Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of Barack’s Obama’s inauguration which sparked my book. My American Odyssey. Here is part 1 of what I felt that day from my book My American Odyssey From the Windrush to the White House.
In January of 2009, I was in Washington DC the United States of America for the inauguration of President Barack Obama and 80th anniversary of the birth my hero Dr Martin Luther King.
I had personally told about fifty people I was going, but word had spread throughout the Ujima and the community for which I work within as a volunteer on various programmes. ‘Say hello to the President for me,’ a colleague said, ‘Wave to us on TV!’ another said. And the ubiquitous ‘get me a T-Shirt!’ were among many comments, I received but the heart-warming, ‘Go document history Roger!’ touched a raw energetic nerve. I was surprised and heartened by these comments. Two years earlier I had written my own version of Letters of America, writing of my excursions in the Deep South of America on what was then a personal pilgrimage from where Dr King took his first and last breath in the world. I had travelled to where he was slain by a sniper’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee to where he was born on Sweet Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia and in between walked in his footsteps where he lived, marched, preached and was jailed. I recorded a few passages of what I saw and experienced of the struggle for civil rights and human dignity. It appeared people were eager to hear more about them and my travels including those outside of my initial circulation list.
Thus, encouraged by friends, colleagues and family but without the incentive of a waiting editor, a blog- space, or the inclination to post it on a social networking page (this was pre Instagram and Twitter). I wrote a few more passages about those events of January 2009. I added some comments about America, witty asides on its social mores, customs and its similarities and peculiarities with its former colonial master the United Kingdom. On the historic morning of the swearing-in of the first Black President, I duly sent my first piece home, content that I was writing for a few interested well-wishers and I had done what I said I would do ‘document history,’ then headed to the heart of Washington to witness another chapter of my unofficial American odyssey unfold.
Whilst I listened to the President’s words on that famous afternoon on a bitterly cold but sun-blessed day, I realised that there was within his words a message of hope for everyone not just the 300 million locals, he was addressing, two million of which were packed into the Washington Mall around me. Each word, phrase and cadence of that extraordinary orator carried a signal to be or become a better person and to do your bit for another. After the tears of joy dried on my face, I was hugged for what seemed like the thousandth time by another total stranger congratulating me for being there. I returned the compliment as to be amongst those two million was to be part of a select club whose numbers, I’ve no doubt will swell with exaggeration. I thanked them warmly, my English accent cutting through the sub-zero temperatures like a bullwhip. ‘Oh, you’re British?’ they replied smiling. ‘Yes!’ I replied, sounding more like Prince Charles than Dizzie 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 concerning my identity in America. In fact, rather than be annoyed or offended by it, I had learned to use this so-called slight on my identity to my advantage. My accent in America had opened more doors 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 too often pieces of overweight luggage waived through by a perpetually smiling sympathetic attendant.
Later on, 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 throng had left for warmth or to prepare for the evening’s numerous balls, whilst I thawed out by nursing a medicinal supply of brandy. I watched again President Obama’s words on a TV screen in the corner not only with pride but also with newfound meaning and poignancy. Had the future, my future, really had opened up I wondered? I looked at the poised individual on the screen. No longer had Hollywood had to cast Morgan Freeman or Dennis Haybert from 24 in the role of Black President – he was in the chair and, what’s more, the real deal. Here was a man without corporate sponsorship, family patronage like the Kennedy’s, Bush’s and Clinton’s or lengthy political experience, who had managed to get elected to White House on his terms. I reflected on my joy of not only witnessing this and of how it was going to change the landscape of history for future generations but also how it could change mine too. I listened closer to the President’s words. ‘What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility…’ the President pronounced. The words swirled in my head. All of my personal history and that of my story parents and their forbears seemed to converge and speak to me. ‘You need to tell your own – after all what’s the point of all those notes you’ve been making over the years?’ I heard them say. ‘I gotta’ story to tell,’ the beginning of the rapper Notorious BIG’s record started in my head. ‘Tell their story. Your story. Our Story.’ More voices swirled in my head. Not just of the fight against racism and social injustices, not just of America idiosyncrasies and not just of how my parents came to be in England in the 1960’s but put it together into a whole story from my own personal perspective.
My old insecurities swam to the surface. I had been often rightly chided by friends for hiding my light under a bushel. I’m not famous, a respected writer or a celebrity, just stick to what you know my old negativity said joining in the debate. But deep within me, I knew if I had followed that logic, I would be freezing somewhere else right now. Maybe I would still be painting the old Severn Bridge which links England with Wales, as I had eighteen years earlier and not re-trained to become a Housing Officer, starting a journey of hard work and study which had led me to leave that cycle of unemployment, deprivation, violence and anguish. That journey of personal development continued into management, learning other skills and has rewarded me with the modest personal trappings of car, mortgage, etc. It also led me to be able to fund my own dreams of witnessing something I honestly did not believe I would see in my life-time a black President, even if he was on a jumbo-tron and a tiny spec on the steps of the distant Capital building. ‘It’s time to put away such childish things...’ President Obama continued. I looked round the bar its patrons getting misty eyed again. I knew President Obama could do almost anything but now he was reading my mind. ‘Tell their story, your story, our story.’ The voices chanted again.
I consider myself to be Black-British, a term I have only been comfortable with since the mid-nineties. Before that I was Afro-Caribbean without having the maturity to understand that label and before that simply, ‘first generation.’ This was the term given to immigrant families’ children who came invited from the British Commonwealth to be born within the mother country’s borders from the Windrush Generation. Our voice has struggled to be heard much less understood. Too often I have seen a well-meaning Professor or scholar patronisingly explain the experience of Black-British life and society. Too often I have hollered at my TV screen or put down my newspaper and muttered ‘that’s not right…’ or ‘what about…’ and ‘they forgot to say…’ Sometimes I’ll be inspired like when reading Gary Younge’s excellent book No Place Like Home and bang my fist against a table and say ‘yes that’s it!’ or more tellingly, ‘I wanted to say that…’ But far from decry the skills of others. I realise the President’s words were aimed in my direction. My insecurities mostly stemmed from a lack of education and any significant qualifications until my mid-twenties, but they should not stand in my way and it was time to find my own voice. I have learned through the documentation of the past from stories, books, films or writings from Vietnam, the holocaust or Iraq, there are thousands of different tales, accounts and stories all with a voice of their own, all valid compositions of history. Dr King was thirty-nine when he died four years younger than me. Barack Obama is President at forty-seven, four years my senior and of course he was the 44th President of the United States. Now that had a powerful, beautiful symmetry to stir me into action as history swirled around and within me. President Obama was now striding down Pennsylvania Avenue on the way to his new home, savouring every moment of the adulation from around the globe as he walked hand in hand with his beautiful wife Michelle. The world’s expectations were on his shoulders but for now he was basking in the achievement of his dream the living-smiling embodiment that you can be anything you want to be.
. ‘I gotta’ story to tell.’ I said to myself. My time is now.