Sunday 16 June 2019

Better world for our children does not have to be a fiction

American students at Queens University Belfast, left to right, Jordan Junge, Jamie Ferguson and Anne Martz celebrate as Mr Obama is sworn in
American students at Queens University Belfast, left to right, Jordan Junge, Jamie Ferguson and Anne Martz celebrate as Mr Obama is sworn in

Colum McCann

My children headed out the door to school on 82nd Street in New York yesterday morning, like any other morning, but they were walking into a country that did not exist before.

If they had been walking out 150 years ago, they would have entered a country that still used shackles around a man's ankle as a form of currency.

If they had walked out a century ago, they would have walked into a country that still hung men from oak trees for walking on the wrong side of the street.

If they had walked out 75 years ago, they would have found a landscape still mired in the idea that one sort of man did one sort of job, another man did the other.

If they had walked out 50 years ago, they would have hopped onto a bus that only allowed the back seats for 'coloureds'.

If they had walked out 30 years ago, they would have found separate drinking fountains. Twenty years ago there would still be politicians running on segregationist tickets.

Even 10 years ago, the suggestion -- the very suggestion -- of a man like Barack Obama walking through the doors of the White House would have been a fiction.

But the very reason the idea of "fiction" exists is that life is constantly unfinished. The world can always surprise. The real beauty in life is that beauty can sometimes occur.

So my children stepped out the front door and into a new country, at least temporarily. In many ways it was also a new history: a dream of redemption and an act of contrition.

The energy in the air was palpable. Cars hooted as they made their way uptown towards Harlem. Bus drivers grinned. There were flags flying along Madison Avenue. Kids in the schoolyard were shouting "Obama! Obama!" Virtually all the public schools in the city had arranged for the children to watch the inauguration on television. At PS 87 on Manhattan's west side, the children roared. Some of them even held up their hands and repeated the oath. "I, Barack Hussein Obama . . ."

A community was being formed, a generation. A moment of history was being coded. A bolt of electricity went along the spine of a flawed country when, after accepting the oath, Obama stepped up to the podium and announced: "My fellow citizens, I stand here today humbled by the task before us . . ."

It was a speech of humility, generosity and stern warning. It signalled a new birth of clarity and purpose. It contained a dose of reality, coupled with some unbridled optimism, and a bit of American jingoism. It addressed a wounded country, a country of decline, a country steeped in the arrogance of its own self-regard, and asked it to rise up and change. It was a speech full of empathy and properly free of condescension.

Here was a leader saying that old hatreds have passed, and that greatness must be earned.

It was etched in Obama's face that he knew what the future would be like. He is entering the worst time in American history since the Depression. There are two wars to deal with. He oversees an economy that has been gouged by a new generation of robber barons. America as a superpower is increasingly being overshadowed by China and India. Forty million people are without health insurance. The constant threat of terror hovers over him.

There are other questions too: Why should the inauguration of a black man surprise us? Why should it feel so enormous? Why the collective shiver of joy? Perhaps we should be ashamed that it took so long for this to happen. If we looked back -- at the shackles, the water fountains, the oak trees, the people living sitting on the roofs of houses during Hurricane Katrina -- perhaps we all should lower our heads in grief for what we have been, rather than celebrating what we have become. Why has it taken so long for equality to become an ordinary notion? Why have we grown strange to so many of our old principles of democracy? Is the hope made all the more acute simply because we are living in the worst of times? Does Obama shine simply because he came from the shadows of Bush?

But for once -- at least yesterday -- the questions didn't matter. Barack Obama stood up and he was a signifier, a turn in the road, a new direction. He represented the "audacity of hope" as he himself describes it.

My 10-year-old son turned to me on the way home from school and asked if we had African-American blood: he was disappointed when I told him that we hadn't. It was then that it struck me that we lived in a brand-new world.

Tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after, the country that my children will step into will be rife with problems both old and new. But just because times are tough doesn't mean that they are without joy. Yesterday, a shine came into their eyes as they talked of their new president. It was a sight to behold -- it was not manufactured, nor ordered, nor conscripted. And they will continue to talk about it for years to come -- it will not be a fiction, not at all, not at all.

Colum McCann is an award-winning novelist based in New York

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