness that draws from DuBois’s hope, back in 1897, that if Africans were to be a factor in the history of the world, it would have to be through a Pan-African movement. Thus when Ghana became independent from Britain in 1957, Du Bois, unable to attend the epochal occasion due to his passport being impounded by the US government, handed over the mantle of the Pan-Africanist movement to Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, through a letter that he wrote and had delivered to Nkrumah.

The 1966 military coup that overthrew Nkrumah as Ghana’s president dealt a big blow to a Pan-Africanist movement that had achieved a great deal for people of African descent, especially in Africa. The shared African identity and global consciousness spawned by Pan-Africanist ideology played a key role in mobilizing support amongst African and Third World regions in overthrowing colonialism. In the United States, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King both looked up to the Pan-African world for solidarity in overcoming American racism. With Nkrumah gone, the ideals of Pan-Africanism began atrophying, to the extent that in the 21st century today there is no discernible movement that concerns itself with the problems that afflict Africa and people of African descent around the world. But there is no question that such a movement is as necessary today as it was in the 1950s and 60s.

In his autobiography Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama has demonstrated his awareness of both a Pan-Africanist and Third World consciousness, but for the nationalist demands of American politics today, he has not made that awareness a part of his campaign platform. But those who know Obama’s autobiographical instincts in guiding his best judgments know that his upbringing and struggle to identify himself are a core part of who he is. And it is his autobiographical narrative that has appealed to people around the globe. Thus while heeding the call to be cautious in speculating what a possible Obama presidency might do for the Pan-African world, it is worth discussing the extent to which Obama’s narrative in itself has the potential to influence new visions and energies in the study of the Pan-African world and its future prospects. Those energies have been on display in many places around the world, not least in Kenya, where Obama’s father came from.

A June 5th editorial in The Daily Nation of Kenya, where Obama’s father, a Harvard Ph.D., hailed from, offered three reasons as to why Africans were celebrating Obama’s victory. The first reason had to do with Obama being “the first African American ever to win nomination to vie for the presidency of the world’s sole super-power.” Second, Obama was considered “a son of Africa” who has excelled in the world. And thirdly, Obama was “a son of Kenya,” since Obama traced “his roots” back to his fatherland, Kenya, in “the present-day Siaya District.” The three reasons culminated into one huge hope: Africans were hopeful that “with this win, ‘their son’ will implement Africa-friendly policies that could uplift the continent from poverty.”

In the June 8th edition of The Sunday Times of Rwanda, columnist Frank Kagabo also reflected Obama’s blood connection to Africa, observing that Obama had “relatives living in third world poverty,” a fact which would help African people feel “good and know that nothing is impossible no matter where you come from.” In the Malawian parliament, The Daily Times quoted opposition Malawi Congress Party member of parliament Boniface Kadzamira as congratulating Senator Obama, paraphrasing the parliamentarian as saying Malawi was “likely to benefit if he wins the presidential election this August” [sic]. Hon. Kadzamira was also quoted offering a snippet of how Obama’s foreign policy might look like “He says he is likely to move away from the policies of sanctions, which has hurt countries like Zimbabwe, to negotiation. He says he will have tough aid conditions and will move away from the weapons of mass destruction to mass reconstruction”.

The Harvard University-based blog aggregating project, Global Voices Online, housed in the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has been culling blog commentary on the American elections from outside the United States, on a website called Voices Without Votes. Amongst the blogs the website is aggregating is The World Wants Obama Coalition, from where a link to the Caribbean World News announced a news item titled “Caribbean United Behind Obama”. Another linked blog, Globamania, sported the self-description, “Because the world believes in real change, too.” A round up of Kenyan bloggers by Global Voices author Rebecca Wanjiku was titled “Kenyan bloggers on Kenya’s most famous son, Barack Obama”.

But even amidst the hopes, adulations and expectations for what a “son of Africa” in the American White House could do for the continent, there have also been voices cautioning the hyped praise, and posing some searching questions. The Daily Nation’s editorial mentioned above asked: “But what is there for Africa in the American elections?” It went further still, asking: would Obama manage to “overcome the strong lobby groups that control American foreign policy and that have very little time for Africa?” More unflattering commentary came from Rasna Warah, writing in the June 9th edition of The Daily Nation, who wielded a sharp knife over the blood ties everyone was happy to evoke. Warah’s title was upfront and blunt: “We cannot lay claims on Obama; he’s not one of us”. Warah went on to state: “What everyone seems to be forgetting is that Barack Obama is an American, not a Kenyan. His roots may lie in Kenya, but he was born and raised in the United States, and his loyalty lies with that nation, not with ours.”

As evidence for her argument, Warah cited Obama’s own words spoken when he visited Kenya as a United States Senator, in August of 2006. She quoted Obama as saying: “As a US Senator, my country and other nations have an obligation and self-interest in being full partners with Kenya and Africa. And I will do my part to shape an intelligent foreign policy that promotes peace and prosperity.” As for Obama’s autobiography Dreams From my Father, which Obama wrote after returning from Kenya and graduating from Harvard Law School, Warah suggested that “curiosity about his roots” was the real reason Obama visited his fatherland for the first time ever, in the summer of 1988. It was “not deep love for this country,” said Warah.

