segunda-feira, 25 de agosto de 2008

The pursuit of perfectibility

Published: August 25, 2008
Race can be a means for Barack Obama to talk about reconciliation — of America with its past, its ideals and the world.

In the castle here, slaves force-marched from the African interior were held in dungeons until their passage through the “Door of No Return” onto the ships that would carry them to the New World.

For centuries, the trade continued, overseen by pious European men of commerce, who prayed to their consoling God as they trafficked in black serfs for whom the Americas held no promise, but servitude.

I walked through Elmina with a handful of tourists. A guide made neither too much nor too little of the construction by the Dutch of a church above the slave depots. He said he did not want to reopen old wounds, merely safeguard memory.

It was not easy to tie this remote fort and other slave-trading centers along the coast, departure points for millions of enslaved Africans, to the plantations of Louisiana or to America’s “original sin,” as Barack Obama has put it, of slavery.

Yet the link must be made. More American kids should be wrested from their computer screens and ushered at an impressionable age to this faraway shore, where they might gaze through that one-way exit at a heaving sea.

They might then better understand acts and their consequences, not least a bloody civil war; they might better see the world’s interconnectedness; and they might better grasp the distance between words and deeds, as in how far the founding fathers were in 1787 from securing “the blessings of liberty” for one and all.

Spreading those blessings took struggle: that civil war, court fights, civil disobedience. No wonder then that, around the world, the first question about the U.S. election is always: “Is America really ready to elect a black man?”

That blunt inquiry, which I’ve heard from Indonesia to Latin America, is a reminder on the eve of the Democratic Party’s convention in Denver of the historic nature of the Obama candidacy.

But the question also suggests the barriers, spoken and unspoken, that he and his running mate, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, must still overcome to reach the, so-named, White House.

It’s been a long campaign already. We’ve seen Obama at the glittering top of his game, we’ve seen how introspective remoteness can dull that electricity. We know the main Republican lines of attack against him: untested, aloof, radical and, yes, different.

That’s politics. It’s about winning and damn the means. Power, as an Italian observed, wears out those who do not have it. But none of the above can obscure how this campaign’s moments of upliftment have come from Obama.

Often those moments have emerged from his experience of race even as he has sought to downplay it. It was he who said, in a Father’s Day speech noting that more than half of black children live in single-parent households, that “what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child, it’s the courage to raise one.”

It was he who said he had chosen to run “because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together — unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes.”

And it has been Obama who, since his speech at the last Democratic convention, has painted the starkest picture of an America polarized by the underperforming schools and health care of a rich-takes-all culture at odds with the country’s founding promise to “promote the general welfare.”

Contrary to all the talk of radicalism, he has repeatedly identified the center as the place to tackle these ills.

Race, in other words, as lived by Obama, is a means to talk about reconciliation: of America with its past, of America with its ideals, and of America with the world. All three are necessary after the Bush years. Obama should keep saying so. Race hushed is race as quiet poison for him.

There’s a plaque at Elmina which reads in part: “In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors/ May those who died rest in peace/ May those who return find their roots/ May humanity never again perpetrate/ Such injustice against humanity.”


Obama returned to a different corner of this continent to find his roots, pursue a lost father and build his identity. That took courage, as it has taken courage to rise above politics as usual to summon the “better angels” of a divided, debt-ridden America at war.

When I’m asked that question — “Is America really ready to elect a black man?” — I say yes. That readiness exists in this close election of uncertain outcome. Elmina was built in 1482. Over a half-millennium attitudes do change, not least in a land hard-wired since 1787 to perfectibility and hope.

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