May 2, 2008

Black Presidents

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- It's great to fly into Johannesburg, see the Star, the local broadsheet newspaper that's a good two inches wider than the broadsheet papers in the states, and to pick up the clattering electricity of South Africa's multicultural society. While waiting to change planes for Cape Town I stopped into a bookstore -- it's great to be where the books are in English. And the books, too, reflect that amazing alternate reality of South Africa, that gem so undiscovered by so many for so long. It was a tiny bookstore in the Joberg airport, just a book nook, but there is that astonishing novelty browsing a bookstore in a different culture.

There was a nice healthy Africa section, with many books about Africa, much great literature. Beethoven Was One Sixteenth Black by Nadine Gordimer caught my eye. There were familiar things like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, asking Yeats' increasingly pertinent question: "What rough beast, its hour come round at last Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" There were newer things like The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg. Of course there were plenty of nice fat paperback copies of Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. And, strikingly, featured on one of the front tables was Barack Obama's Dreams from my Father. It reminds me of how much the meaning of the phrase "Black President" has changed for me since my last visit here a year ago.

The story of Nelson Mandela resonates so powerfully it would be impossible to remain totally unaffected by it even in America, a place ruled by the likes of Dick Cheney, who voted to keep Mandela in prison when a resolution to urge his release came before Congress during Cheney's short stint as a congressman in 1985. Mandela had already been in prison 21 years and would remain for six long years more. Reagan and Bush were also both big supporters of the apartheid regime, temperamentally in sympathy with it. But now Mandela has entered the pantheon of great leaders and even Cheney pretends to agree that he's "a great man." But for me the story of Mandela really came to life when I was in Africa and heard the song about him sung by the South African singer Brenda Fassie. It's called "Black President" and it is a soul-stirring piece of music. (See, photo gallery, BBC bio, Stern's Music discography, Stern's detailed discography with one-minute MP3 samples.)

When I heard Brenda sing, "I will sing for my president. I would die for my president," with such volcanic passion, it reminded me of a much more innocent time when I might have believed in leaders myself, though probably never as much as she seemed to. Politics has become so corrupt and worm-eaten in the U.S. it's hard to imagine that leaders can be legitimate, that they may have a legitimate function and may on occasion live up to something beyond their own money-grubbing. But no, Mandela shows us that there are times in human affairs when there is a call for leadership and when someone sincerely rises to the challenge and devotes himself or herself to the greater good, not just to the enrichment of oneself and one's friends and co-conspirators.

Now I realize that I believe Barack Obama has the potential to be a legitimate leader, even a great leader in America at this time and place when the country desperately needs a radical change from its present direction. He is up against a tremendous force, terrible odds, including flawed voting machines that the Republicans seem to be able to control and a ruthlessness that seems to preclude no method or tactic no matter how vicious. It's only incidental that he, like Mandela, could be his country's first Black president.

And much as I find myself wanting to hold myself aloof from politics, that dirty, disappointing game, I find myself irresistibly caring, caring about him personally as well as about the movement he has come to represent. I find myself wanting very much for him to be the next president, not John McCain, God forbid, or even Hillary Clinton. So there it is. I confess.

-- David Cogswell

Back to Home Page