By far the most authoritative statement of caution if not negation came from Dr. Makau Mutua, Dean and University Distinguished Professor of Law at State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. Writing in the Daily Nation of June 5th, Dr. Mutua started out by quipping that the reaction to Obama’s clinching of the Democratic nomination was as if Obama was “poised to become” the president of Kenya, or indeed Africa. The reasons, Dr. Mutua said, were three-fold: “national, racial, and ethnic pride that a black man can become ‘king’ of the empire.” Dr. Mutua then set out to demolish the expectations edifice by pointing out “the nature of the US as a state, and the character of the American presidency” as the reasons why he was urging caution to the hype of what Obama would do for the continent. 

Dr. Mutua contrasted between the way Africans and Americans see the office of the president as being responsible for the mounting expectations on Obama. “Africans think of presidents as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent”, wrote Dr. Mutua, saying that in Africa that perception gave the president enormous powers which ultimately determined what citizens could gain or lose. It was what created what Dr. Mutua called “tribal barons.” Not so with American politics, in which “the American presidency is a highly circumscribed office that is subject to larger national interests on which there is consensus about the purpose of government.”

What would prevent a President Obama from being helpful to Africa then were the two core functions of the American presidency: to “develop and implement a foreign policy to enhance US interests and pursue a domestic policy that will bring economic prosperity to the nation.” It was in the service of those two functions that America’s role in the world had been historically shaped, and continued to be, limiting the scope of what an individual president could do, even as he or she brought his or her personality and individuality to what is considered the most powerful leadership position in the world. 

Here Dr. Mutua went deeper than anybody has been daring to, to expose America as an empire whose wealth and might have been built on a foundation that has dialectically entailed the exploitation and destruction of Africa. “Why am I pessimistic about the prospects of an Obama presidency for Africa?” asked Dr. Mutua. The answer, he offered, lay in America’s “structurally racist and exploitative relationship with Africa. In slavery – the brutal capture, transportation, sale and exploitation of Africans to build America – and the support by the United States of Cold War despots in Africa, lies the destructive relationship between black people and America.”

As an analytical insight, Dr. Mutua’s explanation went to the heart of a historical truth that has largely been avoided by most commentators, including Obama’s own positioning of himself vis-a-viz his identity. “It is partly because of these traumas,” explained Dr. Mutua, “that Africa is so underdeveloped and marginalised in global politics. That is why to America Africa has either been an afterthought or an object of pity and charity. It would require an ideological shift by the US to change its relationship with Africa to base it on equality, fair trade and investment, and a voice for Africans in global institutions.” As such, no individual American president can achieve the kind of paradigm shift that would turn around America’s image of Africa: “These are not steps that a president can take alone because they affect fundamental American interests, and would call for a realignment of US foreign policy so that it is not simply Eurocentric.”

Dr. Mutua’s realistic analysis of what the American presidency looks like and how its foreign and domestic policy mandates shape the scope and limits of what the American presidency can achieve points to an important distinction that has to be made between the president as an individual and the president as an institution. As an individual, we only have to hark back to Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father. As I pointed out in my recent blog article on Obama, the personal importance of Africa to Barack Obama is not only evident in the book, it is profound to Obama’s own identity. The way Obama treats Kenya in Dreams From My Father leaves us in no doubt about this. 

In the book, Obama takes 450 pages to offer an intimate look into his life, from early days in Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, to an epochal homecoming in Kenya. The amount of detail Obama dedicates to his life in the United States and Indonesia, where he lived all his life hitherto, contrasts sharply with the one third of the book that he devotes to Kenya, where he only spent three months. His days at Harvard Law School are given a mere two sentences (p. 437).

Contrary to Rasna Warah’s suggestion that Obama went to Kenya more out of curiosity than love of the country, the answer to Obama’s deep search for identity is finally consummated and revealed in Kenya, right from the moment he steps foot on the soil. It is worth reproducing, again, the paragraph that puts Obama’s quest for identity to rest, when somebody recognizes his name in an instant:

“That had never happened before, I realized; not in Hawaii, not in Indonesia, not in L.A., or New York or Chicago. For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, ‘Oh, you are so and so’s son.’ No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances and grudges that I did not yet understand” (p. 305).

However the reasons for caution in imagining what an Obama presidency may do for Africa and the Third World are equally sobering. By the time we get to the US senate and to his next book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006), Africa has pretty much disappeared from Obama’s narrative, replaced by distant references that characterize much of mainstream Western attitudes about Africa. Missing even from the Index, Africa is mentioned only perfunctorily, no longer as the place Obama spent a lifetime yearning for, but rather as the known poster child for the world’s worst maladies and disorder. “There are times when considering the plight of Africa—the millions racked by AIDS, the constant droughts and famines, the dictatorships, the pervasive corruption, the brutality of twelve-year-old guerillas who know nothing but war wielding machetes or AK-47s—I find myself plunged into cynicism and despair” (p. 319). 

But Obama is also aware of the progress Africa has made, citing Uganda’s success with the AIDS pandemic, and the end of civil war in countries like Mozambique. He observes that “there are positive trends in Africa often hidden in the news of despair, while at the same time clinging to an Afropessimism that warns: “We should not expect to help Africa if Africa ultimately proves unwilling to help itself” (ibid.).

Obama is also able to go beyond the average politician in his candidness about the ravages brought on Indonesia and other parts of the world by the ideological juggernaut of US foreign policy. In a chapter titled “The World Beyond Our Borders,” Obama dwells on how Indonesians find it puzzling that “most Americans can’t locate Indonesia on a map,” given the role that US foreign policy has played in the fate of Indonesia “for the past 60 years” (p. 272). Providing a brief historical account of this role, Obama describes how the CIA provided “covert support to various insurgencies inside Indonesia, and cultivated close links with Indonesia’s military officers, many of whom had been trained in the United States” (p. 273). The military then went ahead and “began a massive purge of communists and their sympathizers,” leading somewhere between 500,000 and one million deaths, “with 750,000 others imprisoned or forced into exile” (ibid.).

Obama’s candor continues throughout the chapter, noting that “our record is mixed—not just in Indonesia but across the world” (p. 280). He calls American foreign policy “a jumble of warring impulses,” at times farsighted and serving the mutual interests of both the United States and other nations, and at other times making “for a more dangerous world” (ibid.). His take on Iran ought to be enlightening in light of the current saber-rattling and familiar drum beat toward another a possible military strike: “Occasionally, U.S. covert operations would engineer the removal of democratically elected leaders in countries like Iran—with seismic repercussions that haunt us to this day” (p. 286). 

Yet Obama is no dogmatic ideologue, finding himself “in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview” in debates with friends on the left. He charges that progressives were eager to indict US complicity in the brutalities that took place in Chile, yet were less so in criticizing oppression in the communist bloc. Nor was he persuaded that US corporations and global trade “were single-handedly responsible for poverty around the world; nobody forced corrupt leaders in Third World countries to steal from their people” (p. 289).

Needless to say, such candor is as rare amongst US politicians as is knowledge of what US foreign policy has been up to around the world, in the general populace, according to several writers and thinkers, including John Perkins, Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Carl Mirra, Stephen Hiatt, amongst others. Many of these thinkers have also pointed out how while some Third World leaders are indeed corrupt, Western multinational corporations, backed by a deliberate, strategic foreign policy, create the very infrastructure that facilitates the corruption, and are actually corrupt themselves. 

According to Perkins, Hiatt, Patrick Bond, John Christiansen, Amit Basole, Leonce Ndikumana, James Boyce, among others, this is done through debt ensnaring, off-shore tax havens, trade mispricing, and dubious advice from the IMF and the World Bank, whose complicity with foreign policy and multinational corporate interests has led to trillions of dollars being emptied out of Third World countries and poured into Western economies. This is the corruption and the looting of the Third World that has best been captured by John Perkins’ term “corporatocracy” in his 2004 book Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Stephen Hiatt’s 2007 edited collection of essays, A Game As Old As Empire shows how pervasive the nexus of economic hitmen has become, and how closely aligned the system is between foreign policy and corporate interests.

In the final analysis, the significance of an Obama presidency for Pan-Africa and the Third World will lie less in what Barack Obama may or may not be able to do for people of African descent than in the symbolic message that his ascendancy to the most powerful office in the world will do in changing black people’s perceptions of who they are in the world, and how others view them. That has been the underlying, implicit cause of the renewed hope in what has been said by the Kenyans, the Malawians, the South Africans, the Nigerians, Caribbean commentators, and in fact every one else around the world who has joined in the celebration. 

While the office of the US presidency may limit Obama’s actual impact on Pan-Africa and the Third World, as Dr. Mutua warns, the symbolic importance of the achievement is what has the potential to go much further in offering a paradigm shift in the self-perception of a people whose destiny, according to Frantz Fanon, represents the possibility to refashion a new vision for the world, one beyond the limits set by European rationality and the consequences, both good and bad, that the Third World has reaped there from.

For that to happen, Obama’s own notion of what race and racism still mean in today’s America and how some minorities are overcoming it could shine some light on the path this transformation might take. Obama devotes a chapter in The Audacity of Hope to the topic of race, in which he offers both a stinging and sensitive portrayal of the bane of America’s ethnic identity, as well as the prospects of what can be achieved in breaking down racial barriers. Obama’s philosophy of race indicts residual and institutional racism, but also celebrates white people and black people alike who are able to overcome the vice and chart a new path for society. Those lessons ought to apply not only to America, but to the rest of the world as well, in the apt description of the global face of Obama’s extended family as a miniature portrait of the world:

“As the child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and a niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe” (p. 231).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Visiting Hungary, Recalling Malawi’s Recent History


Unsure as to how much English the average Hungarian speaks, I prepare for my 2008 Global Voices Citizen Media Summit trip to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, by reading up on the country and the language. I start by googling two Hungarian playwrights, Körnel Hámvai and Pál Békés whom I got to know in 1997 as fellow Honorary Fellows of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

In addition, I find a Lonely Planet pocket guide for the Hungarian language, and start learning a few phrases. I post a message to the Global Voices 2008 Summit listserv, asking how much Hungarian I should try to cram in before I board the plane. I mention a few phrases I have learned, just to show off. Paula, a Brazilian who blogs from London, responds and exclaims how starkly different the Hungarian she has been learning is from the one I have posted. She provides a URL link to a podcast (a recording posted on the Internet) for first time visitors to Hungary, which I listen to on the plane. When I later meet up with Paula in Budapest, I suggest to her that one of us has been learning the swear version of Hungarian—we’re yet to find out who it is.

Hardly have I put down my things in my hotel room, and introduced myself to my roommate, when the phone rings. It’s Victor Kaonga, with whom we cover Malawian blogs for Global Voices. Victor arrived earlier in the day, and he asks what I am planning to do for dinner. When we get out of the Novotel Hotel with a group of other newly arrived participants, Nicholas, from the Caribbean, leads the way to a restaurant a few blocks away. It’s around 8pm, and the sun is still up in the sky on this Hungarian summer evening. Victor comments that Budapest looks more like an improved version of Blantyre. The buildings look old, a few of them could use some maintenance. It’s unlike Sweden, where Victor has lived for the last two years. On her facebook page, another newly arrived participant posts her photos, with the caption “Budapest, no skyscrapers!”.

