By SKIP BANDELE
Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 10 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.
First and foremost ‘Happy New Year’! Although the remnants of Christmas crackers interspaced by discarded champagne corks wrapped in sullied streamers once again litter our immediate past, well meant albeit rash resolutions have quickly bitten the dust and the credit crunch is yet to lock its relentless jaws into our combined financial jugulars, we are led to believe that a brave new world awaits us in 2009.
At the beginning of last year, I wrote in this column under the heading Primary Colours, “He (Obama) became the fifth African American Senator in US history and is the author of two best-selling books. On paper, this embodiment of the American Dream seems heaven sent to become the 44th President of the United States – but, is America ready for its first black leader?”
Barack Hussein Obama will officially be sworn in and installed in the White House on the 20th of this month, so the answer must be an emphatic ‘yes’. A brilliantly orchestrated electoral campaign, immense charisma accentuated by the wooden ineffectiveness of an opponent tainted by the horrors of the Bush years contrived to elevate the inexperienced 47-year-old to the most powerful office in the world. Widespread euphoria greeted the November election result, both in America and abroad, necessitating a short trip into the now buried shameful past in order to explain those joyful tears.
When and how did it ever occur to mankind that some of its members were to be regarded as no more than valuable livestock, such a monstrous attitude basing itself on the coincidental colour of a person’s skin? In 1619, a mere 390 years ago, a Dutch ship brought 20 Africans to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, where the good settlers, refugees from religious and political persecution, proceeded to hold the New World’s first slave auction.
Initially treated as indentured servants, the hope of emancipation for the new arrivals was quickly snuffed out as Massachusetts recognised slavery to be legal in 1641. The 1776 American Declaration of Independence stated that ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”- yet founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson ‘own’ over 500 slaves between them, believing blacks to be different from whites in that they are unable to differentiate between love and lust and feel grief only fleetingly while still God’s creatures.
Thirty years later, the US banned the import of slaves, though not the use of them, leading to over 250,000 being smuggled into the country and sold at vast profit over the next half-century. By the 1830s, the efforts of abolitionists and the Anti-Slavery Society were largely responsible for the growing entrenchment of a North-South divide which was eventually to lead to the outbreak of Civil War in 1961.
Two years into the bloody conflict, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery in the rebel Confederacy, and prompting over 200,000 black troops to enlist in special Union army regiments significantly contributing to the North’s victory in 1865. Twenty thousand were left dead on the battlefield as the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in all states was added to the US Constitution.
Lincoln was promptly assassinated for his outspoken egalitarian views, and his successor, Andrew Johnson, vetoed moves towards a black vote as the defeated South gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan. Despite these developments, Congress passed the 15th Amendment guaranteeing that the citizen’s right to vote cannot be denied because of ‘race, colour or previous condition of servitude’, legislation followed by the 1875 Civil Rights Act.
While Joseph Rainey became the first black Congressman in South Carolina and all Americans were given access to restaurants, theatres and public transport, the new law was not enforced, the Supreme Court later declaring it unconstitutional leading to widespread racial segregation. By the turn of the century, every Southern state had once more passed statues enshrining white supremacy in political and public life.
In between Matthew Henson, an African American explorer, becoming the first person ever to stand on the North Pole in 1909, and Jesse Owen’s four gold medal 1936 Olympics haul, the ‘Scotsboro Boys’, nine blacks aged 13 to 21 were sentenced to death for allegedly raping two white women in rural Alabama.
World War Two did little to heal the rift and in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white bus passenger sparking a boycott which resulted in the outlawing of segregation on Montgomery city public transport while turning Parks and local Baptist church pastor Martin Luther King into international icons of resistance.
Two years on, a nationwide crisis erupted after National Guardsmen prevented nine black students from enrolling at a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas – three weeks of rioting later, the nine attended class under military protection. In 1963, two years after Barack Obama is born in Honolulu, King, now President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech to more than 250,000 protesters at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial.
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 promises of ‘war on poverty’ and an ‘abundance of liberty for all’ acquired a hollow ring as a routine traffic stop near the Watts Housing project in Los Angeles escalated into a six-day street battle which left 34 people dead. A conceived step forward in race relations embodied by the appointment of a black Supreme Court Justice and a black cabinet member in 1967 was immediately nullified, however, by the killing of the civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King a year later.
Further riots were still the order of the day as recently as 1992 when a Los Angeles jury acquitted four white police officers of the video-taped beating of a black traffic offender – 50 deaths and 8,000 arrests later, the victim, Rodney King, pleaded on live television, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” Now, 17 short years later, and 233 after the drafting of the Constitution, a man of colour is America’s first citizen, finally proving that all men are, indeed, created equal.
While there is no doubt that the American socio-political landscape has been changed for ever and the world is certainly a much safer place without George W. Bush presiding over its economic and religion-inspired spiralling chaos, I believe that the very nature of the American political system, fuelled and dependent on powerful vested interests at work underneath the surface, cannot herald a revolutionary new dawn beyond Capitol Hill.