I'm living in Trinidad and Tobago, a small island nation that is 1600 miles south east of Miami, Florida, the nearest city in The States, and only 7 miles from Venezuela. Since I moved here last December, I’ve been making a concerted effort to learn about the history and culture of this place. Sadly, slavery, oppression, imperialism and racial discrimination are central parts of that history and in many ways people here are still struggling to overcome that terrible legacy. Virtually every person in this country can trace their ancestry to either slaves or indentured laborers. White people, like me, make up less than one percent of the population so I have been learning a bit of what it is like to be a member of a tiny but highly visible minority.
I have lived most of my life in the western United States, in communities that were overwhelmingly white. Although I was taught by my parents from my youngest days to respect people of all races, my contact with people of African descent has been very limited. In the mid-1960’s when I was 3 years old my family moved from Utah to rural Pennsylvania. This was 1965, the year of Bloody Sunday in Alabama and race riots in Watts but I knew nothing of such things until I was much older. When we went to Philadelphia and saw black people on the streets (probably for the first time in my life), I remember my mother telling me that even though they looked different they were just regular people like us and we should be nice to them. I remember her giving us similar instructions a few years later when one of my Father’s black colleagues came to stay in our home.
In my Utah high school class of over 800, there were only 2 black students, one of whom, Linda Edwards, was a good friend. Sadly, I’ve completely lost touch with her over the years. In 9th grade, Linda and I were chosen to represent our school in a regional speech competition on the theme “My obligation to perpetuate freedom”. My parents attended the awards program for the regional competition where Linda placed first and I took second. We both gave our speeches as part of the program and I remember my father commenting on how moving it was to hear a black person talk about freedom.
Still, my contact with black people before I moved to Trinidad was very limited; they were anomalies in the communities in which I lived. I believe I can count the black people who I knew well during the first 45 years of my life on my fingers. In the 16 years I taught engineering in the US, I can remember only 1 black student who was in my classes. Through my church, which had an official policy of discrimination until 1978, I had only known a handful of blacks.
And so this past 10 months being immersed in the West Indian culture which has been molded by African, South Asian as well as European peoples has been an interesting personal voyage of exploration. As I interact daily with people whose ancestors come from every corner of the earth, I have been forced to recognize and repent of some deeply buried racial prejudices I never knew I held. I’ve been forced to deal with being continually and easily recognized as a foreigner and outsider because of the color of my skin and hair. Through this experience and my studies, I have gained a much greater insight into how deeply and broadly the lives of many people of color continue to be influenced by the crimes of the past 400 years.
In this context, I have followed the US Presidential election with a new perspective. I have anxiously read commentaries from the US on racial issues. Obama’s autobiography, which explores racial issues he faced as a child and young man, related very directly to the experiences I was having. I began to see connections I hadn’t seen before, in particular connections between the part of the world where I’m now living and black communities and racial problems in the US.
But even more than that, as I’ve lived in a truly international environment and associated daily with people from every continent in the world it has been increasingly evident to me how badly the US image in the world has been degraded over the past 7 years. When Obama secured the Democratic nomination last spring, there was an opinion piece printed in the local newspaper. The writer noted that there are two sides to America, a beautiful side that affirmed the ideals of human rights, equality and opportunity and an ugly side of imperialist aggression, racism, exploitation and hypocrisy. The writer noted that during recent years it had been difficult to remember anything but the ugly side; however, the nomination of Barack Obama stood as a reminder of America’s better virtues. Obama’s success was evidence that the American Dream was not dead, that a poor black child who started life with little more than a loving mother and devoted grandparents could indeed rise above those beginnings and aspire to the highest office. This Trinidadian columnist found in Barack Obama’s candidacy hope that America could rise above her recent problems and in that, he saw hope for the world at large.
I live in a neighborhood filled with professors and lecturers who teach at the University. It’s a very cosmopolitan neighborhood with people from Africa, India, Europe and the Americas. Two doors down there is a family from the D.C. area, the Mom teaches in Communications, the Dad is doing business consulting and they have a son who is 7 and a daughter who is 4. They are black.
Since the states switched off daylight time, we are one hour later here than the East Coast of the USA. So when I returned from teaching my night class last night shortly after 9 pm local, election results were just starting to come in. The first results were from hardcore Republican strongholds and our stomachs began to tighten as we remembered the disappointments of the last two Presidential election cycles. We turned off the TV and went to bed thinking the election would not likely be decided before our usual rising time of 5 am.
But two doors down, our neighbors were filled with hope and glued to the news. As we tossed in our bed worrying, we would periodically hear cheers from down the street. Shortly after midnight, the party erupted out on to the streets. Mixed with the voices of the adults was that of the 7 year old boy who I’d helped rescue a frog a few days back. He was singing out at the top of his lungs “President Obama”, “President Obama”.
And in that moment, I understood, in a way I would not have fully understood last year, exactly what this moment meant to African Americans and all those who have been down trodden, oppressed and disenfranchised. And in that moment I remembered “America the Beautiful”, built by patriots who dared not only to dream of a better future but also to work to make it a reality. And in that moment for the first time in years, I was proud of my country.
And while I am no longer naive enough to believe that this election will somehow erase all the horrid legacy of slavery and the disease of racism that still plagues segments of American society, it is proof that progress has been made, proof we can change; that we can improve and that our dreams of an America of alabaster cities undimmed by human tears can be realized. It awakes in me the hope that the day will come when “this nation (and the world) will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and where all people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
And I hope that no matter what your political persuasion, that you will be able to see beyond the partisan issues and appreciate the progress we have made as a people and a nation in my lifetime and join with me in feeling proud of America, at least for today.