By Sunday, the conference has clocked three days, and a group of us take the tramway (metro train) to see the Danube River. In the background, I am hearing music I can not believe I am actually hearing. It’s the song Patapata, the version not by Miriam Makeba but the one by Dorothy Masuka, which is the one I actually love more. I nudge Juliana, a Kenyan who blogs about the environment from Chicago, and ask her if she knows the song. “Can you believe we are listening to Patapata on the tramway in Budapest!”

A few hours later while resting near a bridge by the river, Victor asks me if my cellphone’s ringtone is on. I pull the phone out of my pocket, and the inbuilt mp3 player is blaring Lawrence Mbenjere’s “Chikwesa.”

“Ah!! I hope it hasn’t been playing in my pocket all this time!! Gees!” Then it dawns on me. “I swear they were playing Patapata by Dorothy Masuka when we were on the tramway!” I was so eager to commend the Hungarians for their worldly taste in music, but now I’m not so sure anymore. I can’t believe the trick my cell phone’s mp3 player has played on me.

We have stopped on the bank of the Danube River to wait for another group which has gone in a different direction. Juliana steps closer and whispers to everyone, “Be careful. Those three young men over there--they have been following us.” In front of us is a gigantic, white, squarish building, with inelegant windows going up maybe ten floors. An elderly man who has been sitting on a bench across from us gets up and approaches us. He gets very close, and lowering his voice, asks us “Do you know about this building that you are standing in front of?” He asks in a cracking voice, with a Hungarian accent. “During the communist regime, there was a meat-grinder inside. The communists threw people into the meat-grinder, and their bodies ended up in the river.” I ask him how long ago this was, and he says he is not sure, as he was living in America at the time. “Maybe twenty or thirty years ago,” he says, before walking back to his bench.

We are stunned with the news. The other group returns, and the ever-cheerful Neha, an Indian blogger based in London, notices our mood. “Why is everyone looking so gloomy? You are so sad.” Victor turns to Neha and repeats to her the story we just heard. A few others on Neha’s heels close in to listen too. Everyone gasps in horror. “And it gets worse, Neha,” I say. “There’s worse news. I don’t know if you can handle it.”

“I can handle it.”

“It requires nerves.”

“I have the nerves. Tell me.”

“The fish we have been eating in the hotel? Comes from this river.”

Neha throws her arms in the air and shouts joyfully: “Thank God! I’m a vegetarian!” She is joined by Razan, a Syrian blogger who lives in Beirut. “I knew there was a good reason why I am a vegetarian also.” Everyone realizes I have been joking, and the mood lightens up again. “I thought you were going to tell her about the Shire River,” remarks Victor.

We proceed to walk by the riverside, watching passenger boats sailing under the bridge. We continue taking pictures as we approach an impressive neo-Gothic structure with a tall, cathedral-like dome standing above everything else on the Pest side of the Danube’s riverbank. “That’s the Hungarian Parliament,” announces Amit, a photo-blogger from India. “It’s one of the largest parliament buildings in Europe.” It was built between 1885 and 1902, as I later read in a guidebook, and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Budapest. It is called Országház in the Hungarian language. Across the Danube on the Buda side is another impressive, historic site. It’s the Budavári palota, The Royal Palace. It was originally built as a fortress starting in 1235 AD, and reached its peak of glory between 1458 and1490, according to the Green Guide for Hungary and Budapest.

By 9pm, the sun is setting and a twilight sets in. We continue taking more pictures, and begin looking for a tramway station to return to the Novotel Hotel. Everyone is hungry, and Moussa, from Beirut, suggests a Pizza Hut he visited the other day. By the time we find it, the finals of the Euro 2008 championship have already begun, and the bars and restaurants showing the match are packed. Victor and I decide we will take our dinner back to the hotel and watch the rest of the match there.

On the plane back home, I continue reading Michael Korda’s Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which I started before the trip. I am struck by the way history has dealt with the Hungarian people. Korda’s description of the communist era in Hungary reads a lot like the recent history of Malawi during the one-party dictatorship. Another similarity: the Hungarians ended their communist era in the late 80s and 90s, the same period that Malawi ended its one-party dictatorship.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

uMunthu, Peace and Education: On Malawi's 44th Independence Anniversary

One morning at a school near Lake Chirwa in Zomba in 1972, pupils entering their Standard 8 classroom received the shock of their lives. The portrait of then Life President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda had been defaced. Someone had drawn into the portrait a pair of spectacles, and had written unsavory comments about the then president. The pupils informed the teacher, who informed the school's head. The head immediately convened a staff meeting. After lengthy deliberations, the school administration agreed on investigating to find out who did it. The Standard 8 teacher went back to the classroom and asked for the culprit to turn himself in. Nobody volunteered any information.

After further deliberations amongst the staff, a decision was reached. Mwandilakwira, a Standard 8 pupil, would be expelled from the school and reported to the then District Education Office (DEO). Mwandilakwira protested his innocence, but the school administration responded by saying since he was the one who sat directly underneath the president’s portrait, he was probably the pupil who did this. Mwandilakwira was ordered never to come back to the school, and his name was reported to the DEO’s office. Mwandilakwira was also told that he was effectively banned from attending school in the entire Malawi.

That was thirty six years ago. Malawi has changed a great deal since then, especially in the last sixteen years. As we celebrate yet another independence anniversary, it is right and proper to ask what 44 years of independence has meant for us as a nation. This particular year I would like to ask this question from the perspective of a teacher as a way of reflecting on the role Malawian teachers play in building the nation and setting the country on a more peaceful and prosperous course.

