Obama’s presidency ‘sublime inspiration’


Barack Obama’s historic ascendancy to the presidency of the United States represents a dramatic repudiation of White supremacy and a validation of Black citizenship that provides hope for people of colour, says Ryerson University associate professor and community activist, Dr. Grace-Edward Galabuzzi.

Obama was sworn in as his country’s first African-American president last month.

“When Black youth, who doubt themselves daily because of the images they are bombarded with or because of the way they hear adults talk about them and their prospects or the smear they have to endure on the buses or the paternalism they have to endure in the institutions, look up today at the president of the United States, he’s an African American,” Galabuzzi said at a Toronto Community Housing Black History Month panel discussion to explore Obama’s presidency and what it means for Canada and African-Canadians.

“Their reality would have overwhelmed the ideology of White supremacy. This is a moment of sublime inspiration and it has been long coming.”

A research associate at the Centre for Social Justice in Toronto, Galabuzzi said there are some similarities between Obama’s emergence as president of the most powerful nation in the world and Michaëlle Jean’s rise from humble beginnings in Haiti to become Canada’s first Black Governor General.

“At the symbiotic level, these are two high level achievers who represent the realization of the dreams of our ancestors in a very distinctive way,” he said. “They are also a testament to how far we have come as a people and as a society. Yet, there are important distinctions to be drawn between the two for while Jean is a Canadian success story, Obama’s achievement may be as relevant to us here as African Canadians today as her rising to high office is.

“The presidency of Obama is absolutely relevant to our experience as a people on this side of the 49th parallel and that in some way was reflected in the excitement that many of us felt and saw on the streets and everywhere during the inauguration.”

The other panellists were University of Toronto undergraduate student, Asle Nur and University of Ottawa assistant law professor, Joanne St. Lewis, who said the most significant aspect of Obama’s presidency for her is not his ethnicity but his appreciation and understanding of the role that religious faith can play in shaping lives.

“He seems to me to fundamentally be a spiritual leader in a world that’s impoverished spiritually,” she said.  “I am not talking about the traditional faith issue or whatever faith he belongs to. I am saying the driver that seems to under-gird how he assesses what makes him a good leader is about fundamental values and ethics.

“That is probably, in my view, the fundamental anchor that will make the difference; that he will see those things as having a place in every conversation he makes because it’s a part of who he is…I am actually quite interested to see how that works because the world of politics is one that has fundamentally leeched itself of any kind of ethics and spirituality. In fact, we now have a geo-politics, particularly after 9/11, where we have actually distorted what religion means.

“Some of the most pivotal human rights and social justice movements have been anchored by leaders of faith. I see him as a man of faith who is actually crafted and shaped for this moment that might make it possible to walk with some of those values in the spaces where now it is not natural to accept it.”

The first Black woman to be elected a Bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada, St. Lewis took part in a panel discussion with 125 young people on Inauguration Day last January at Rideau Hall.

While proud of Obama’s election, St. Lewis said she will assess the new president based on the risk he’s willing to take to transform some elements of U.S. politics in a country that has never been willing to subordinate itself to any of the international instruments that would hold it accountable.

“He talked a lot about bringing the U.S. back where it should be,” she said. “Some of the issues on where it should be, I think, are up for negotiation in my mind. Should it always be the leader, the top, the driver? Many of us came from the Caribbean and other places and we know what the U.S. position on the World Trade Organization has done to our economies.

“It’s really important for me to see when the rubber hits the road and he’s in those settings, will he actually be able to bring a different language to the table? Will he redefine some of the terminologies and understandings? Will he rethink whether we actually have egalitarian international institutions or whether the driver of capital allows a few to oppress billions? That’s the test. The test is not a rhetorical solution, ‘Yes We Can’, because I keep asking who is ‘we’ and how will it work.”

St. Lewis said she’s baffled by the incredible amount of investment that Blacks have placed in the new president who will make his first overseas trip to Ottawa on February 19.

“I find that transfixing and I honestly think we have burdened this one individual in the same way we did with Mandela,” said St. Lewis, who co-chaired the Canadian Bar Association Working Group on Racial Equality.

“We have to get a grip on what that position is, what it can do and what any human being occupying that position can probably accomplish. I feel he’s going to be an outstanding president and world leader, but if we continue to over-burden him, his achievements will be overshadowed by our outrageous expectations and he will look like a failure when he’s transforming as a leader.”

YWCA Chief Executive Officer, Paulette Senior, moderated the event.

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