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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 49

Watching History in Harlem

Tuesday 25 November 2008, by Sandipto Dasgupta


After he saw Napoleon march into Prussia after the Battle of Jena, an elated Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote that he had seen history on horseback. Barack Obama is no Napoleon, and I am certainly no Hegel, but there is no way I can avoid the word “history” when describing what I saw Tuesday night (November 4) in Harlem.

From around 5 in the evening, long before any of the polls closed, people started gathering around the massive television screen set up a stone’s throw away from the iconic Apollo Theatre, where such legends as James Brown and Aretha Franklin were created. The mood was at best one of tepid anticipation. Then, through the night as state after state went Obama’s way in what could only be called a landslide, they broke down, some in tears, some into a dance, and most in disbelief. Some of them had endured the infamous Jim Crow laws where they could not share the same seat in the bus with White Americans or drink from the same tap; some of them had faced the harsh end of an extremely racialised criminal justice system (in New York, for example, while African-Americans constitute about 15 per cent of the population, they are nearly half the imprisoned population). And almost all of them knew their history.

They knew—as the Governor of New York, David Paterson, a young African-American himself, recounted in an emotional speech—that their forefathers had been brought into this country as chattel, a status that was enshrined in the US Constitution. They knew that their grandparents did not really have the right to vote until the sixties when the Voting Right Act was passed. That they are still one of the worst-off ethnic groups in the country. And then, at 11 0’clock, when the results came in from Califormia, they finally believed that their country has a new President, and that he is one of their own.

So Harlem took to the streets—singing, dancing, playing drums, chanting “Yes we can”—ignoring both the rains and the police who tried in vain to clear the roads. Complete strangers were hugging each other, saying “We did it.” Drivers leaned out of their cars to give high-fives to passers-by. People climbed atop street lamps and bus-stops. New York, which famously never sleeps or stops, came to a halt.

MAKE no mistake, this election does not in any way close the chapter on racism in America. Neither does it solve the persistent and prevalent inequality in this country. But it is a moment whose significance cannot in any way be minimised. Two men in the crowd walking next to me shouted at a beggar on a street corner: “Brother, you need not do that any more. We have a Black President now.” An old man outside a famous jazz bar told me: “Today, Bob Marley is smiling in his grave; today, Malcolm X is smiling in his grave.” D.L. Hughley, the well-known comedian, said over the microphone: “To all the kids here, you need not grow up only to be a rapper or a basketball player. After today, you can also grow up to be the most powerful man in the world.” Yes, the beggar would still have to be back on his street corner tomorrow, and most of the kids in Harlem would perhaps have a way better shot at being a rapper than coming anywhere close to the presidency. Moreover, given the present condition of America and the enormous weight of expectation on him, President Obama is very likely to disappoint some. But try telling that to the local pastor who lead the crowd with the chant: “We are free, we are free, we are free at last.”

Americans are very fond of the phrase “Only in America”. Over the years it has become an empty slogan, one associated with the jingoistic Right in this country, and one that most of us non-Americans view with justified cynicism. But today, those who elected a Black man, with a Muslim middle name, born outside of privilege, as their President can be justly proud of once again going boldly where no Western nation has gone before (or even India—we haven’t had a Dalit Prime Minister). Tomorrow we can go back to criticising the country for its role in the global economic collapse or griping about its bankrupt neo-conservative foreign policy. But tonight, at least for tonight, we can raise a toast to the world’s first real modern democracy, as it dances in its streets.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author, a graduate student at Columbia University, New York, has worked for the Obama campaign.

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