Monday, May 11, 2009

Mobama or Nobama, America's a Mixed Bag

What happens when your American barber asks if you've seen a lion in the wild? You crack up. What's the story when, on a flight from Chicago to Kansas City, the flight attendant is so fat she has to negotiate the aisle with the finesse of a matador? You crack up. And, let it be said, how's one supposed to react to the idea that so many Americans, most of them ostensibly independent, need their dogs for a shoulder to cry on when the going gets tough? It's good material for a neutral comedian, and it's hard for me to say that i've not enjoyed the comic routine.

Missouri does not lie. After all, planted firmly in the heartland, this is the "Show Me" state, perhaps the best place to measure the American soul and make value judgments---for better or worse. In the three weeks that i've been in Missouri, where i will spend at least five months, the sheer depth of the ironies that define this powerful nation have been hard to miss, in large part because they are actually obvious. Not once have i needed to misrepresent my identity to be able to see that black Americans are comfortable playing pool amongst each other. And i have not yet found it necessary to apply my journalistic skills to notice that, even in these topsy-turvy days of unemployment or worse scenarios, it's mostly Latinos who clean up the shit in hotel rooms. What's more, at the Kansas City shop where a black barber asked if i had seen a lion in the wild, perhaps mauling a zebra in the African savannah, the only white man who walked in while i was around had actually come to make small talk. Not to have his hair done, OK? As the story was told, it's highly unlikely that a sensible white boy would spend his $15 there, a shop where the barber plays rap music and the radio bellows out the baritone of a popular black presenter. Not long after my experience with the barber, a slightly chubby man with the stupid smile of a teenager, i had the pleasure (or is it the agony?) of having a fast-talking middle-aged man as my driving instructor. "What does the red mean, Rodney?" the guy would ask me, apparently doubtful that i knew what the red light signaled. Soon, to my utter amusement (and relief), this white man would ask if i knew Idi Amin.

At once, in that grey saloon car that gave me nightmares for all of 120 minutes, i diagnosed the man's problem: LACK OF EXPOSURE. Those three beautiful words. If he came to Uganda --and he's never been out of his country-- he may not be able to move his car an inch. Yet, while he meant no harm, he's not a lone ranger.

For the most part, the trait that unites Americans black or white, especially in terms of how they relate to the rest of the world, is their shallow grasp of events elsewhere. They have to work hard to get it right. I am lucky to be in an environment where i get to interact with some people who know good things about Africa and who have grown up with the rest of progressive America. The story can be so wonderful. But, like most good stories, the beast wants his share of the cake. Just over 100 days after a black man was sworn in as America's chief executive, the fissures and frustrations that made his campaign message attractive are still evident. Only that they are are much more obvious to a foreigner, even a dumb one. I've not spent a lot of time in America, but i've been here long enough to discern the subtle lines that chase hopelessness away from hope. The interesting part is that some anti-Obama posters from 2008 proclaimed the wisdom in "Nobama." I hope the spirit of "Mobama" keeps winning.