What Obama means to black Britons

Obama represents the most advanced stage in the development of American blacks

During the first week of this year, I moved around London visiting old mates and celebrating my recovery after a gruelling six months of NHS treatment. In each home, friends were pleased to see me whole again, but the talk soon turned to Barack Obama.

This black American is having a profound impact on the political sensibilities of Caribbeans and Africans in London. A few seemed slightly puzzled - uncertain, even - about whether he is the real thing. Most embrace his success in Iowa as a step on the long march to freedom in one of the most powerful bastions of racism.

For me, Obama represents the most advanced stage in the development of black people in the United States. From there he can challenge all before him, drawing in his wake not just black but millions of white folk, the children of Sixties activists, or those born after the civil rights move ment without the burden of racial prejudice.

I remember reading Black Reconstruction in America, a huge historical tome by W E B Du Bois. The author describes it as "an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-88". Towards the end of his account and analysis, these lines erupt from his pen:

Such mental frustration cannot indefinitely continue. Some day it may burst in fire and blood. Who will be to blame? And where the greater cost? Black folk, after all, have little to lose, but civilisation has all. This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilisation here in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the west.

Obama can be understood through this prism or not at all. In the Sixties, southern black Americans stormed the stage to seek their enfran chisement and destroy Ku Klux Klan racism. The Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, led by black youngsters with huge white support, walked out of colleges and universities throughout the US to battle for the vote. The mass of disenfranchised black peasantry joined them. A new generation of leaders appeared.

Martin Luther King towered above the rest. Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture, a childhood friend of mine, brought a new lexicon to American politics. Then came Malcolm X, and later Chicago spawned Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. This whole past now resides within the political personality that is Barack Obama.

Without such a sense of history, we cannot understand the Obama phenomenon. The mistakes are already widespread. Sarah Baxter, in the Sunday Times of 6 January, compared Obama with John F Kennedy. Andrew Sullivan, in the same paper on the same day, told us that he is the liberal Reagan. These are the consequences of distortion of history. JFK and Reagan indeed. But what worries me now is the possibility of assassination. The US is capable of the most violent reaction to progressive change. King paid with his life; so did Malcolm X and JFK. They perished in trying to reshape a lawless nation.

Obama would bring to the White House a rich tradition of radical instincts, drawn from the dispossessed in the United States. That he spent his childhood outside the US and maintains contact with relations as far away as East Africa allows him to transcend the inhibitions of black Americans. He is free to move into pole position in the fight for the US presidency. I wish him well, and so do the thousands of Caribbean and African people in this country.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked