Introduction to book My American Odyssey From The Windrush to the White House
In my home, among the treasured pictures and memorabilia from my travels, is a picture of President Barack Obama. Underneath his smiling face are the words, ‘I was there, January 20 2009’, and I was indeed there on that momentous day.
President Barack Obama’s incredible speech penetrated deep into my soul. Every word, phrase and cadence of the extraordinary orator carried a signal for us each to be or become a better person, and to do our bit for one another. His positive message was for everyone listening around the world, not just those of us who were there in person. It truly felt like things were changing, at long last, and you could really be anything you wanted to be.When the first Black American president was inaugurated, I was standing on the Washington Mall with two million jubilant others, cheering and congratulating, and feeling truly blessed to be at this incredible occasion. On that bitterly cold sun-blessed winter’s day, we were all part of history in the making. In possibly the most racially segregated country on earth, with its dark and violent history of slavery, there was now a Black man at the helm. It was something I never thought I would see in my lifetime, yet here I was witnessing it first-hand – even if he was only a tiny speck on the steps of the distant Capitol Building. Here, on the jam-packed Mall known as America’s front lawn, people of all colours were united together in happiness and hope for the future.
After the tears of joy dried on my face, I was hugged and congratulated for being there, for what seemed like the thousandth time, by another total stranger. We all felt part of a select club, celebrating this amazing day. I thanked them warmly, and returned the praise, my English accent cutting through the sub-zero temperatures like a bullwhip.
‘Oh, you’re British?’ they said, smiling.
‘Yes,’ I replied, sounding more like Prince Charles than Dizzee Rascal, or even Huggy Bear.
‘Oh, we didn’t realise there were Black people in England.’
I smiled politely, long used to this oft-repeated ritual in America concerning my identity. Rather than be upset or offended at the inaccuracy, I have learned to use it to my advantage. My accent has opened more doors in America than I care to remember, be it an extra helping of food from a silver-haired waitress, a discount in a shop or car rental agency, or getting my overweight luggage waved through by a smiling sympathetic attendant at the airport.
You see, I’ve travelled all over America, on twenty trips or more, since I was sixteen. At first I came to visit family who’d migrated from Guyana to the United States of America, rather than to the United Kingdom as my parents had – Dad in 1958 then, as was the trend, he sent for my mum and my sisters in 1960. I’d stay with my brother, cousins, aunts and uncles scattered along America’s eastern seaboard, from Connecticut to Florida. Then, later on, I purposely planned trips to explore and witness everything about Black culture, from sport and music to religion and politics. From a young age, I couldn’t help comparing how Black culture in the United States differed so much from that back home in the UK. I wrote my own version of Letters from America, as my personal American odyssey began to unfold.
As a Black child growing up in Bristol and London in the 1980s, with little of my own culture to look up to, and certainly no role models, I looked to the United States for inspiration. There I found heroes, leaders and a sense of pride. I was part of a new generation, born in Britain and searching for our identity. Before we’d fully acknowledged our African roots of heritage, we turned to America. In leadership we found icons such as my ultimate hero Dr Martin Luther King Jr, as well as Malcolm X, campaigning for civil rights, dignity and social justice. We gained strength and meaning in our lives from the likes of Rosa Parks or the Black Power movement. We saw the first images of successful Black people in sport with Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali. In music we found pride from the success of Motown, followed by Hip-Hop which, when mixed with those Motown harmonies and RnB, became the biggest-selling music genre in the world, creating a new counter-culture with its own look and language. Finally, in entertainment personalities such as Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey became trailblazers in showbiz.
Five decades after receiving the right to vote, and with some of the older generations in America still able to recall their time on the plantation fields, the first Black man is now in the White House, completing a remarkable journey from the plantation to the polling booth, then to the presidency.
Later on that evening, after the momentous events in the Mall, I sat in a bar on the famous Capitol Hill, where more shady deals have been completed than in the notorious drug-ravaged streets of Washington a few blocks away. Many of the day’s throng had left to find warmth or to prepare for the evening’s numerous balls, while I thawed out by nursing a medicinal supply of brandy.
I watched President Obama’s speech again on a TV in the corner, not only with pride but also with newfound meaning and poignancy. Had the future, my future, really opened up? I wondered. I looked at the poised individual on the screen. No longer did Hollywood have to cast Morgan Freeman or Dennis Haybert from 24 in the role of a Black president – the real deal was in the chair. Here was a man without corporate sponsorship, family patronage like Kennedy, Bush and Clinton, or even lengthy political experience who had managed to get elected to White House on his terms. I reflected on my joy at witnessing this, how it was going to change the landscape of history for future generations, and also how it could change mine, too.
I listened more closely to the president’s words. ‘What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility…’ he pronounced. The words swirled in my head. All of my personal history, and that of my parents and their forbears, seemed to converge and speak to me.
‘I got a story to tell.’ The beginning of the rapper The Notorious B.I.G’s track started in my head.‘You need to tell your story. What’s the point of all those notes you’ve been making over the years?’ I heard them say.
‘Tell their story. Your story. Our Story.’ More voices swirled in my head. Not just the story of the fight against racism and social injustices; not just of American idiosyncrasies; not just of how my parents came to be in England in the 1960s, but put it together into a whole story from my own personal perspective.