Guest blogger, Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the USA.
Last winter I taught a seminar on reading and writing biography. In preparation, I spent my winter break reading Barack Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father; David Mendell‘s Obama: From Promise to Power; and the White House official biography, introduced by the soon-to-be controversial Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
What struck me most in meeting Mr. Obama yet again through these narratives was the manner in which he adopted Chicago as his cultural home long before he moved to the Midwestern metropolis and met Michelle.
The man whose authentic African-ness came clearly from his Kenyan father, sought authentic African-American-ness on Chicago’s legendary South Side. Obama heard about the South Side from his mother and others in terms that made him desire a place among this ‘imagined community’ of families confident in both the color of their skin and the content of their character.
Some time ago, Newsweek wrote about Obama’s circle as representative of a generation that came of age around the globe then came home to govern. In a very loose sense, I fall into this group. A faculty brat, I spent the summers of my youth traipsing from Norwegian fjords to Egyptian tombs; I gained graduate degrees and a spouse overseas; but I now live a half-block from the hospital where I was born and work at my alma mater. Like my more powerful contemporaries in Washington, I looked around the world and tried to see what I could learn from it that I could use to improve my own sphere of influence.
The students I advise have a different geography of hope. For all they may complain of Bush mis-administration and other patronizing powers, they travel to teach not to learn. Obama came to Chicago to learn what it meant to be ‘Black’ in America. This generation of graduates travels to teach Africans how to help themselves while they learn what it might or might not mean to be African.
The students embarking on such secular missions are rarely of African extraction. Although descendants of empire, they reject the imperial project of imposed institutions and prefer to call themselves ‘social entrepreneurs.’ They cross oceans to trade in knowledge and hope the way the British Raj traded in tobacco and tea. They want to listen to refugee children or illiterate mothers then put their twenty-something energy to work creating solutions for problems they never experienced in the suburban subdivisions of their own childhoods.
I have no doubt that such cross-cultural contact helps to broaden the world-views of the privileged few who attend a private university whether by virtue of parental wealth or financial aid, but the inverse proportion between proximity and interest bothers me. The ability to comfort a child down the street lacks the glamour of saving a child across the sea. Even within the local sphere, students drive vans to visit neighborhoods with names from the nightly news, when they could walk to children with whom they share sidewalks and services in similar need.
Bill Clinton’s “place called hope” was the Arkansan burg of his birth. Obama’s hope grew from the home he created with Michelle in Chicago. These hopeful leaders lived internationally but dreamed domestically. The students gathered in Grant Park to bask in the glow of Obama’s hope have sown their own in foreign fields. Whether they will reap the results they expect remains unknown.
When looking at a student’s birth date, I remember that these are the children of GHW Bush’s thousand points of light. I doubt Bush Sr. expected that the volunteers he hoped would save us from the need for a proper social safety net would choose to illuminate what their colonizing ancestors called the ‘dark’ continent.
This year, a seminar on my campus discussed the meanings of a supposedly ‘post-racial’ America. The sessions stressed that as we roll back affirmative action and deny the existence of race at home, we have soldiers deployed to impose democracy abroad. Hope has migrated from the least among us to furthest from us.
I hope that good intentions abroad need not undermine efforts at home, but I know we need to address not avoid the geography of hope.
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is Associate Director of the Office of Fellowships and teaches History and American Studies at Northwestern University, from which she earned her BA (1992). She earned MLitt (1994) and MPhil (1995) degrees in European History at Cambridge University before completing her PhD at Princeton University (2000). In her so-called spare time, she fights household entropy, gardens, bakes boozy bundts, enjoys breakfast in Bollywood, and writes scholarly papers about funky monks.