For me, two things stand out as the most important for a future Malawi, and indeed the world, to have. First, I envision a future Malawi in which the ideals of uMunthu form the basis of our identity, and shape the form that all our endeavors take. Second, I envision a future Malawi that is blessed with peace and social justice and bestows on everyone equal chances of success and opportunities for the affirmation of everyone’s potential and talents. I see uMunthu as an ideal that pervades through these aspirations, knowing that the success of one person in a community is beneficial for, rather than a threat to, the whole community. Our Malawian elders were not wrong when they observed that Mwana wa mnzako ngwako yemwe, ukachenjera manja udya naye (your neighbor's child is your own, his/her success is your success too).

It wasn’t until 2004 that I first started thinking about uMunthu as a serious theme in envisioning the future of Malawi and the world. The day was Saturday, April 17th. The Catholic Diocese of Zomba ordained a new bishop on that day, Rt. Rev. Fr. Thomas Msusa, to take the place of Bishop Allan Chamgwera who had retired. I witnessed the beautifully choreographed and spiritually touching event at the grounds of Zomba Catholic Secondary School. In his speech, Bishop Msusa, who had left Nankhunda Seminary a few months before I set foot there in 1988, spoke of the problems Malawi was facing, and how we needed to “become as one.” He said those words had always been his guiding biblical wisdom from his seminary days. “The African worldview is about living as one family, belonging to God,” he said. “We say ‘I am because we are’, or in Chichewa kali kokha nkanyama, tili awiri ntiwanthu (when you are on your own you are as good as an animal of the wild; when there are two of you, you form a community).”

Listening to the newly ordained Bishop Msusa that afternoon harked my mind back to former Anglican Archbishop of the Diocese of Cape Town in South Africa, Desmond Tutu. A Nobel peace laureate, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu led his country, at the request of then President Nelson Mandela, in the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In his memoirs narrating his reflections on how he experienced the TRC, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Tutu explains uBuntu as the philosophical essence that propelled the TRC. In the book the former Anglican archbishop offers a list of examples where uBuntu was the driving philosophy for many southern African countries who chose forgiveness over retaliation against white minority regimes upon attaining independence. Included on the list are Zimbabwe, Kenya and Namibia.

Some people point out that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process did not solve South Africa’s problems, and instead merely created new ones. While that may be true, with regard to what has been happening in South Africa especially in recent years and in particular this year, it is important not to blame the TRC for something it had no control over. South Africa’s problems are much more complex and difficult to understand than many of us are ready to accept. The failures of recent years belong into the broader global economic order which South Africa has been forced into by institutions with far more power than African governments can ever hope to wield. This is not to exculpate South African elites from blame, as part of the path the country has taken has been a matter of unprincipled choices in times of difficult global dilemmas. Our own country Malawi is caught up in similar influences that promote neoliberal economic competition and privatization, leaving many unable to participate, and therefore bitterly resentful. It is not always that we pause to ask ourselves the roots of the violent crime we witness in our everyday lives right here in Malawi.

Before 2004, I was not even aware that uMunthu had been the subject of serious academic and intellectual inquiry by leading Malawian and African philosophers, theologians, political scientists, and many others. Several Malawians have written entire books on the subject. They include Rev. Dr. Augustine Musopole who in 1994 published a book titled Being Human in Africa: Toward an African Christian Anthropology, Rev. Dr. Harvey Sindima who in 1995 published Africa’s Agenda: The Legacy of Liberalism and Colonialism in the Crisis of African Values, and Dr. Gerald Chigona, who in 2002 published a book titled uMunthu theology: Path of Integral Human Liberation Rooted in Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to the above books, University of Malawi scholars Richard Tambulasi and Happy Kayuni have published an article on uMunthu in Malawian politics during the one-party dictatorship and the first multiparty government. There have also been several newspaper and magazine articles on the topic, as well as performing arts groups and forums using the concept of uMunthu to describe their focus.

In my interviews with several Malawian primary school teachers since 2004, I have learned that uMunthu is a subject fit to be taught in our schools, from Standard 1 all the way to the university. This is especially important for teacher training colleges and other tertiary institutions. The teachers argued that many of Malawi’s problems of structural violence, inequality, exploitation and injustice spring from the absence of uMunthu ideals in the inculcation of values. The education system has a crucial role to play in promoting uMunthu in our society because the violence and injustice we see in our communities is in fact facilitated by the education system’s failure to offer a coherent value system that affirms our humanity and identity.

The presence of rigorously researched and analyzed treatises on the topic of uMunthu, amongst Malawians and other scholars elsewhere is an exhortation for us to make it central in our education system. In my work with Malawian primary teachers over the years, we have explored ways of teaching the values of uMunthu-based peace and social justice, even in learning areas as unlikely as Mathematics.

The consideration to make uMunthu and peace education central features of Malawian education at all levels involves rethinking the ways we train our primary school teachers also. Having been a primary school teacher myself, I have come to appreciate the need to enhance our teacher education process, to align it with the needs of present day Malawi. The two-year teacher training program has been helpful up to this point, but it has become outdated. Today’s and tomorrow’s Malawi needs teachers who are much more highly trained, who are provided the best of what our intellectual heritage has to offer. This requires making our universities an integral part of the training we give our primary school teachers. None of this can be done overnight, but that is no excuse to postpone important decisions and put them off to an unforeseeable future.

