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.”
Roger Kimball, publisher of Encounter Books, was given a full page in the London Evening Standard but he was a rare American contributor to the general discourse. His piece enumerated the downsides of Barack Obama, including anomalies in the verisimilitude of his birth data, education, and Selective Service records. It may not have been what London wanted to hear, but at least it was a rare piece of factual narrative from a “real” Yank.
It is not just liberal writers who are taking American racism to task. Peter Hitchens, who actually loathes Barack Obama, writes in the Daily Mail:
The U.S. is just as segregated as it was before Martin Luther King in schools, streets, neighborhoods, holidays, even in its TV-watching habits and its choice of fast-food joint. The difference is that it is now done by unspoken agreement rather than by law.
Segregated holidays? I have spent many a vacation dining with African-American fellow holiday-makers, and adore the multiracial tableaux at amusement parks, baseball games, and seashore breaks in Atlantic City. What the hell is Hitchens talking about?
Mr. Obama, thanks mainly to the now-departed grandmother he alternately praised as a saint and denounced as a racial bigot, has the huge advantages of an expensive private education. He did not have to grow up in the badlands of useless schools, shattered families, and gangs which are the lot of so many young black men of his generation.
Since election night there has also been an outpouring of bile about George W. Bush. Peter McKay in the Daily Mail lambastes the outgoing commander in chief with a venom one would expect for a dictator worthy of a Ceausescu-level demise. Max Hastings goes into a long discourse about the enormous adjustments needed in Washington. One would think British journalists pay tax to the IRS and not to the Exchequer for the anger they spew against the American government.
British politicians have been citing the Bush years as a calamity. Oddly enough Labour government minister Peter Mandelson, on a live television interview, slammed into Congress for its disgraceful — as he put it — behavior in asking for something for citizens out of the $700 billion Paulson bailout plan. Considering that right now the British banks are taking millions in government money like shnorrers and giving nothing back to their customers, the American model seems to manifest the spirit of democracy.
I spent much of election night in the Battersea Studios of Vox Africa Television, where I was providing commentary on the live broadcast to the many French-speaking nations within the continent of Africa. This was a unique experience and one I will never forget. There I was, one of only three white people in a studio teeming with very young Africans, the atmosphere humming with a barely controlled delirium. Their faces were filled with awe as they watched the returns flow in on their computer screens.
Sadly I had to leave the expectant young Africans and go to the American embassy, where in the teeming media room at 4 a.m. Obama was declared on the huge overhead screens. Members of Democrats Abroad went insane with joy and the pandemonium that ensued was matched only by the scrum of photographers and film cameramen recording the moment. The embassy, facilitated by Republican Ambassador Robert Tuttle, immediately shut down the television screens; gruff security staff told us to go home. It was a bizarre tableaux, especially for working journalists who were literally in the midst of filing their stories when the plugs were pulled.
The behavior of the “Republican” embassy was dismaying; even McCain supporters were stunned, not to mention the large contingent of journalists cut off from the live feed from home and forced by this circumstance to miss the McCain concession speech. The Obama acceptance in Grant Park could only be caught if the large contingent of reporters ran to their respective hotels. Happily for me I live near the embassy and got home in time to see the Grant Park event but felt utterly disconnected from my media colleagues and cut off from one of the significant moments in United States history, which could have been shared by a collection of Americans and Britons assembled at the huge embassy.
Notwithstanding the debacle at the embassy I have enduring memories of that magical moment in what the Founding Fathers called the “Great Experiment.” It is more than two weeks since election night. My most resounding recollections are of the birds singing at dawn in Grosvenor Square as I passed the statue of Dwight Eisenhower at the foot of the steps of the embassy, of the dew on the trees alongside the 9/11 memorial a few feet from the Franklin Roosevelt memorial, and my pride — despite serious reservations about what lies ahead for my native country — in a process that has no equal anywhere on this globe.
My very left-wing friends may have complained that they lived in a “police state” under the present administration, but the fact that President Bush has not declared martial law, or that police and army did not deploy to massacre the crowds in Grant Park on election night, puts paid to any notion that the United States of America is a repressive, racist dump. I reject the headlines in the British newspapers proclaiming that America’s image has been restored and that the United States is now “back in the civilized world.” How dare they? Even if one supported the opposing ticket it must be asserted that the generous, brilliant, hard-working, and energetic nation that elected Barack Obama has no equal in the world, and that the truly “humble roots” that produced a Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Martin Luther King should put the rest of the world to shame. The road ahead will be fraught but every American, Republican and Democrat alike, should relish this moment, when the country for the people, by the people, and of the people, deserves to inherit the earth.