July 24, 2008
Some years ago, I invited to dinner a young Nigerian who had just arrived in New York to begin graduate studies at Fordham University. As I whirred up some pesto in the Cuisinart, he looked at the appliance and said in amazement, "The White Man is great!"
"Say that again?" I asked in my own amazement.
He smiled. "It’s one of our adages. We say it whenever we see some wonderful new invention."
"He didn’t translate it literally," a Nigerian lawyer living here told me recently. "The phrase in the Ibo language is ‘Bekée bu ágbara’: ‘The White Man is a spirit’ The meaning is bigger than he put it. This is not a hollow proverb, either. It comes from our colonial experience to be sure, but it still expresses our awe at Western ingenuity."
The image of the White Man as the god of the modern remains in the psyches of the rest of the world. Like previous aggressors, he bestowed his diseases and plundered the land, but unlike them, he also remade their societies in his image, replaced their religious structures, gave them new languages and modes of thought. The traditional ways themselves never completely died, but they were transformed by this new spirit in their pantheon. Even those cultures strong enough to resist direct colonization, such as China and Japan, have been colonized indirectly by the technology, economics, and political structures of the West. Globalization is the White Man’s legacy.
This is why the face of Barack Obama is changing the psyches of the non-White world. The quintessential symbol of Euro-American power, the presidency of the United States, is being sought by a Black.
"Of course, Nigerians see Obama as a Westerner and as part of the American political establishment," the Nigerian lawyer told me, "but for the first time ever, they see a Western leader as part of themselves. Before this time, very few Nigerians could name the president of the U.S. But now excitement about the American elections is gripping everybody. People stay up late into the night looking at satellite news."
Put images of John McCain and Barack Obama side-by-side on the satellite news, and there is no doubt who gets the focus. A different view of America emerges.
Nothing could have been better or more timely than Obama’s current international trip. In the political doldrums of July in the U.S., between the primaries and the convention, he has moved to the world stage, and all eyes are fixed on him. Were he White, despite whatever new policies he’d promise, there would hardly be a ripple of interest — more American politics, that’s all. But his complexion and the ethnicity of his name, as well as his youth and energy, tap into the deep well of symbol and draw up something universal, transcending the old polarities.
Is this attraction ephemeral? It could easily become so, as symbol is tested by substance. But at this moment, immense psychological capital surrounds him. The very fact that a major American political party has nominated a Black as its candidate has generated a spontaneous wave of good will towards this nation, showing that its well-known principles of equality and opportunity are stronger than its equally well-known history of racism and exploitation. The Obama candidacy has commended the virtues of an open, multicultural society to the world in ways that previous presidents’ attempts at imposing "democracy" on other countries never could.
If Obama’s image is supported and sustained by a foreign policy of integrity, he could open doors to international peace and progress that have been shut for years.
There is no lack of suspicion that this hopeful vision of the United States is too good to be true. "If Obama is defeated," the Nigerian lawyer told me, "many in my country will believe it was because of his race."
That remains to be analyzed after the election. But for now, the stark symbol of the White Man as spirit is changing hue.