Obama, or “el presidente negro” [El País]

24 November 2008

Headline from EL PAÍS, 5 days after the election.

Headline from EL PAÍS, 5 days after the election.

I.

I typed this on 5 NOVEMBER, 7:35 p.m. Woke up this morning later than I would have normally, like on Christmas when I was younger, when I’d lie half awake and feel the weight of the stocking at the foot of the bed & go back to sleep on purpose, to prolong that feeling of suspension. Had the heel of a barra de pan with nutella & a banana & watched the news with the sound off in the predawn darkness. It was an hour after midnight in the U.S. The first thing I saw on Canal Uno was a blue map of the States, a tally in the corner, a whopping number, a landslide electoral tally. I changed channels & saw Obama speaking, his lips moving, a Spanish announcer dubbing in the words. Then I turned the television off & put on my coat & took an orange from the bowl in the kitchen & walked to the bus station, to go to school.

I remember very clearly walking to school the morning after the election, while the sun rose behind the buildings & the Sierra Máginas & the garbage men gathered in ranks on the corner of the Gran Eje & Avenida de Barcelona, & thinking to myself how inevitable & relieved I felt, how unambiguously proud. By then it was probably an hour after midnight on the East Coast, midnight in Chicago.

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world . . .

By the time I got to school, many of the teachers had heard. I got pats on the back & thumbs up in the teachers’ lounge. The woman working in the caféteria said my morning coffee was on the house. Kids ran through the halls yelling, “O-ba-ma!” One man came up, shook my hand, said very carefully in English, “Congratulations.” One or two expressed blunt surprise that he had made it alive. I listened to the acceptance speech streaming over the internet & actually cried at one point – kind of welled up. The sheer, profound relief that I could possess a basic expectation of competent governance, intelligent decision-making, eloquent speeches – that whatever else happened, things wouldn’t run aground, there wouldn’t be rampant criminality, abuse, circumvention, arrogant power. This relief, more than anything else, had me shaking, my thousands of miles away.

ii.

It goes without saying that remembering this kind of emotion, even less than three weeks later, feels distant. You want to be analytic about it. But there it is: factually. And it’s a fact, too, that Spain, like Europe generally, rejoiced, congratulated, or at the least took for granted Obama’s inevitable victory over an opponent whose name few could remember or cared about. Long after I was nervously rewatching debates & a thousand various opinions in prose my teachers were pretty well convinced that he’d win the election.

All well & good. But at the same time, & amidst all of this jubilation, it’s hard sometimes to reconcile the happiness here with Spanish racial attitudes, which are complicated in that they live completely outside the framework we’re accustomed to operating in back in the States.

Spanish lacks synonyms – negro/a, (black), stands in for a race, and also exists, as in that great body of 19th c British literature, in a thousand colloquial expressions as catchall term for bad, unlucky, suspicious. A joke, told to me before the election: Sí gana Obama, será un día negro en America; sí gana McCain, será un día negro para el mundo.

Literally, “If Obama wins, it’ll be a black day for America; if McCain wins, it’s a black day for the world.”

The word alone is a little weird to say out loud for an American English speaker. What’s worse is the way that it’s routinely conflated with bad, unpleasant, suspicious,  – a kind of rhetoric racism that simply isn’t recognized in Spain. Where, for instance, any Asian person is chino/a – no differentiation  as in the old woman who visited the school café the other day & was introduced to me and said, “Paraces un poco chino, ¿no? En los ojos.” Clearer: Your eyes make you look kinda chino.

Or an old Catholic teacher at my school: The center of town is like Chinatown! There’s more chinos than españoles – I don’t know why they all had to come out all the way here.

Cheap or shoddy goods are chino. Bad weather, mala suerte, misfortune – negro, negro, negro. There is surely something about the way the headline returns el presidente negro directly to Africa that speaks to this conflation – but then again, isn’t it pretty straight news? After all, his victory was a big deal in Kenya too. 

iii.

All of this is complicated further by pure nativism; Spain’s relationship to northern Africa is roughly the same as the States’ to Mexico – frontiers, borders that are the focus of hysteria over an impermeable national identity, worries over language & culture, thinly disguised racial terror. To the extent that Spain as a nation has a cultural identity, it is in part Spanish, & in part a vision, like many European nations, of an Occidental culture synonymous with civilization, which I always can’t help but thinking of the arrival of Conrad’s narrator to the “city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre.”

My compañero de piso & his friends from the pueblo watch, for example, news reports about Africa with a kind of distant, undifferentiated fascination. “Things,” I might say in Spanish, “are pretty bad in the Congo right now. I read an article in the Times about it. Especially for women, there’s an epidemic of rapes that’s only beginning to be addressed.” And my roommate will respond, yeah, things are bad in Africa, you’re right.

In local city schools here in Jaén, North African students are mostly ignored, left in the back of the classroom, & actively discouraged from participating, doubly so if they’re not yet fully integrated into Spanish. They are looked at as problem kids from the moment they enter – this according to auxiliares who work in those schools.

