A Letter from London to Post-Election America
Distance from my homeland has only heightened my awe of the unique American experiment.
November 20, 2008 - 12:00 am
Over the past two weeks the outpouring of British newspaper, radio, and television punditry has been staggering in volume. Staggering in variety? No. One theme that seems to obsess British journalists has been a grim, humorless regurgitation of the most negative aspects of American history. One would think that a hundred years’ war between white and black Americans has been unfolding on the streets of every corner of America, that a truce has been declared with the Obama victory, but that any moment now the war will resume. It is truly mind-boggling that commentators in Britain, some of whose knowledge of American history and cultural evolution borders on the comical, and some of whom rarely visit the United States, have used the election result to condemn every aspect of American interracial life. I simply will not accept that the black experience has not improved since the days of Jim Crow of my childhood; nor will I buy the picture generated by the British media of a nation of despicable racists hell-bent on oppressing every person of color from sea to shining sea.
In my play, A Room at Camp Pickett, written in early 2004 and performed in first-draft form as a “rehearsed reading” at the London Africa Centre in August of that year, I provided a narration. It is unbelievable but true that I mentioned Barack Obama in this part of the text, saying he could be “the one” black America has sought since the assassination of Martin Luther King. What British commentators do not grasp is that Americans like myself, who grew up in James Baldwin’s “fire this time,” see the Obama election as a natural progression following on the ascension of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to international distinction within the context of a Republican administration, for heaven’s sake.
One of the recurrent themes that have driven me to distraction these past two weeks has been the assertion on British radio, television, and in the print media that Obama “is the first president to come from humble roots.” Hello? In his television series America’s Future running on the BBC, Professor Simon Schama spends an entire one-hour segment condemning the treatment of Chinese Americans, providing yet another prime-time trashing of “racist” America. One would think from his program that Americans of Chinese descent are living in abject squalor and obscurity under the cudgel of oppression and hatred. This past month has been a feast for those wishing to denigrate the United States rather than rejoicing in the dynamism of this recent exercise in democracy. (Happily, British race-relations guru Trevor Phillips has spoken out about the impossibility of a person of color ever ascending to 10 Downing Street; I say “happily” because he has put into a welcome perspective the “casting the first stone” syndrome obsessing the USA-bashing media.)
Alex Brummer in the Daily Mail has commented that television coverage of the election was wanting; he reinforces my view that knowledgeable American commentators were conspicuously absent, replaced by fumbling British mavens that included — wait for it — the comic actor Ricky Gervais of The Office. He may be much beloved of American audiences but Brummer rightfully lamented his presence on “election night analysis.”