Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Barack Obama, it is your time. And ours too.

This morning I was picked by a cab at 6.15am to go to the BBC studios on Great Portland Street. The driver, who was Afro-Caribbean, told me that his two daughters, aged four and five, were excited about the inauguration. His five year-old had got up at 5.30am so that she could see her dad on this historic day. She just wanted to share a moment with her father on what was, for her, an important day in her very young life.

What message will she take from the story of soon-to-be President Barack Obama? Yes, it sounds trite. But yes, she can. When she is struggling at school, facing prejudice, confusion, frustration, she has an inspirational reference point. When she's told that she's not good enough or she sees people less talented than her succeed or given an unfair advantage then she knows that if she perseveres then she is just as good if not better than her peers. This is not just a message for one ethnicity or race or a single nation. It is an uplifting and energising tale of endeavour and just reward; of principle and, yes, change. It is for us all.

Unless his presidency descends into disaster, that story, a new American folklore, will endure. Before he has sent a single piece of legislation to Congress, signed his first Executive Order, made his first appointment, or delivered his first presidential address, Barack Obama has already become the motivation for the sort of change he believes in. That is not change that is found in laws but it is the type of change that is to be found people's souls. It is the type of magnificent poetry that can energise generation after generation.

Emmett Till you did not die in vain. Nor you, Martin Luther King. To the man in Altgeld Gardens- where Barack Obama was a community organiser- who voted for the first time this year and couldn't even register to vote because he couldn't read and write, you can have dreams for your grand-children that you never had for yourself. Everyone who marched, was beaten back by police dog, water cannon and stick, all you who prayed, pleaded, cajoled and resisted, your struggles have been rewarded.

The racial inequality does not evaporate with the election of a single man. Nor can four or eight years reverse the legacy of 250 years of injustice. What does change though is the hope. America has come a long way. It has a long road to travel. Now each mile will feel shorter. Every upward slope will feel flatter. No longer are you lonely travellers on the road. The journey is not complete nor is it just beginning. But you are now travelling as a troop. You have a horse and cart. You have no need to hunger or thirst. You can do it. All of you. All of us.

But this isn't only a story of racial division and injustice. It is not simply about the historical crimes that have been committed against America's blacks. It is far bigger than even that. It is not about looking back but reaching into America's history to define a new future. This America- this America that we have long waited for- is a new place. It is a place far more aligned with the founding promise of the declaration of independence. You have been steered off course. You are now back on track. This could be your time.

When five year-old kids feel a sense of history. When they feel a connection to prevailing political wind then there is promise anew. Politics is a tool. When it is wielded by the masses it is a tool for the common good. Our collective hands toil with determination. Yes, things can be different. Yes, they should be different. What more jolting message can there be for us in Britain who far too often slouch in scepticism? These moments can be ours too.

This belief in collective endeavour is Barack Obama's gift to the world. It may be transitory. Or it may endure. Whichever it is, let's enjoy this moment: one of conviction and faith, hope and optimism. President Barack Obama, may a righteous wind be in your sails. May you be the President of your own and our dreams. All men are created equal. Only some achieve the greatness that could be your destiny. Now it is your time. And ours too.

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