A View From Abroad: Obama As A Surprise To The World From America

11/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In order to gain insight into how Europeans and Africans perceive Obama's candidacy and possible presidency, I interviewed Dr. Simon Njami, a Paris-based writer and international curator of contemporary African art. Njami, a Sorbonne-educated, European-born son of Cameroonian parents, is of Obama's generation. His father is, like Obama's father was, a western-educated intellectual of the African independence generation. Also, like Obama, Njami has spent his life in public service.

In July 2004, when Barack Obama debuted on the national stage with his electrifying keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, I was living in Paris. I missed the address in real time, but heard it later, after an American friend in Paris called me praising Obama, and then sent me his speech online. I remember sitting and looking over the gray rooftops outside my window and thinking, "Wow! He should be president one day--if my country has the good sense to elect him." Will Smith's annual summer blockbuster, I Robot, had opened in Paris earlier that month and Smith's face was everywhere, on the sides of buses, on banners and kiosks, and in metro stations. After I heard Obama's keynote, especially his words about a country that is neither blue nor red but American--I thought maybe, just maybe, it was possible that one day soon, Americans would respond to an Obama presidential candidacy as they have responded to the film star, Will Smith. Maybe, I thought, the United States is at the threshold of moving beyond divisions of race, color, and ethnicity, as well as ideology, class and culture. Maybe...

France, like other European countries is now home to les immigres, immigrants from the former colonies and the European-born children of those immigrants. Sub-Saharan and North Africans in France face myriad problems rooted in the legacy of colonialism and the struggles for independence. When I heard Obama's speech describing his mother from Kansas and his father from Kenya and later read his books, I thought about the positive impact he could have on nations around the world and how he could broaden the way the United States is perceived abroad.

I was in France on 9/11, too, and as an American, was the recipient of good-will and empathy from Europeans, Africans and Arabs. In Paris, the little grocery stores, like the "mom and pop" stores in the US, are often owned by Arabs--and the men and women I encountered in these stores after 9/11 couldn't have been more kind and sorrowful. I remember, during the Christmas holidays that year, a young man in my neighborhood store asking me to sing the words to "Jingle Bells" because he liked the tune. Less than two years later, on the day the Iraq War began, I was in the American Express office on rue Scribe and the woman who was waiting on me, leaned over and said, "It has begun--the war." When I left and walked out onto the street, an anti-war protest of high school students was proceeding past the Opera metro stop towards La Madeleine, onto the rue Royal and the Place de la Concorde, filling the wide boulevards curb to curb. I walked along the sidewalk parallel to the marchers and called my mother in the States, screaming into the phone before I held it over the crowd, "Can you hear this?" None of the marchers' signs said anything against the United States instead they said, Non Guerre, "No War."

One of my friends, an American editor, could see the protesters from her houseboat on the Seine, as they gathered in the Place de la Concorde. In spite of the pronouncements of the Bush administration, the French felt no ill will toward the American people about the war; rather the majority of people were sad and disappointed for us. In one reckless move, we fell from being the democratic leader of the free world in the eyes of the world, to a country that invaded another country on false pretenses. Since then--the world has been waiting for the America we used to be, the America of Normandy in 1944 and throughout the Cold War, and for the strong leadership that was once synonymous with the United States of America.

Obama is both quintessentially American and quintessentially global. As such, he is the right American leader for the 21st Century. Americans who live abroad (those I know anyway) are often struck by how insular the US seems from afar. With our wealth and power combined with our optimistic, youthful, culture, we have dominated the world's imagination since the end of the Second World War. Consequently, we haven't learned as much as we should about countries and cultures other than our own--or learned to speak languages other than English. In the more than half century since World War II, though, the countries that were decimated during that war have been rebuilt and are now competitive with the US. In the developing world, countries rich in natural resources, struggle to find their place among global power brokers. This is the 21st century reality. The US cannot stand alone; we must work with our allies. We are a nation--a great nation--among the nations of the world. As an American who is also a child of the African Diaspora, Obama is tailor made to lead the US on the world stage. He is an American with a global perspective, he understands nations beyond our borders; and that sends a powerful, positive message to our allies while making our foes think twice.

Dr. Simon Njami was educated as a lawyer and began to work with contemporary artists throughout Africa because he observed that artists are making the most political statements about the continent. He believes that by giving African artists an international forum he is changing not only how the world perceives Africa, but how Africans perceive themselves. For ten years, he was editor of the Paris-based publication Revue Noire. In July 2004, Njami's exhibition "Africa Remix", which featured the work of more than eighty artists, opened in Dusseldorf before runs in Great Britain, Sweden, Japan, South Africa and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, where it was the first exhibition of its kind.