Young Malawians are bustling with intellectual energies ready to meet any academic challenges thrown their way. That is what Mwandilakwira proved to those who expelled him and banished him from attaining further education in Malawi.

After staying at home for two years without going to school, Mwandilakwira changed his name and enrolled at another school several kilometers away. There he excelled, and was selected to one of the best secondary schools in Malawi. Today he is the head of an important primary school.

Equipping teachers with the best training we can afford will be part of the process to ensure the type of future we envision for our country. It will enable teachers to assume their important role in society, in ways that empower them to uplift young Malawians, rather than attempt to destroy their future, as was the case with Mwandilakwira in 1972. Let us use the occasion of our independence anniversary to ponder the kind of future, and the kind of peace, we want for Malawi, and how best to plan for them.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Foreign Policy Mag's Top 100 Intellectuals

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine (May/June 2008) has a list of what the magazine says are the top 100 public intellectuals living today. The subjective nature of the definition of "public intellectual", and the names of people I notice included, and left out, is enough to make me not take this exercise seriously.

But some of the people included are indeed inspirational to many people, regardless of the subjectivity of the foible of defining who a "public intellectual" is. So it got my attention, especially for those on the list who actually, in my perspective, strive to promote global peace and social justice (Noam Chomsky, Shirin Ebadi, Muhammad Yunus, etc).

I found it interesting that there are six Africans included (the magazine says 4, referring to "Sub-Saharan Africa"), two of them from Ghana (Kwame Anthony Appiah and George Ayittey). The other Africans are J.M. Coetzee (South African novelist and Nobel Laureate in Literature), Mahmood Mamdani (Uganda), Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (Egypt), and Wole Soyinka (Nigeria).

I imagined a realistic chance of finding at least two Malawians there as well, Thandika Mkandawire and Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, but they are not included. There's an option for write-in candidates, so I went ahead and wrote-in both of them (I'm not sure if more than one write-in is
allowed). Ali Mazrui is also curiously missing, as is South Africa based political economist Patrick Bond, Michael Eric Dyson, Tariq Ali, Naomi Klein, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe, among others (I guess one can argue about the infrequency with which some of these names appear in the public arena).

Other interesting characters on the list are Pope Benedict XVI, and Gen. David Petraeus, the US Commander in Iraq. There's also what I found to be an informative essay by the unpredictable Christopher Hitchens. He contends, for example, that the list is dominated by university professors, and informs something I had no idea about, that Gore Vidal never went to university. Jurgen Habermas and Slavoj Zizek, influential critical social theorists, are included.

You can find the whole list, and indeed write-in your own candidates whom you feel deserve to be included, at <www.foreignpolicy.com/intellectuals>. The closing date is May 15, after which the magazine will release it's version of the world's top 20 intellectuals.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Beneath Obama’s rebuke of Jeremiah Wright: Is a new global consciousness afoot?

When I learned that the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright was going to give a speech at Michigan State University on February 7th, I spread the word to friends and colleagues I knew would love to hear Barack Obama’s pastor speak. Of the half dozen or so people I mentioned his name to, none of them had heard of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, let alone his spiritual connection to Barack Obama. I prepared a question to ask Rev. Dr. Wright, but as it turned out, I did not need to ask the question. Such was the freestyle nature of the luncheon with Rev. Dr. Wright that the topic came up on its own. Rev. Wright said one of his grand daughters came home from school one afternoon and immediately asked: “Grandpa, you and Barack cool?” To which the reverend responded, “Me and Barack cool.”


The grand daughter had overheard conversations at school in which media reports were said to have described a parting of ways between Obama and Rev. Dr. Wright. In fact the question I had prepared for Rev. Dr. Wright had been prompted by a March 6th 2007 New York Times report in which Barack Obama had reportedly picked up the phone and disinvited Rev. Dr. Wright from Obama’s February 10th 2007 launch of his presidential campaign. Obama was said to have told Rev. Dr. Wright that it would be advisable if he were not to show up at the launch.

The hue and cry that arose from the mainstream corporate media’s attention on the sermons of Rev. Dr. Wright appears to have died down, and the same media has reported that Obama appears to have weathered the storm with his ship more or less intact. But Obama’s campaign also carries hopes and aspirations about the image of Pan-Africa, aspirations captured in Paul Tiyambe Zeleza’s February 21st article on The Zeleza Post. Thus almost a month after Obama’s public denunciation of Rev. Dr. Wright, it might be time to ask whether the challenge that Obama threw to the American populace about a frank discourse on race has been taken up or not. In denouncing his former pastor in the realpolitik terms he did, Obama was forced to sacrifice a part of his intellectual ideology in order to curry favor with a mainstream white America hell bent on turning a deaf ear to black America’s narratives. In so doing, Obama confirmed fears about the political compromises a black candidate is forced to make in America’s presidential politics, compromises that pit a viable black presidential candidate at odds with the aspirations of Pan-Africa and the Third World.

That Obama had to make the denunciations he did also characterizes the stubborn refusal in mainstream white America to engage with the painful discourse on the repercussions of US foreign policy, an exercise described as curiously absent especially amongst US peace educators, in a new book by Carl Mirra, a former marine and First Gulf War veteran, now associate professor at Adelphi University in New York. As we learn from Bill Fletcher Jr.’s and Manning Marable’s recent speeches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the African American PeaceMakers as Agents For Change series, mainstream white America’s refusal to engage with the painful aspects of US foreign policy goes back to the days of African American peace leaders such as WEB DuBois, through to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Further to that, the whole episode of the anger expressed against Rev. Dr. Wright also puts the spotlight on the schizophrenic contradiction between America’s perfunctory commemorations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s activism versus the excoriation of Rev. Dr. Wright, both of whose views have been critical of US policy and practice at home and abroad.

