Overcome the bigotry and prove that all men are created equal

Barack Obama’s election demonstrates that we can overcome our prejudices and bigotry and bring ourselves to do what is right, and that we can succeed if we try.

COULDN’T you just cry? With great pride and much joy, many in the United States of America did after Barack Obama was declared the winner of the presidential election.

They were celebrating in the streets – dancing, singing, and honking their car horns as if they had just won the football World Cup. Not that Americans in general give two hoots about soccer, but you get the picture.

In fact, even if they did bother about the World Cup, Obama’s victory is arguably much, much bigger in terms of significance and impact.

With the election of the first African-American president, the people who proudly describe their country as the “Land of The Free” and the “Home of The Brave”, laid to rest many ghosts of their past, and did indeed live up to their boasts.

African-Americans have a long and deep history. The first African slaves were brought over to the British colonies in America in 1619, more than 150 years before the colonies declared independence from Britain in 1776 and formed the United States of America.

The Declaration of Independence, which holds as self-evident the truths of human equality and the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers who, by the way, owned more than 200 slaves.

Nearly a hundred years later, in 1861, Americans went to war with each other over slavery. After the war, the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution outlawed slavery.

This was quickly followed in subsequent years by the 14th Amendment, which granted full citizenship to African-Americans, and the 15th Amendment, which extended the right to vote to African-American males in 1870. (Women, of whatever colour, were still not allowed to vote.)

You would have thought that that would have been the beginning of true life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for African-Americans. And, for a brief period, the promise was met with progress of substance.

But they soon found themselves oppressed, marginalised and discriminated against – in many instances, legally discriminated against – right up until the 1960s.

So it was no surprise to read in some of the commentaries published in US newspapers today how truly a historic moment it was when the American people chose an African-American as their new president.

(It is also worthy to note here that while African-Americans are a minority, they do not form the largest minority group in the US – that “honour” belongs to Hispanics, who make up 15% of the population, as opposed to 12% for African-Americans.)

The opening words to Thomas Friedman’s column in The New York Times went thus: “And so it came to pass that on Nov 4, 2008, shortly after 11pm Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man – Barack Hussein Obama – won enough electoral votes to become President of the United States.”

Indeed, the war has finally ended.

The Washington Post published a cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Tom Tolles, showing a caricature of Obama walking through the gates of the White House.

The caption at the top of the sketch was the famous line from the Declaration of Independence written down more than 200 years ago : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.

At the bottom, the caption read: “Ratified November 4, 2008.”

Indeed, that truth is now clearly self-evident, at the very least to Americans.

But what of the rest of us, who have followed the US presidential election as if it were the World Cup, including we here in Malaysia?

In fact, there has never been a person that so many non-Americans have wanted so much to be president.

What is this utter fascination with this man, so much so that aliens from Mars on their first visit to Earth could be forgiven for thinking that we earthlings were rooting for Obama as World President?

The answer lies, I believe, not so much in who he is but in what he symbolises.

It is the age-old story of the triumph of hope over despair, of freedom over oppression, and of the best qualities in each and every one of us over the worst that we are all capable of.

It is a story that demonstrates that we can overcome our own prejudices and bigotry, that we can bring ourselves to do what is right, and that we can succeed if we try.

I am not saying that Americans did the right thing by electing Obama. What I am saying is that they did the right thing by voting for who they thought could best lead their country, regardless of skin colour.

There is no doubt many Americans – white, black and every other colour in between – are still unable to get over their racial prejudices, just as there are many such people elsewhere in the world.

But on Tuesday, Nov 4, this unjustifiable intolerance was drowned out by a truth that should not only be self-evident in America, but also to the rest of us.

All men are created equal.

Couldn’t you just cry, thinking about that?

Raslan Sharif’s favourite colour is blue.

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