Not everyone was awake to the American dream

14th November 2008 at 00:00

On the day the US election result was declared, I went along to my class of young adults, wondering what they had made of it. As far as I could see, it was business as usual. As I arrived, several were already there, sitting and chatting to one another.

By then (it was the afternoon), I'd had a chance to mull over what Barack Obama's victory meant to me. My political awareness developed in the 1960s. The first book I ever took out of the "adult" library was on the Sharpeville shootings of 1960 and the apartheid regime of post-war South Africa. Meanwhile, a stream of images emerged from the deep south of America: bombs in churches; police with batons beating blacks as they tried to register to vote; marches; fire hoses .

The second of these injustices was resolved when Nelson Mandela was released and became South Africa's first black president in the 1990s. A decade or so later, a black American could not only cast his vote, but also be voted into the highest office in the US.

When the class ended, I asked if they would stay and write me a paragraph or two on what Obama's victory meant to them. About two-thirds were from minority communities, and more than half had Caribbean or African origins. Most stayed and wrote. Some were still there half an hour later. What they wrote was complex and from the heart.

Not surprisingly, the ones touched most by the prospect of a black US president were the black students. The events of November 4 might have occurred 3,000 miles away, but they felt a strong connection - even an identification. They weren't writing about "they" and "them", but about "us", "we" and "my".

For some, a short sharp statement was all that was needed. "I feel this is a milestone for my people. Barack Hussein Obama. All the way. Let's hope he is not short-lived," wrote one. Another summed it up thus: "I found out at about 4am that history was about to change. Barack Obama was elected. I do not really know what to expect from it, but it made me genuinely happy."

Others made sense of it as I had, putting it into the context of what had come before: "The Black House celebrates today as the wise words of Martin Luther King's `I have a dream' causes the people of colour all over the nation to celebrate that Barack Obama has been elected president."

A young woman born in London but from a Ghanaian background also picked up on the civil rights leader's powerfully predictive words: "Martin Luther King said, `I have a dream that one day we all will be one,'" she wrote. "In the 1960s my brothers and sisters weren't allowed to vote, but 40 years later God has answered our prayer. As a whole nation, different people from different ethnic groups have been allowed to share their views and elect not only a man of colour but a man of words, who will change America for ever."

A white student, who confessed to having shed a tear on hearing the news that morning, went for a historical tie-in with a difference - Guy Fawkes. He was writing on November 5, after all. Four hundred years ago, he theorised, Fawkes had tried to "shake up" the English political establishment. Obama's methods might be different but, "Make no mistake, the election of Barack Obama . is an act of global importance. Yes, there is the matter of race, but more importantly still is the admission by the American public that theirs is an empire in need of change - the very word Obama based his election campaign upon . The king is dead; long live the new king."

His was one of the more sober reflections. For others, the prevailing mood was still one of inspiration and joy. "Waking up this morning to the TV celebrations of America's first black president was so empowering it was unreal," one wrote. "As a young, black individual, I felt privileged to be able to witness history, and feel that he has opened up freedom for black people everywhere . We do not have to conform to what society perceives us to be. We can break down barriers and become whatever we put our minds to!"

Not everyone was so optimistic. And you could say that there is more than a touch of cynicism in the sentiments that follow: "I would definitely say that Barack Obama's victory is significant as far as American history goes, due to him not being related to any previous American presidents or oil barons, and also being black. That's why I think that, within the next couple of years, Obama will either be assassinated or stitched up by the country's owners . America will always belong to the descendants of a bunch of slave owners who themselves wanted to be free."

In marked contrast was the longest and most considered of all the pieces, running to some 500 words. This was written by the youngest member of the class, and on this evidence the most eloquent. He began with a flourish: "Barack Hussein Obama: a Muslim name and a black man - a combination one would have thought deadly enough to prevent a man running for American president, let alone to be selected."

There followed a comparison with another young president of whom much was expected: JFK. Like Kennedy, Obama could be seen as living proof of the American dream.

"The best thing is that a black man has been elected not simply based on his race or even simply by black people. Now definitely is a time of change, the start of a new beginning for America and black people worldwide. We should all fully embrace this victory and use his achievement as a testimony to achieve our goals and dreams."

Finally came the most surprising response of all. This could be summed up as: "Election, what election?" It was written by a woman struggling to get by as a hard-pressed adult student on a full-time course. "I am a lone parent," she wrote. "Lately, I have spent so much time caring for my baby, juggling college, homework, personal projects and social volunteering that I didn't have time to turn the TV or radio on. But still I feel a bit bad, sorry and silly not to know that there was an election today."

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