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Akin Adesokan



Akin Adesokan

Akin Adesokan is author of the novel, Roots in the Sky, [ANA prize for fiction]. He has worked on the Nigerian Guardian and the initially clandestine TEMPO. His other awards include the PEN Freedom-to-Write award. He teaches Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, in the US.


Photograph: Sola Osofisan


 Ti-Jean Beats the Devil

Early in the morning of November 5, 2008, after many hours of depthless joy before the television set, I pulled out Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays from the shelf and reread Ti-Jean and His Brothers. The child with a dead father, dead brothers, and an ailing widow for mother is kind to the small things — the frog, the cricket, the firefly, and the bird — so they assure him of their solidarity. He treasures the memory of his dead brothers, only afraid of being the one to break his mother’s heart. He refuses to play by the devil's rules, fully aware of “the differend” before Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote about it.

Moments like this are rare. A totally transformative event that trumps most assumptions, capped with near-universal expressions of joy at its arrival, one autumn night on earth. Jubilation everywhere. People the world over not only witnessed it, but they did so in a way that reflected their acceptance, as something that was theirs too, confirming the man of destiny’s summation of it: “our story is singular, but our destiny is shared”.

But what does Barack Obama’s election as the president of the United States mean? There is no scarcity of opinions on this truly remarkable event, and this in part because most people of goodwill feel positively touched and feel compelled to express their feelings just as effusively.

For me, it means a number of things. First, it marks the rare, once-in-a-lifetime moment of true joy, the polar opposite of what I felt four years ago, when the re-election of George Bush coincided with other happenings that spelt monumental tragedy. This was how I’d recorded those events of early November 2004:

“Wole Soyinka once said in an interview: ‘When Fidel Castro’s comrades were destroyed during the very first attempt to invade Cuba, I try to get into the heart of a man like that, at the moment when he was the sole survivor of a band of revolutionaries who tried to overthrow Batista and the rest perished in the swamps or were shot down by Batista’s goons, what did he experience? This is the moment of tragedy’. There is such a moment now. Bush is reelected president. US forces “pound” Fallujah, Iraq. Yasser Arafat dies. How does an Arab, a Palestinian with a sense of self-worth feel at a moment like this?”

I confess to harboring a sense of the tragic--the sinking feeling even at the high moment of happiness. For joy is brittle. Ayo abara bintin, the Yoruba say at the birth of a child. Death lurks around the home of slender joy. So whenever there is something to celebrate, I do so with caution, aware of the mocking grin of the Devil, the malicious joy of the fellow full of spite. But this time I can’t hide my joy. I know the Devil can’t be watching. He must be hiding in some dark corner, sulking and licking his wounds. Before he cuts his losses, wipes away his tears and picks his pitchfork, our carnival is out the door, heading downtown. Will we ask the Devil along, provided he promises to behave? Will we assign him to a bare section of the dancing party, to show him what he’s worth? No! (I say these things in the spirit of Walcott, of course; the Devil, like the ghost, lives in the imagination.)

The second thing to take away from Obama’s victory is that it validates the historic destiny of a universal type. A certain spirit is rising in the world today, perhaps a diversity of spirits, which assumes that the world is one, diverse and belongs to all. This is a world difficult to describe because it is so different from what we are used to, and we are either too timid, or still burdened by the weight of the past, of continuing oppressions to create a language, a vision suited to this world. But think of it this way: what does James Joyce means by “Here Comes Everyone”, or Edouard Glissant by tout-monde (or whole world), and Patrick Chamoiseau by the anticipation of a world without hard identities? Here comes that world. Ours is no longer, can no longer afford to be, the hard and fast world of colonizer and colonized, of the native versus the district officer, that world which assumed that black and white, green and yellow, man and woman, straight and gay, Jew and Gentile were separate, could not exist as one, as equals and that was the order of the world so you’d better learn to live with it or you’d be forced to. The ecstatic reception of Obama by a crowd of 200, 000 people in Berlin last summer is one expression of it.

Third, it has been said that the rise of Obama, the son of a black African man and a white American woman, compromises the highest ideals of the black civil rights movement, as expressed most poignantly in the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech in Washington DC. To put it starkly, the heritage of American slavery, racist segregation and humiliation is historically specific and full justice to the ideals is best served through the recognition of an individual with a direct, native link to that history. Obama’s father came from Kenya, not from Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, or Oklahoma. Not even from Rhode Island. No doubt, our joy would be twice as delicious, our faith in spiritual symbolism twice as deep, were the new president the daughter of Dr. King or the grandson of Ida Wells. But history has given us an unusual opportunity, and not entirely on its own terms.

Without belittling the specificity of black American nationalism arising from the “national” experiences of racism, it is important to recognize one fact: that presence in the US, and blackness as a social sign are guaranteed to complicate the terms of those experiences, especially for this new world beyond the color line. It seems to me that this is what writers like Paul Gilroy and Caryl Phillips are trying to say, problematic as are some of their premises. Consider the experience of the Trinidadian writer and political activist, C.L.R. James. From England in 1938, he went to New York and Los Angeles, debating, lecturing, and organizing. He went to Mexico and held meetings with Leon Trotsky. Returning to the US, he stood in the street in New Orleans, trying to get a taxi. A tall black man in an excellent suit, hand raised to hail a cab. It took a young black boy to show him that he was more likely to be knocked down flat than get a ride. The racist taxi-driver in New Orleans didn’t care whether James’s blackness was the Indian, African, Southern, or Australian variety: he simply saw a black man in the US South. Above all, Obama counts himself as part of the Joshua generation, the young men and women of destiny who experienced neither the captivity of Egypt nor the decades of wandering in the wilderness of civil rights struggle.

