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Reflection on the moment Obama created history

YES HE CAN: Barack Obama

THEY SAID it would never happen, that he had no chance and there was no way people would vote for him. I was one of those people who thought just that – a black President in the United States of America? A wonderful idea but was it going to happen in present day USA – at first I didn’t think so but then I started to believe in Obama’s popular slogan ‘Yes we can’ as I watched him on his campaign trail making gains and winning hearts. As I followed the campaign I began to realise there was a real possibility that he could succeed.

I stayed up on election night four years ago even though I had to go to work the next day because for me this was a historical moment in history, a piece of my history and when he won it was a feeling of elation, excitement, hope – I felt uplifted but also wanted to weep at the same time.

It was an emotional night - my personal struggle against racism and that as an activist seemed to have reached a turning point that night. For years I had worked to challenge and tackle under representation of black workers in trade union structures and it made me feel stronger and more empowered.


PROUD: Zita Holbourne

BARRIERS

If Barack Obama, a black man of mixed parentage, with an African Muslim father could be elected president of the United States then I could break down those barriers to participation in democratic structures in the UK. For that night I set aside the reasons why this might be harder in the UK than in the USA and the fact that here in the UK we were not at the same stage as USA, we hadn’t made nearly the level of progress as black people there.

Being a poet of course I wrote some poems to mark the occasion which capture how I felt. The first was written the next morning and the second after a few days when I had had time to digest it. They capture what I thought and felt at the time.

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BLACK MAN IN THE WHITE HOUSE

It’s like sweet chocolate or homemade lemonade
A special treat and I’m in a daze
This is one of the best day’s ever in my life time
Feel like now we can shine
Thanks to our new USA president elect
I can see great black people on my television set
Bonnie Greer and Kwame Kwei Armah greet me in the morning
And suddenly I’m alert, no longer yawning
I cry too as Jessie Jackson sheds tears of pride
I can feel all his emotions just by looking in his eyes
Dr Maya Angelou and civil rights campaigners
Black politicians and Baroness Amos
Here in my own front room
And I know our time is coming soon
All these great black role models
It’s like a series of affectionate cuddles
But it took a black man elected to the white house
For the TV producers to bring these black people to my house
But now I’m just basking in elation
At this wonderful situation
And just for a moment I’m able to exhale
This is just the start of this historic tale
Crystal tears role down my eye
And now our children can soar high

* Zita Holbourne, copyright 2008

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YES WE CAN

It’s a week of jubilation
Blessed are we by God’s creation
For once a sense of unity
A brief respite from the lunacy
Of having to fight race discrimination
Day in, day out, in escalation
Black lives are still cheap to the police
Deaths in custody are on the increase
Fascist parties winning seats
Whilst black people are still harassed by bobbies on the beat
Elation for the election of a
Black president of the USA
But we’ve got several lifetimes to go
Before we achieve it in the UK
Black faces in parliament are next to none
On our executive bodies lucky to see even one
Invisible shackles of slavery still there, still eating away
Got to fight just to see another day
Fascists and bigots smug and superior
But we’re going to make it to the ministerial interior
Mr Barack Obama says ‘yes we can!’
He did it in the USA so we can do it in this Englan’.

* Zita Holbourne, copyright 2008

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It was about enjoying the moment, celebrating this moment in history and when I stepped out bleary eyed the next morning not only did I have a huge smile on my face, so did other black people. A young black woman in the local newsagents smiled at me in greeting and I smiled back, no words were exchanged but we both knew what it was about and my journey continued in the same way, black people smiling, greeting each other and upbeat, forgetting for a while their woes and struggles. It was interesting to observe the difference between white colleagues and black as it was clear that it had not impacted on the former in the same way as the latter. It was a week of celebration for many black people here, certainly all those I knew.

This sense of pride and jubilation was repeated during the week of President Obama’s inauguration. I attended a dinner in the Houses of Parliament to celebrate which had been organised by Labour Party Black Sections to celebrate and it was an uplifting evening.

In 2010 when I co-founded Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) UK, I came up with the name because it explained what we set out to do but also so it could be shortened to BARAC, drawing on Barack Obama’s time working as a community organiser in Chicago and because it was a name people would not forget.

Zita Holbourne is a poet, artist, writer and trade union and community activist, member of the PCS Union National Executive Committee and Co-Chair of BARAC UK.

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