The March 6th 2007 NYT report had seemed credible to me, seeing how Obama was shirking any talk of race and black people’s issues in the campaign. It was also disappointing; a sad, sobering parting of ways with a man Obama describes in such a profound, touching way in his autobiography Dreams from my Father. It was a confirmation of how to become a credible black presidential candidate with the majority white voters in American, one has to make a break with the facts and truths of the majority of black Americans’ perspectives of their lives in America.

But in his luncheon talk at Michigan State on February 7th 2008, Dr. Wright said the New York Times report was a misrepresentation, and that everything was alright between him and Obama’s campaign. He went as far as saying until four months previously, as recent as October 2007, he did not believe mainstream America could embrace Obama’s candidacy the way it had happened in Iowa and other white majority states. He said the success of the Obama campaign was making him believe that the current generation of young Americans possessed a quality he was not aware of, and he realized that he was from a generation that may not have moved on the way young Americans, of all races, had. He said going by the support Obama was garnering amongst white college students, he was very hopeful for the future of the country.

On one hand, the speech Obama gave in Philadelphia on race in America makes one wonder whether Rev. Dr. Wright was always aware of what Obama really thought about the pastor’s views on race in America, and US foreign policy. On the other hand, one is left unsure as to whether Obama always found his pastor’s views on race and US foreign policy as “offensive” as he put it in his speech, or if he was indeed toeing a line a black presidential candidate in America needs to toe in order to become viable. Nothing in Obama’s Dreams from my Father suggests any slightest whiff of the latter position, leading one to wonder the extent to which a black presidential candidate in the United States has to go walking the tight rope of denouncing “radical blacks” while acknowledging the existence of racism in America.

The more authentic parts of Obama’s speech would appear to be the exhortations he made about the need for mainstream America to make the effort to understand the reality of life for black Americans. Said Obama: “. . . the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed.” He added, in a rare moment that marked a remarkable coming to terms with an issue he had hitherto put great effort into avoiding, at least on the campaign trail, that the concerns of black people in America needed to be addressed in a real way. His frankness on this was refreshing, inasfar as this campaign. “But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”

But Obama still had to appear to keep standing on mainstream ground so as to appeal to the white majority votes he can not do without. And he seized the opportunity to tell the truth about the indicators that demonstrate the depth of the experience of black America: wealth and income gap between black and white; concentrated pockets of poverty in urban and rural communities; a lack of economic opportunity among black men; the lack of basic services in urban black neighborhoods. Starkly missing was the stunning statistic that there are about 900,000 African Americans in prison, while there about 600,000 in college, figures presented by Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s PBS TV series African American Lives.

The reaction to Obama’s speech was unprecedented. Getting online on the evening of March 20th from Dowa district in Malawi, I read in a New York Times article that the speech was being discussed in university classrooms across the United States, and churches were spreading word that the speech would be the subject of Easter Sunday sermons. Among the numerous listservs that I subscribe to and participate in, four were actively discussing the speech, including one on which matters of race are normally not talked about. Suddenly, it appeared as if this was the first time that white Americans were being told that black Americans do have a legitimate concern with historical and contemporary racism. That this is exactly what Obama’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Wright, has been saying for years was made even more obscure by Obama’s politically strategic disowning and criticism of Rev. Wright, even as he urged an appreciation of where the pastor’s anger and that of many blacks came from.

But unlike the discussion on the four listservs, which was earnest and eager in accepting Obama’s exhortation, the mainstream media has been obsessed with relegating Pastor Dr. Wright to the fringes of incoherent radicalism. In the days following the speech, with the exception of the New York Times which demonstrated some rare open-mindedness, the mainstream corporate media revealed a deep-seated denial of the existence of the anger that Obama acknowledged. Instead, some in the mainstream media sought to further isolate Rev. Dr. Wright and paint him as a rabid radical who could only be touched with a nine foot pole. The attempt was to marginalize Dr. Wright as unrepresentative of any constituent of American society, expressing amazement that Obama associated with him for a whole twenty years. Such sentiments came from the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ward writing in the print edition of the Financial Times of London (March 22/23), Daniel Nasaw and Ewen MacAskill in the print edition of The Guardian of London (March 22), and an editorial in the Europe print edition of The Wall Street Journal (March 20-24).

The Guardian article reported that white voters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina were deserting Obama in the aftermath of the Pastor-gate issue, with one poll showing Hillary Clinton leading at 56 percent to Obama’s 30 percent in Pennsylvania, and 43 to 42 percent in North Carolina (p. 7). Two respondents interviewed in Philadelphia were quoted as saying by not leaving Rev. Dr. Wright’s church for another one, Obama shared his pastor’s opinions. It took an African American respondent to put a reality check to the gravy train, pointing out that it was only white America that found Pastor’s Wright’s anger new, “but these things happened to us” (ibid.). If white people felt uncomfortable with the pastor’s sermons, said the respondent, well, black people have felt uncomfortable for centuries in America. That punch line, left unqualified, ought to have pricked at the conscience of those in the mainstream who get alarmed when they hear a minority perspective they have always been shielded from.