When I asked Njami what impact the possible election of Obama would have on how the US is perceived internationally--particularly in Africa and Europe--and in the wake of the Bush administration, he said, "Even if we still love Americans, we don't trust America anymore. All around the world, and particularly in France where I live, George Bush Junior's administration is perceived as one of the worst ones. Bush didn't make the world a safer place as he promised; on the contrary, the disparity between rich and poor, and the opposition between Christian and Muslim have become worse and have reached a dangerous point. Bush's discourse on "Good and Evil" relegated a great deal of the people on the planet to the shadows." Still referring to Bush, he explained, "The colonial times are over, and no one should claim to own the absolute truth. As for Africa, there were only two American administrations to show some genuine interest in the continent: Kennedy's and Clinton's. With Obama as President, there would be a new hope. We are witnessing someone who will listen, who is conscious of the unbalanced world we're living in and who addressed all the issues we have been dealing with. Obama seems to be someone oriented to dialogue rather than force. And Africa will certainly be something special to his heart. Not only because he is an American of African origin, but because he is a contemporary being."

I asked him how he, personally, has been affected by Obama's candidacy and he told me, "I consider it as one of the biggest events of our millennium. It is useless to remind everyone of what Black people have had to endure throughout the last century just to be perceived as humans. To have a Black candidate today who has some chance to become the next President of the United States is something fantastic."

When I noted that he and Obama are of the same generation and have similar stories--both Obama's and Njami's fathers returned to their homeland only to suffer at the hands of their respective governments--Njami spoke passionately saying, "You were right to mention the similarities between Obama and me. We are coming from the same generation. We probably have shared the same thoughts about the world's situation, and here he is, possible President. Even in France, the country of Human Rights, this [his candidacy] could not be possible. The message is quite strong. No matter what Bush has tried to turn America into, this young nation is still capable of surprising us. It means that, after all that has happened this year, the country of the KKK has the capacity to give the highest charge to a black person. Of course, I dearly wish Obama to become the next president. But the message sent by his candidacy and the way he masters the problems displayed before him is already an accomplishment. For all of us, not only Blacks. One just needed to see the enthusiasm he raised during his European tour to realize that it is a generational phenomenon that goes beyond races."

Njami described the how Africans throughout the Diaspora feel about Obama and what he represents to the world, comparing Obama to Mandela in their eyes. He said, "For the world, there is a huge hope. We are sick of wars and we don't need (as Bob Marley sang it), 'no more trouble.' It seems that Obama is the one who can help us to make, altogether, a better world. As for the Africans, only one word comes to my mind: pride. They consider Obama as their son, and as the champion they couldn't have. We had Mandela. We might have Obama for the future."

I posed this question to Njami, "Your work has been dedicated to changing perceptions, particularly to changing how Africans perceive themselves and how others nations and people see them. Do you think Obama has had an impact in this regard?" In response, he offered glimpses of the Obama effect in Kenya and Brazil, "Of course Obama has an impact. He doesn't need to claim his blackness. It is obvious. What the world is discovering (not me personally but those who believed and still believe that there is a curse on Black people) is that one can be Black and care about the larger world. I have seen many people changing because of Obama. In Kenya, where I was a couple of weeks ago, one has the feeling of being in a new American state. People are following closely what is happening in America because of the one they call the native son. In Brazil, during the local elections, eight candidates decided to call themselves Obama and there are many more examples of that kind. This means Obama has become the symbol of modernity, skills, and honesty."

Njami doesn't think Obama has changed the way Africans are perceived by the French, but he paid homage to Leopold Senghor who fought for independence and later became President of an independent Senegal. "I should remind you," Njami said, "that if the French are not ready to elect an African candidate, Senghor was nevertheless elected at the French Academy which was then, as a symbol, very strong."

A few years ago, when I was still in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy who is now President of France, referred to young, French-born Africans and Arabs--who were rioting in the banlieue (suburbs of Paris) because they were frustrated by not having jobs or access to jobs--as "scum." Last summer, when Obama met with Sarkozy in Paris, the French President embraced Obama and called him mon cher Obama, (my dear Obama). I asked Njami whether he thinks an Obama Presidency would have an effect on Sarkozy's attitude and actions toward Africans and Arabs in France.

"I am not that interested in addressing Sarkozy's policy," he told me. "But of course, it will be affected because Obama would be the President of the United States. And that's the beauty of it. People will have to deal with Obama, not simply as who he is, but also because of what he will be representing."

When I asked Njami whether he thinks we will see an Obama in France anytime in the near or distant future, he answered thoughtfully, "I think it will take time. There is a demographic question that is an important element. The immigrés don't represent a strong enough political force, but it might change. My son, for instance..."