Why Obama can heal US racial wounds
Why Obama can heal US racial wounds
By Rob Reynolds, Al Jazeera's senior Washington correspondent
Obama has become a powerful symbol in the fight to overcome the US's racial divisions [EPA]
When I was a teenager, I used to hitchhike out west of Washington to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to go camping with my friends (yes, you could hitchhike without being murdered back then).
We would usually get stuck about halfway out to Shenandoah National Park, waiting for a ride at a little crossroads called Ben Venue.
Up on the hillside above the crossroads was a big, old house with many windows and tall Doric columns out in front.
I suppose it used to be a plantation back in the days before the American Civil War.
We always noticed a row of five or six very small cabins, made of hewn logs and covered with peeling whitewash, off to the left of the main building.
Once, when we got a ride with a local man in a pickup truck, I asked him about those tiny cabins. "Slave quarters," he explained.
I now live in Bethesda, Maryland. Not far from my house there is another old, wooden structure.
This is the cabin where Josiah Henson, a slave on the plantation of Isaac Riley, lived.
Henson worked the fields and eventually escaped to Canada, where he became a minister and wrote an autobiography.
Henson became the model for the title character in a book by Harriet Beecher Stowe called "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or "Life Among the Lowly".
This novel, published in 1852, was an enormous international best-seller.
Its horrific description of the suffering of enslaved African-American men and women did much to rouse a fierce emotional storm of anti-slavery sentiment among previously indifferent Northerners.
It also galvanised the abolitionist movement and helped lead to the Civil War and, finally, the end of slavery in the US.
When Stowe went to the White House to call on President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the conflict, Lincoln exclaimed: "You're the little lady who started this Great War."
So, the real Uncle Tom's Cabin still exists, right in my home town.
All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the point that the past is among us, every day.
History is everywhere, inherent in framework in which we perceive the world and immanent in every action we take.
Barack Obama, the US president elect, has visited the White House to call on George Bush, the US president.
The house Obama and Bush entered side-by-side is the global symbol of American power and decision.
But the White House itself, like the little cabins on the hill in Virginia and the still-standing abode of Henson in Bethesda, was originally built by the unrequited toil of slaves.
Thomas Jefferson, the American founding father and president who was capable of such eloquent writing and penetrating reason in defining and defending the concept of human freedom, brought with him to the President's house in 1801 a dozen slaves from his plantation in Virginia.
What a terrible contradiction, and what a terrible legacy that contradiction has burdened this country with down through the centuries.
It was not until 100 years later that the first black person was invited to dinner at the White House, when Theodore Roosevelt hosted Booker T Washington, the famed African-American educator and author.
Not until the administration of Richard Nixon in the 1970s was an African-American guest - the entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr - invited to spend the night there as a guest.
Obama now holds the aspirations of
millions of African-Americans [AFP]
Although Obama's own ancestors were not part of the brutal diaspora of slavery, he has, nonetheless, become a powerful symbol.
The hideous injustice and crime of slavery, repression and racism has, from the beginning, formed the core conflict in American history.
Obama is now the human vessel containing the aspirations for justice that has always lingered, out of reach, for millions of African-Americans.
He also represents - or should - for all Americans the triumph of what Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature" over dark and violent centuries of blind hatred, exploitation, prejudice and mutual distrust.
People, and countries, can change.
The past lives among us, but we do not have to be bound by it.
That is what this November season of astonishment has shown me.
Source: Al Jazeera