Sarita Sarvate

Obama: The Ultimate Global Villager

May 08, 2008

India Currents

BY SARITA SARVATE

SARITA SARVATE, May 08, 2008

Until recently, I liked Barack Obama more because I liked Hillary Clinton less. When I voted for him in the California Primary, I was still wondering if he was electable. My racial memory told me that white men ruled the U.S. and white women were not far behind. Then came immigrant men, immigrant women, black women, and black men, in that order.

Would Obama’s success allow me to forge a different understanding of race in the U.S.?

Yet what seemed most attractive about Obama was not his race but his multicultural pedigree.

I have always called myself a “global villager,” but Obama is a “global villager” par excellence. He comes from several continents, races, cultures, and communities.

His journey as a global villager has been the reverse of mine. I belong to a generation of people who had homogeneous roots but who assimilated into different cultures because they felt constrained by their own parochial backgrounds.

Obama, on the other hand, has no single root, no homogeneous identity to cater to; he has had to discover where he belongs.

In that sense, Obama has more in common with my children, who, with an Indian mother and a British father, straddle two worlds, never quite belonging to either. My sons can never be completely accepted in the Anglo culture because of their dark skin; yet they cannot fully fit into their Indian family whose language and daily life they scarcely know. 

For them, Obama is a guiding light, a person who could have chosen to identify exclusively with his WASP roots but instead opted to commune with his African lineage as well.

Obama brings home to us the complexity of today’s globalized world, where a Norman Rockwell childhood is just as anthropologically curious as the rites of a Papua New Guinea tribe.

Sadly, it is the Norman Rockwell picture that many Americans would rather hang on to, if cable news media are any indication. They would choose not to acknowledge the conflicted loyalties the 21st-century demands from all of us.

Like Obama’s white grandmother, who, in spite of her black grandson, felt fearful of black men, we Indian Americans are often afraid of our children losing jobs to their cousins back home. Like Obama, who once attended school in Islamic Indonesia, many second-generation Indian Americans are searching for their cultural underpinnings in the ashrams and temples of America even as they are decrying Hindu fundamentalist violence in India.

Obama has been labeled a black leader in the footsteps of Rev. Martin Luther King. But watching the TV coverage of King’s life on the 40th anniversary of his assassination, I was struck by how King had been less a black leader and more a world leader.

Comparing King’s words to Barack Obama’s speech on race, the real reason I am drawn to Obama became crystal clear.

Obama is to Martin Luther King what Nehru was to Gandhi. Obama adapts Martin Luther King’s spiritual teachings to today’s complex world. When Barack speaks of his several worlds, he reminds me of Jawaharlal, who spoke of being caught between the East and the West and not belonging to either. Like Nehru, whose literary musings allowed us to understand the equal underpinnings of his political philosophy in Vedic scriptures and in the words of Carlyle and Demosthenes, Obama speaks of Rev. Wright and of Faulkner in the same breath.

Just as Nehru tried to explain why he would never forget his duty to the Muslims, however divisive, Obama tries to make us understand why he would never abandon Rev. Wright. Like Nehru and Gandhi, who appealed to the Brahmins to share power with the lower castes, Obama tries to give voice to the underclass by appealing to the higher consciousness of whites and blacks alike.

Just as Nehru interpreted for the Brahmins the anger of the untouchables, Obama tries to explain to the whites the righteous anger of blacks.

That anger has to be articulated, if this country is ever to create a more equitable society.

The right wing’s equating this anger to the rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh or John Hagee is fatally flawed because right wing bigotry has its roots in the greed of the powerful, while black rage is rooted in the dispossession of the downtrodden.

When Obama explains the roots of this rage, we need to listen carefully. His words pave the way to facing the truth and moving toward reconciliation, a reconciliation that is sorely needed if we are to face the hard challenges of the 21st century.

In fact, the U.S. government needs to admit fault and apologize to the African Americans for centuries of wrongdoing just as the government of Australia did recently to the Aborigines.

Alas, instead of congratulating Obama for abandoning the oversimplification of the sound bite, many Republicans and Democrats criticized his tone of ambivalence.

So watching the celebration of Rev. King’s life 40 years after his death, I could not help feeling fearful for Obama. Would some Americans choose to destroy Obama rather than apologize for slavery and its legacy of segregation and abuse, I wondered?

But the next day, stopping at Chicago’s airport on my way to a conference, I sensed a different vibe. Stores selling Chicago Blues memorabilia had never seemed livelier. There was pride in the air, as I purchased a “Barack Obama for President 2008” t-shirt.

Suddenly, I felt hopeful of a more perfect union.

I felt certain that electing as the leader of the free world a man who belongs to many continents and races and loyalties would finally move us toward a post-racial, post-globalization, post-climate-change reality.