I can’t speak for my kids, because out of the approx. 70 children I teach directly I can count on the fingers of one hand those who were born outside of Bédmar or Garcíez, the smaller pueblo whose kids are bussed here (the high school is less than a decade old), or perhaps the provincial capital. I have one kid not born in Spain – a 13 yr. old from Lithuania.

Andalucía is homogeneous; your identity as a Spaniard is one that’s apparent – an ocular proof. Language, too. And if you’re Spaniard – people remark sometimes, approvingly, that I look moreno, that my accent is castillano – you’re fine.

It seems to me that Obama, as in the States, as with many exceptional racial figures, is perceived by the world in a different light than, say, the North African street vendors who spread their wares in blankets on the Plaza de la Constitución without permits & have to gather them up or be rousted when the police come. There’s a double consciousness at work here, too. But I don’t know. I’m not sure I have the vocabulary or the insight to say.

iv.

None of these declarative statements sit well with me; I want to equivocate. The teacher who drives me to school every morning was talking to me about an auxiliar from Britain at her last school, a black woman who’d left late in the semester because she’d been terribly homesick. She was great, she told me, with the kids. A good teacher. But so homesick. Her family came to visit twice in two months. She cried all the time. But she was very good while she was here. She had a beautiful singing voice – of course, claro. La voz negra, ¿sabes? Como todos.

To which, well – what do you say to that? Like the other things you’re given, you nod silently, you make a little sound in the back of your throat, you take it, another piece of information, you swallow it, & you continue living in the culture, you eat what everyone eats, you try to hold your fork the same way, you imitate the pronunciation & memorize folk sayings & after you pour the olive oil on the tostada in the morning & spread the tomato you take the knife & break the golden top of the bread to let the oil soak in so that it doesn’t spill over your hands, like everyone else.

Judgment you reserve for a little later. This, at any rate, is what I’ve seen, to the extent that I’m able to see.

 

_

Other longer stuff:

Teaching Féria Hometown tourismCultural differences

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7 Responses to “Obama, or “el presidente negro” [El País]”

  1. John B. Says:

    Something my recent reading on colonial Mexico has reminded me of may be the same thing you’re seeing the residue of, especially there in southern Spain: An obsession with (Spanish) racial purity arising, I assume, as a response to the 700-year Moorish occupation that ended in 1492–as well as, for that matter, the even longer presence of Jews in Spain. At the time, those prejudices got reinforced by the Church’s insistence on either driving non-Christians out of Spain or converting them to the faith–one’s racial type pretty much marked one’s religion, after all. Today’s bad news from Africa just serves to reinforce those now-ancient stigmas.

    None of this is to argue against anything you say here, of course. I experienced many similar moments while I lived in Mexico in which another person would say something in an offhand, everybody-knows-this fashion and, well, what can one do except nod? Once, I was watching a variety show with the family I lived with, and a male singer, from Venezuela I think, came on who would incorporate props and a bit of acting into his performance–a little like opera. This particular song, I thought, was quite moving, and I said that I liked it. One of the daughters (in her first year of college at the time) agreed, then said that he had been gay but had “an operation” and now no longer was gay. I couldn’t help it–I laughed out loud.

  2. Jim Sligh Says:

    John,

    I do think that historically taking the Reconquista into account is vital, but I don’t know enough beyond the simple version of the narrative to feel comfortable making blanket assertions yet.

    I also think that European countries in general have had a hard time with racial & cultural integration (see Paris, Italy, & a New York Times article about widespread wondering in Europe over whether a “European Obama” would be possible).

    Incidentally, re: racial purity, it’s interesting to me that “moreno” sounds so much like “moorish” or “moro” and that any child with light brown hair on up is referred to affectionatly as “rubio” [blonde].

    Talking about the way homosexuality is treated in Spain would take another essay.

  3. Jackie Says:

    Fascinating entry! I would be interested in the homosexuality essay, as well.

  4. Roman Says:

    Jim,

    I like the cadence, the urgency of your search for answers, and the almost bewildered tone that comes through at times. The immediate reaction in your journal entry and your near-term reflection is well presented. Travel writing is tricky, isn’t it? I think you’ve got a really good approach to it, and it fits your style so well. I see N. Baker between the lines; you thought about collecting choice essays for a larger work when you’re done? At any rate, the work you’re doing will be very useful a year or two from now when you write (maybe fiction?) about your Spanish experience, after it has had time to marinate further. For such young grapes, this is good wine already.


  5. […] is, as I’ve already noted, a pretty homogeneous place. You define yourself as a Spaniard by the things you take part in communally, that you do just […]


  6. […] is, as I’ve already noted, a pretty homogeneous place. You define yourself as a Spaniard by the things you take part in communally, that you do just like […]

  7. Jim Sligh Says:

    DJA,

    Thanks so much for reading.

    You’re far from the only one to notice rhetoric racism, though, & I’m by no means a voice in the wilderness, or even close to the best of the voices. For starters, many of the writers linked to in my sidebar consistently explore issues of race & class much more deeply than I manage.

    Jim


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