On the other hand, the candidacy of Barack Obama, much less his victory, would have been harder to contemplate if he were not a biracial man and if his wife had been white. This is not so much to do with “white power” as such; it is rather a function of that great conundrum called “race”, a piece of fiction so powerful people commit all sorts of atrocities in its name, and a few good things also, even if, as in the case of Obama, those register through a clever disavowal of it. Obama’s biracial background has been useful because different kinds of people see in him a little of themselves. The first-generation immigrant in the US realizes that his offspring could be this kind of president, given the rare coalescence of different factors, at a different time, in that same country. Even the Native American, all tucked away but for memorial sightings, imagines the “spoilt world” anew. The elderly white woman in her late seventies glimpses photograph of the young black teenager sitting between his mother’s parents, and imagines herself as the woman in that picture--Madelyn Dunham. So she is encouraged to hug Obama as her own during a campaign, and subsequently vote for him.

The other part of the equation--the “race” of Obama’s wife--is a little difficult to explain. If we agree that sexuality (or sex) embodies a lot of unresolved and irresolvable emotions, then we can see why the sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman is tied to the exercise of power and even deepens those emotions. There are very powerful and deep-seated erotic impulses in the image of a black man and a white woman as a couple, because that image excludes the white man who over the centuries has exercised a “natural” claim to the white woman. As the violent history of lynching shows, the black man’s phallus is the real culprit. (Certainly that there are similar impulses in the image of the white man/ black woman couple, but the relations of power are differently configured. The black woman is historically the object of the white man’s sexual domination, and we had a testimony to this from Alice Walker even before the world knew of the thing between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. In our time the equation has changed; as a critic of the work of the artist Kara Walker puts it recently, the white man is now the slave of the black woman.) If Obama appeals to the elderly white woman because she sees in him an image of her own grandchild, he is not threatening to the white man because, having a black woman as wife, he is free from the perception of sexual transgression.

None of this needs minimize Obama’s political genius, the great conceptual orientation of his candidacy once the question of the color of his skin and kinship was settled. Following the campaign with some attention, anyone with basic training in rhetoric could not but be impressed by the careful way in which the entire project was narrativized, that is, the way it was structured as a story. It was not a well-plotted tale full of characters and dramatic twists, but it was a narrative, a piece of discourse developed by people with a great sense of form. They knew what mattered at what point, and the so-called lack of drama, the candidate’s refusal to get in the mud with John McCain and his Republican allies, were part of the narrative. If one compared the style as well as substance of his speeches before the final debate to those of the last few days of the campaign, one would notice a qualitative difference. Certain things were meant to be said in certain ways during the home-stretch.

The Afro-German filmmaker, Branwen Okpako, whose films include Valley of the Innocents and Dirt for Dinner recently wrote, in response to the rise of Obama: “The idea of the melting pot in which cultures mingle and become something new and unique is the idea with which Americans define themselves but have never been able to really see or live. Obama seems to be just that. He is half African and half Anglo-Saxon and the mix did not occur through violence or humiliation, it occurs through love. This gives hope and confidence to people.”

This is a remarkable perspective, and much to be preferred to the one which sees Obama as an American scapegoat, both for the sins of racism and for the crisis into which the presidency of George W. Bush has put Americans and to some extent the world. According to the Greeks, tragedy comes from the bleating of a goat, the goat that ’scapes. Yet when Ti-Jean decides to make barbeque of the Devil’s goat, and stop worrying his head over its safety, he changes the terms of the debate. Calling out the best in us Barack Obama has an historic opportunity to transform weakness into strength, for his country and the world.


November 9, 2008.

Postscript: The Prose of Governing

In the more than two months since writing these reflections, the euphoria of Obama’s historic victory has waned, and in the transitory crucible of moving beyond celebration to actual governance, the president invites a different kind of contemplation. It appears that Obama’s natural instincts are those of a centrist, and in a political system routinely characterized as “right” and “left”, his pre-inauguration actions, pronouncements, and choices have led many observers to call him a pragmatist. Being a member of the Democratic Party which usually has the sympathies of the progressive and leftist elements in American society, and enthusiastically supported by establishments like The Nation, Truthout and so on even during the primaries, Obama has quite rightly been expected by many to be visibly left-leaning in his statements and associations. We know what his Republican adversaries made of this expectation, going so far as to question his patriotism and calling him a Marxist, a socialist, an Arab, among many other labels that weren’t meant to illuminate much.

The man has shown that he means more than even the most sympathetic labels can reveal. He is at the head of the so-called new liberalism, a cultural creed for the twenty-first century. Writing in the New Yorker soon after the elections, the journalist George Packer made an interesting connection between Obama’s political philosophy as set out in The Audacity of Hope and the work of intellectuals like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, co-authors of Nudge. In the words of Sunstein as quoted by Packer, the book’s aims are about “helping people to make better choices without requiring anybody to do anything”. The principle is developed to address the challenges of exercising policy control in government while remaining steadfast to the ideals of free market, but the balance implicit in espousing it seems to be second-nature to the new American president. Most of the people nominated to his government are seen to be highly experienced technocrats, which means, in a sense, that they are not as new as the rhetoric of changing the culture of Washington may lead people to believe.

When he chose the right-wing pastor Rick Warren to give benedictions at his inauguration ceremonies, Obama drew the ire of activists in the gay-and-lesbian community about which the pastor has been known to make intolerant public statements. But a few weeks later, he also invited Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop from New Hampshire, to play an official role during the same ceremonies. It is hard not to see the even-handedness of this posture as one proof of Obama’s often stated position to unite all Americans, in spite of their different political and social orientations.

Do Ti-Jean’s gifts lie in running against the grain while giving a contrary impression, or do they cease to matter once the Devil is vanquished?

January 19, 2009.

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