Tim Wise expressed it sharply and squarely in an article originally published in Lip Magazine, and widely distributed on various websites. Wise, a deeply thoughtful and prolific anti-racist campaigner, exposed the inaccuracies involved in the claims that Dr. Wright said America deserved the 9/11 attacks, and that blacks should sing ‘God Damn America.’ Wise systematically and categorically laid a litany of the truths of black Americans’ lives that many white Americans refuse to hear about. Wrote Wise:

We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it.

Amongst his examples, Wise mentioned white people’s shock when Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall refused to celebrate the 1987 bi-centennial of the constitution, arguing that most of those two hundred years had been years of “overt racism and injustice.” Wise also wrote about the disbelief amongst whites that a racist white police officer could frame a black man; white people’s shock upon learning that most black people viewed the US as a racist nation; white people getting “stunned to the point of paralysis when they learn the truth about lynchings in this country,” among numerous other “shocks.”

Thus it was that many white people (not all) were shocked to hear what Rev. Dr. Wright had to say about racism in America, to the point of expecting Obama to publicly disown him.

So what can we say about a nation that values lies more than it loves truth? A place where adherence to sincerely believed and internalized fictions allows one to rise to the highest offices in the land, and to earn the respect of millions, while a willingness to challenge those fictions and offer a more accurate counter-narrative earns one nothing but contempt, derision, indeed outright hatred?

Wise’s exhortation to his fellow white Americans will most likely go unheeded, as he himself is probably written off as being on the fringes of radicalism as well. But his understanding of black America and its place in American society is as intimate as it is passionate. His choice not to excoriate Obama for his rebuke of Rev. Dr. Wright signifies the depth of that understanding. The question that persists for Obama now is what remains of his Pan-African identity, an identity he profoundly craved and beautifully constructed in his former life before politics. Clearly, the Obama who wrote Dreams from my Father is a much more authentic, deeply feeling, rigorously reflective intellectual, a far cry from the Obama campaigning to become president of the United States of America.

Despite the pretensions of the presidential campaign, Obama knows who he is, probably more so than many people in this world, a truism expressed by the New York Times columnist David Brooks on the PBS Jim Lehrer News Hour program earlier this year. Not only is Obama an exceptionally gifted writer, he is a very brilliant individual, a globally conscious intellectual, and, going by his 1995 autobiography, a Pan-Africanist, Third Worldist, and global cosmopolitan at heart.

For starters, Dreams from my Father is about 450 pages long, spanning his early days in Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, ending with his long-sought reunion with his fatherland in Kenya. The book was published in 1995 when Obama was 34 years old. Obama was in Kenya for only three months, the summer before his entry into Harvard Law School, yet out of those 450 pages, his three months in Kenya occupy about 155 pages, a whopping one third of the book! He went to Harvard University, where he probably spent no less than four years, yet his Harvard days warrant a pitiful two sentences, buried inside a nine-line paragraph (p. 437).

The most persuasive evidence about Obama’s global Pan-African identity can be found in what he writes about his three months in Kenya. On arrival at Kenyatta International Airport, the very first time that he lands on African soil, he immediately develops a powerful sense that he has arrived home, a home he has spent a lifetime searching for. His bag has not arrived with him, and he asks about what to do. A Kenyan woman, donning a British Airways uniform, notes the name on the form he has filled out, and asks if he is by any chance related to Dr. Obama. Obama responds: “He was my father.” That recognition of his name was the moment he had spent his conscious life hitherto longing for. He writes:

That had never happened before, I realized; not in Hawaii, not in Indonesia, not in L.A., or New York or Chicago. For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, ‘Oh, you are so and so’s son.’ No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances and grudges that I did not yet understand.

More than a Pan-Africanist, Obama also carries sharp Third World instincts, aware of and in tune with the global solidarity that unites peoples of the world colonized and exploited by Europe and America. This is in evidence when a week or so later after his arrival in Kenya, he encounters the tensions that exist between black Africans and Kenyans of Asian origin. His cousin Auma calls him naive for imagining that everything is well between the two groups, reminiscing about his close friends from India and Pakistan in the United States, “who had supported black causes. . .” (p. 347). Obama muses, “My simple formulas for Third World solidarity had little application in Kenya. Here, persons of Indian extraction were like the Chinese in Indonesia, the Koreans in the South Side of Chicago, outsiders who knew how to trade and kept to themselves, working the margins of the racial caste system, more visible and so more vulnerable to resentment. It was nobody’s fault necessarily. It was a matter of history, an unfortunate fact of life” (p. 347-8).

Indeed, as Vijay Prashad reminds us in his recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2006), there used to be such a thing as a Third World project, which alongside other anti-imperialist projects such as Pan-Africanism, were part of the struggles that effectively ended political colonization around the world. Obama is fully conversant with this history, but is forced to avoid it for purposes of his presidential bid.

These then are the burdens thrust upon a black presidential aspirant in the United States, burdens few would happily shoulder. Obama appears to have the capacity to shoulder these burdens, although he must pretend to represent a parting of ways with such expectations. It is a balancing act tough enough to tire out the most seasoned athlete. For some, this parting of ways warrants little more than subdued ambivalence that an Obama presidency would do anything for black America, Pan-Africa and the Third World. For others, the demands of realpolitik require that Obama plays as close to mainstream white America as possible, including his public views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Regardless of the true reasons for which Obama publically rebuked Rev. Dr. Wright, Obama’s candidacy does indeed represent something new in not just American politics, but also in the global discourse on race and identity. And Obama seems to be aware of this much more than perhaps many of those supporting his candidacy. It is in that awareness that hopes arise for a fundamental shift in global racial consciousness and the future of America’s place in it.