Maya to Obama, signs of the new millennium

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  • Published 6.11.08

Obama has won! I was in the US in May 2007, when Mayavati became chief minister of UP, and Obama was coming forward in the US primary. With my daughter’s friends, mostly young and radical South Asian Americans, and all Obama supporters we celebrated Mayavati’s achievement. After years of depressing Republican presidencies, war and neoliberalism, something new was happening in the world.

An African American was aiming for the presidency, while a Dalit (and a woman!) was heading India’s largest state and promising to become Prime Minister in 10 years. Old barriers of caste and race were being not only challenged, but surmounted. Obama has made history: will Mayavati?

It seems that we were truly entering a new millennium! Obama’s victory itself reflects not only his own impressive leadership, but also a long history. I remember the 1960s: Thirty to forty years ago there were huge “race riots” in the US. In fact, they were urban ghetto uprisings, protests against the continued racism of American society.

A bloody civil war — the bloodiest in American history — had been gone through a century earlier; but in the reaction afterwards segregation was reimposed in the south and the former slaves were deprived of the voting rights. It took decades to make really solid changes. W.E.B. Dubois, as a militant, Left-leaning leader of African Americans, and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar can well be compared; theoretically and practically there were great similarities.

Yet while Ambedkar could become the head of the Constitution drafting committee and a minister, first in British Indian, then in independent India, Dubois could not get a job as postmaster in Washington D.C. which he had applied for. Bitter at the end, Dubois ended as a Communist in Africa.

The 1960s saw the civil rights movement; Martin Luther King (moved by a brave woman named Rosa Parks) emerging to leadership of a Montgomery bus strike as Blacks revolted against being forced to sit at the back of the bus; then came sit-ins by militant Black students resolving not to move away from restaurants refusing to serve them coffee.

In Freedom Summer, an event organised by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to bring whites and Blacks together to fight segregation in Mississippi, four men — three whites and an African American — were killed. One of the slogans of SNCC was the sarcastic, “there’s a town in Mississippi called Liberty; there’s a Department in Washington called Justice” — a comment on the lack of support they were getting from the Federal government. Little children moving to integrate schools were forced to go through mobs of cursing and shouting white segregationists. And then came the uprisings in northern ghettos, cities outside the Deep South which had their own harsh forms of racism.

They were historic years, a time of spreading militancy. A youth group I was working with in Berkeley, calling themselves “Youth Council for Community Action” (they had wanted “Youth Party for Youth Protection” but it was felt too militant), had the saying: “There are Negroes, niggers and Black people. We have a lot of niggers in this organisation, but we at least we don’t have any Negroes!”

Negroes, once the preferred term, had gotten the connotation of a middle class sellout; “nigger” was a derogatory term when used by whites (known insultingly as “honkies”) but when used among themselves had a rather desirable connotation of someone who was (ironically) “bad” — tough, riotous, uncontrollable, one who never gave in or gave up. And “Black” by then was the preferred term, someone who was “together”, a real “brother”.

America has come a long way since then. Sparked by the protests and uprisings, which had the support of growing groups of whites, the government responded with a number of “affirmative action” programmes. Some sections preferred to build “Black Capitalism”, which radicals such as myself at the time saw as rather a sellout. Yet all of these had their effect, Blacks — now calling themselves “African Americans” — began to move ahead in many fields. Emerging writers, men and women alike began to make their impact. Films such as Roots brought home the reality of slavery to millions of viewers; the Color Purple (from the novel by Alice Walker) saw Black women coming in masses and crying through its showing — and sterling first performers by Whoopee Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Oprah went on to become the highest paid TV personage in the country, said to be worth a million dollars an hour, her endorsement for Obama worth a million votes.

Among the youth of the country, the change in attitude was often profound; people began to choose their friends and mates without looking at colour. According to Census bureau figures, for example, black-white marriages increased from 65,000 in 1970 to 422,000 in 2005. Racism is hardly dead; but it is under challenge as never before.

Then came a young Senator of mixed parentage, white and African, with a history of community organising, with a Kenyan father and a childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii. When he announced his candidacy as a Democrat for the presidency in 2007, he was a “dark horse”, a relative unknown; Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming favourite. Yet Obama began to waken tremendous enthusiasm, drawing huge crowds and provoking emotion. His slogan was simple: “change”.

By the time of the vote, Obama’s victory was no surprise. Charged with being young and inexperienced, he won over his primary and main election opponents not only with the most impressive funding seen in history, but also with powerful organisation, going to the grassroots with a practical machine and using the Internet, YouTube and SMS cellphone messages. He remained cool and unflappable in the face of every challenge. And he awakened something like a new dream among Americans, mostly young, but of every class, Black and white and Hispanic.

Throughout the campaign, he drew crowds like a rock star or a famous preacher, emotional, swaying. The night of the election itself tens of thousands gathered in Chicago and New York, singing and weeping, hugging each other as the results became clear. When he stated in his acceptance speech “change has come -- we have proved today it is a new and real ‘United’ States of America”, the emotional achievement of breaking through three hundred years of American slavery and oppression was visible in many faces.

As one columnist, Frank Rich in the New York Times, wrote: “Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter.”

For African Americans, it was symbolised in a message sent from phone to phone: “Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Barack could run. Barack ran so your children can fly.” Hopefully, this will symbolise the new millennium, not only for people of every colour in the US but for people of all castes in India.