By Gregory Rodriguez: President Barack Obama's recent visit to Ghana was downright biblical.
President Barack Obama's recent visit to Ghana was downright biblical.
I don't say this because of the adoring African crowds that treated the American president's visit as if it were the Second Coming. Nor because I believe that our first African-American commander in chief will somehow deliver the continent from the evils that confront it. But the scene of Obama and his family at the site of one of the most notorious slave stations on the Ghanaian coast — ominously called the Door of No Return — reminded me of that singular vision from the Gospels about the last becoming the first.
Of course, Obama's own ancestral relationship to slavery can be found on the white rather than the black side of his family tree. His Kenyan father arrived in America after receiving a prestigious scholarship rather than by being sold into slavery. Six generations ago, however, an ancestor on his maternal side was a slave owner in Kentucky.
But the first lady does directly descend from African slaves, and therefore she and the Obama children are wholly part of the legacy of slavery. And to see them ponder the historical significance of the Door of No Return — a place where tens of thousands of shackled men and women were transported from dungeons to the hulls of sailing ships — as representatives of the most powerful office on Earth was profound.
Generally perceived as the symbol of an overdog nation, U.S. presidents are rarely seen in the position of directly empathizing with the victims of history. (And when they do, it's generally in the pose of vengeful warrior, such as in the days after Pearl Harbor or 9/11.) Calling the visit a "moving experience," Obama refrained from the linear moral logic of latter-day crusaders. He did not merely condemn slavery and the wrongs that went with it. In fact, by calling the Door of No Return "the portal through which the diaspora began," he embraced it — and all its horrors — as a sort of birthplace.
"As African-Americans," he said, "there is a special sense that on the one hand this place was a place of profound sadness, but on the other hand, it is here where the journey of much of the African-American experience began."
Reminiscent of the plaque in Mexico City that declares that the clash between the conquerors and the conquered produced the "painful birth of the Mexican people," Obama's remarks offered a sophisticated embrace of the moral complexities of history. Rather than denying America's responsibility for the tragedy of slavery or, on the other hand, partaking in the creation of an alternative history of the U.S. that seeks to expose only the bad, Obama's visit and brief remarks remind us that we Americans are also born of the clash between conqueror and conquered.
In so doing, he undermines the simplistic racial and moral binary language that we tend to speak in. This was not the visit of a white American president who either felt defensive or obliged to apologize for the evils of white supremacy. And from his singular place in global racial iconography, the president also put a redemptive — and peculiarly American — spin on history. He said the old slave station "reminds us that as bad as history can be, it is also possible to overcome."
Nor could a white U.S. president have said to African leaders what Obama did. Assuming a posture that his predecessors could never have employed, Obama told Africa that it could no longer blame the West for all of its problems.
"Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron rather than a partner," he told the Ghanaian parliament. "But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants."
Citizens of other countries have long looked at the U.S. as some sort of kaleidoscope through which they sometimes recognize glimpses of themselves. Germans like to take credit for the invention of jeans by Levi Strauss. French tourists flock to New Orleans. Spaniards enjoy ticking off the names of Southwestern cities that their ancestors founded.
The first family's historic visit to Africa suggests that Obama's presidency is adding an entirely new dimension to how the world sees the U.S., as well as how we see ourselves. There are millions of Americans who have been on both sides of history — as winners and as losers. More than anything else, the one thing that keeps us together as a nation is the promise and belief that we can overcome.
Rodriguez, a columnist for the Times' opinion pages, is director of the California Fellows Program at the New America Foundation. E-mail him at email@example.com.