President Obama's visit to Ghana this month was downright
I don't say this because of the adoring African crowds that treated the
American president's visit as if it were the Second Coming. Nor because I
believe that our first African American commander in chief will somehow deliver
the continent from the evils that confront it. But the scene of Obama and his
family at the site of one of the most notorious slave stations on the Ghanaian
coast -- ominously called the Door of No Return -- reminded me of that singular
vision from the Gospels about the last becoming the first.
Of course, Obama's own ancestral relationship to slavery can be found on the
white rather than the black side of his family tree. His Kenyan father arrived
after receiving a prestigious scholarship rather than by being sold into
slavery. Six generations ago, however, an ancestor on his maternal side was a
slave owner in Kentucky.
But the first lady does directly descend from African slaves, and therefore she
and the Obama children are wholly part of the legacy of slavery. And to see
them ponder the historical significance of the Door of No Return -- a place
where tens of thousands of shackled men and women were transported from
dungeons to the hulls of sailing ships -- as representatives of the most
powerful office on Earth was profound.
Generally perceived as the symbol of an overdog nation, U.S. presidents
are rarely seen in the position of directly empathizing with the victims of
history. (And when they do, it's generally in the pose of vengeful warrior,
such as in the days after Pearl Harbor or
9/11.) Calling the visit a "moving experience," Obama refrained from
the linear moral logic of latter-day crusaders. He did not merely condemn
slavery and the wrongs that went with it. In fact, by calling the Door of No
Return "the portal through which the diaspora began," he embraced it
-- and all its horrors -- as a sort of birthplace.
"As African Americans," he said, "there is a special sense that
on the one hand this place was a place of profound sadness, but on the other
hand, it is here where the journey of much of the African American experience
Reminiscent of the plaque in Mexico
City that declares that the clash between the
conquerors and the conquered produced the "painful birth of the Mexican
people," Obama's remarks offered a sophisticated embrace of the moral
complexities of history. Rather than denying America's responsibility for the
tragedy of slavery or, on the other hand, partaking in the creation of an
alternative history of the U.S. that seeks to expose only the bad,
Obama's visit and brief remarks remind us that we Americans are also born of
the clash between conqueror and conquered.
In so doing, he undermines the simplistic racial and moral binary language that
we tend to speak in. This was not the visit of a white American president who
either felt defensive or obliged to apologize for the evils of white supremacy.
And from his singular place in global racial iconography, the president also
put a redemptive -- and peculiarly American -- spin on history. He said the old
slave station "reminds us that as bad as history can be, it is also
possible to overcome."
Nor could a white U.S.
president have said to African leaders what Obama did. Assuming a posture that
his predecessors could never have employed, Obama told Africa
that it could no longer blame the West for all of its problems.
"Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West
has often approached Africa as a patron rather
than a partner," he told the Ghanaian parliament. "But the West is
not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last
decade or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants."
Citizens of other countries have long looked at the United States as some sort of
kaleidoscope through which they sometimes recognize glimpses of themselves.
Germans like to take credit for the invention of jeans by Levi Strauss. French
tourists flock to New Orleans.
Spaniards enjoy ticking off the names of Southwestern cities that their
The first family's historic visit to Africa suggests that Obama's presidency is
adding an entirely new dimension to how the world sees the U.S., as well
as how we see ourselves. There are millions of Americans who have been on both
sides of history -- as winners and as losers. More than anything else, the one
thing that keeps us together as a nation is the promise and belief that we can