I’m not a very good American. I’ve never watched American Idol or the Bachelor, never sat through an entire Oprah show. My overseas friends are often rather shocked and disappointed with me, as they usually know  more about American pop culture than I do. (My grasp of English idioms is still better)

But still, on Tuesday afternoon when Elliot said to me, “You’re not very patriotic, are you?” I was stung. “What do you mean?” I shot back. He gestured at the television, where a newscaster, discussing Obama’s speech, had just breathlessly mentioned it as “this generation’s defining moment,” and then gone on to say “like the other defining moments.”

Donn and I explained the difference between mocking a newscaster desperately filling airtime with inane babble, and the silence with which we watched the inauguration ceremony in its entirety.

Abel only has one class on Tuesday afternoons, from 3 to 4. I went up to get him at 4, all pins and needles, because I thought I was missing the inauguration itself. We’re 5 hours different now, but I was mixed up and thought it was four. A small cluster of Moroccan parents eyed me curiously as I tapped my foot in impatience until Abel finally appeared. “Hurry up! We’re missing the inauguration!” I said. “The what?” he said. “Barack Obama is becoming president,” I explained as we trotted out of the parking lot, and I caught understanding smiles out of the corner of my eyes. They might not speak English, but they know the words “Barack Obama,” and even non-English stations provided live coverage.

We hurried home, where Donn and I continued to watch live coverage on CNN and Abel curled up with a Calvin and Hobbes book until we got all parental on him. “Put that book down and watch TV!” we told him, which is not our usual command. “This is a historic moment.”

Ilsa and Elliot were still at school, but Elliot happened to be in the library at 5 p.m. local time, where someone turned a computer to watch the swearing-in live, with French translation.

The newscasters, who apparently can’t stop talking, made a big deal about two items: the historic aspect of America’s first black president, and the peaceful transfer of power from the 43rd to the 44th man to hold this office. At first I was rolling my eyes a bit, although I blame the announcers, who fear the sound of silence.  (One almost implied that the US is the world’s only democracy! Well, I suppose that makes sense; after all England has a queen, don’t they? And Germany produced a Hitler, admittedly some time ago now, but still. And we don’t always agree with whoever France “elects.” Uh, yeah.) But then I got to thinking about the ways that places I have lived have shaped my views of my home country, for both good and ill. My thoughts drifted irresistibly to my time in Mauritania.

Mauritania is a country that officially made it a crime to own a slave on July 2, 2007. And yet, my Mauritanian students loved to cast up racism in America to me. American slavery was a favorite topic for thesis students, and after all the news coverage following Hurricane Katrina, a lot of them took it upon themselves to talk to me about America’s race problems. This seemed a bit thick, coming from the self-named White Moors, many of whom had black people in their homes doing all their work, and were smug in the fact these people were not slaves because they had been in the family for years.

“Racism doesn’t exist any more here,” Hamed told me once, and I nearly choked, thinking back to Aicha’s shock when she saw our cook sit down and eat with us (“You‘re very humble,” she told us), or her comment on  Miss Uganda: “She’s black and skinny. To me, she’s not even a woman.” I thought of Hamed himself walking out on a black teacher, a woman from Ghana with her doctorate in English, because he believed he could treat her any way he liked and get away with it, because he believed in his superiority as an undergraduate but lighter-skinned male who grew up in a small village out in the desert.

I have lost touch with Hamed, but I thought of him yesterday, and Aicha, and my other friends. Barack Obama is biracial and no darker than many Mauritanians, and they relate strongly to his African name. I wonder if slavery and America’s race problems will continue to figure so highly in their thinking now. I have no way of knowing.

I also thought about my friend Mina. When the war in Iraq first started, she watched a protest clogging the streets of New York, and couldn’t really wrap her mind around it. “Bush is a dictator,” she told us.

“No, he’s not,” we argued, but we couldn’t convince her. “The people don’t agree with him about the war and he’s still doing it,” she said.

Ri-ight. Welcome to the concept of open disagreement with your own government, also known as freedom of speech. We pointed out that Mauritania’s then president had handily won by 97% of the vote, which we didn’t feel actually possible, and she said everybody just really liked him. O-kay. We heard of an African president whose people loved him so much that he got over one hundred percent of the votes!! (Probably urban myth but I love it anyway). That’s not real democracy, we explained, but we got nowhere.

I thought about Mina yesterday as I watched the reins of power handed off from one party to another without any threat of violence. Whether you wish the Republicans had won this last election or you are excited to see what Obama‘s going to do, you have to admit that this closely-watched peaceful election gave people in other countries something to think about. So I guess I don’t mind if the newscasters natter on and on about it. Government by the people and for the people is still a revolutionary thought on much of the planet, and I‘m not afraid of sounding like a newscaster in saying so.

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