Jonathan Zimmerman: A New Face for Change

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth.]

My family and I spent the first half of this year in Ghana, which is holding presidential elections on Sunday. By the time we left, the contest was already in full swing. Wherever you looked - street signs, storefronts, even schools - you saw posters of the two major candidates, John Evans Atta Mills and Nana Akufo-Addo, smiling next to their vice presidential running mates.

Since Nov. 4, however, a new face has appeared alongside Mills': Barack Obama's.

Obama isn't endorsing anyone in Ghana, of course. The Mills campaign simply changed its posters, replacing the picture of Mills' running mate with one of the American president-elect. So now, everywhere you go, you see them together.

Mills' party even has a new slogan: "Obama Nie, Atta Mills Nie." That means simply, "This is Obama, this is Mills."

The point is not just that Obama is black, although that's part of it. Mostly, Obama symbolizes democracy itself. Elected to the White House on themes of optimism and change, he has become international shorthand for hope.

Let's start with the matter of race, which is more complicated than you might guess. As the first free nation in sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana has long seen itself as a lodestar of black liberty and progress. That's why independence leader Kwame Nkrumah adorned the national flag with a black star, which echoed the name of the shipping company started by the Jamaican pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.

Predictably, then, Obama's victory triggered an explosion of race pride in Ghana. "What an apotheosis for blacks in America and elsewhere!" columnist I.K. Gyasi proclaimed a week after Obama won. "Today, a Blackman is president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the United States."

To Ghanaians, though, Obama isn't just a "Blackman." He's also an African, because his father came from Kenya. So he wasn't a product of slavery, which remains a deeply sensitive subject across the continent. Ashamed of their role in perpetuating the slave trade, Africans are also proud that they weren't slaves themselves.

"Obama is not a descendant of our ancestors who were cruelly transported to the so-called New World and forced to do back-breaking labor in the sugar and cotton fields, and in the homes of white people," Gyasi added. "The new president will not have to change his name from Robinson, or Jackson. ... He already has a 'non-American' sounding one known as Barack Hussein Obama."

But Obama is an American, of course. And Ghanaians are ambivalent about America, too - celebrating its dynamism, but condemning its racism.

Last spring, as Obama began his surge in the primaries, a Ghanaian history teacher told my daughter's class that America would never allow a black man to become president.

"If he gets close, he'll be assassinated," the teacher declared flatly.

So when Obama won, Ghanaians had to look anew at Americans - and themselves. After all, commentators noted, Ghana also has a history of ethnic conflict.

In 1994, 1,000 were killed and an additional 150,000 had to flee during an outbreak of tribal violence. In February, shortly after we arrived in Ghana, about a dozen people died in ethnic fighting in the country's north.

"Maybe we should also find out if our ethnocentric views about those who come from the North will subside if someone is elected president from that area," another columnist wrote after Obama's victory. "Maybe Ghana can learn a lesson or two from this!"

Most of all, Ghanaians hope Obama's election can serve as an example of a peaceful, democratic transition. Despite its recent stability, Ghana has a history of military coups. When Kenya and Zimbabwe descended into election-related violence this year, many Ghanaians wondered if they might be next.

"Those who have invoked the Kenya/Zimbabwe models for Ghana must rethink their approach to politics," a third commentator wrote recently. "They must join us in helping Ghana to emulate the American example, and become an example for the Kenyas and Zimbabwes of our world."

That's a tall order, of course, and it certainly won't happen overnight. But by electing Barack Obama, the United States has created a new impetus for democratic change around the globe.

In Ghana especially, Obama isn't just a smiling face on a campaign poster. He is the face of a better future, for all of us.

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