Jan 17, 2009

Black Washington looks to Obama

On his desk beside the nameboard that tells you he is director of marching bands at Howard University in Washington DC, John Newson keeps a miniature bale of cotton.
"Washington DC - a ruling elite, within a mainly African-American population"
When he lifts it and turns it in his hands his eyes take on a curiously distant quality and stories of this country's divided past come tumbling out.

He is a dignified, professorial figure these days, but he can remember the old times in rural Louisiana when he was put out of school three hours before the local white kids and sent to the local plantation fields to chop cotton - back-breaking work for a little boy in the boiling heat of the Southern summer.
He remembers too the local laws about "eye-balling" - no black man or woman dared to risk making eye contact with any of the white folks in the streets of their little town.
You looked down, or looked away, or you got a ticket and a fine.

Mr Newson's band, from the college they call "The Black Harvard", will be marching in the inaugural parade in the heart of their home city - Howard is just a few blocks across town from the White House.
It is a small story of change in a country which has changed enormously since little John Newson was sent out into the cottonfields of Louisiana all those years ago.

He is moved at the idea of a black man taking power in the White House, and not just for what it says about the long road African-Americans have travelled since he baled cotton when he should have been sitting in class or playing with his friends.

Washington DC is sometimes called Chocolate City, and it is a curiously divided place."America's not exactly accepting us with open arms now just by the election of a black man as president"
Corey Crane
Tour operator
The tiny governing elite - which tends to live and work in the glittering centre - is surrounded by seas of largely black streets.

Mr Newson wonders if Barack Obama might be the man to bring together those two disparate identities sharing the same space.
After all, he commands the ruling elite now, and yet he can still talk comfortably with the black street.
Not that Mr Newson believes the election of Mr Obama means an end to the African-American journey. To illustrate his point he told me this story about what happened when he and his wife took three of their grandchildren back to a four-star hotel in Louisiana a few years ago to show them the Old South in which they had grown up.

"My wife and the three grandkids went to the swimming pool and on two occasions when they got in, all the white folks who were swimming got out and left," he told me.
"My wife even stayed in the water for nearly two hours to see if they would come back - and they didn't."
As Mr Newson said, Barack Obama's election is a moment of symbolism and he will have huge powers - but he cannot make people stay in swimming pools together.

America - and the South in particular - still have some changing to do.

No comments: