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The colour of America

As Pertie spoke, fractured memories of America flashed through my mind. I recalled the dark, brooding heavy atmosphere of Harlem way back in the 70s when I first visited New York, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Nov 02, 2008 00:57 IST

Pertie’s phone call was a surprise, not least because he rang at a decent hour. He was also unaccustomedly calm and reflective. Paris seems to have made him professorial.

“Are you following the US elections?” He seemed to think not. “It’s the only subject people talk about in Paris, apart from the crisis, of course.”

“And what are they saying?” I was being polite. I have not thought deeply about this election although I follow it intermittently on television. Bombay, Singur, the Christian killings and our tumbling stock market seem to take up all my time.

“Think about it: we could have a black president in just a couple of days. And that too a man with an obviously strange name and an unsettling middle name. It’s as if France was about to get a Moroccan or an Algerian president or even one from Cote d’lvoire and Senegal! The French press love it but the ordinary Joe can’t quite believe it.”

Pertie has a point. Six months ago it would have been hard to believe America could have a black president in our lifetime. And even though the rest of the world has embraced the idea, it’s still a little difficult to accept that Obama’s captured the popular imagination and expresses the hopes of tens of millions of ordinary Americans.

“Clearly colour is not an issue for many Americans and, who knows, they could be a majority on Tuesday. Isn’t that an astonishing measure of how much America has changed? How its prejudices have disappeared? How open and embracing it’s become?”

As Pertie spoke, fractured memories of America flashed through my mind. I recalled the dark, brooding heavy atmosphere of Harlem way back in the 70s when I first visited New York. It was unnerving. I felt scared and I did not want to linger. I remembered the music halls of the French quarter of New Orleans from the 90s. The black musicians were admired, occasionally loved, but they were never one with the rest. This was their city. White Americans were only visitors. And I recollected my trips to Washington in the 2000s. The taxi drivers, the street cleaners and the hotel staff were black. Those with money, who they served, tended to be white.

“You know what this proves?” Pertie’s voice cut through my reverie. “That America is the greatest democracy in the world. Don’t you agree?”

“Aren’t you over-egging it? After all immigrants or outsiders have made it to the top in other countries as well. New Zealand has an Indian governor general, Singapore has an Indian president, Canada has had Indian state premiers and federal ministers.”

Pertie’s first response was a low laugh. It sounded sardonic. But when he spoke I realised it was disbelieving.

“Oh come! This is the presidency of the United States of America. The most important and most powerful job in the world. And on Tuesday it could belong to a black man. A member of the old slave race. Remember that film we saw at school? Guess who’s coming to dinner? Well, this time it’s not dinner, it’s ‘guess who’s going to rule our lives?’”

I remember the film as if I saw it yesterday. The horror on Spencer Tracy’s face when he first encountered Sidney Poitier was unforgettable. Without saying a word it captured the colour divide that made America one country but two people, two societies, even two nations. If Obama wins that rift could be bridged. Indeed, the fact that Obama could win suggests it already has been.

“And if Obama loses?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Pertie seemed to have thought this out. “America will never be the same again. What matters is how far Obama has come and what he’s done to America’s image. Actually, what he’s done to the way Americans think of themselves. They’re proud they could elect their first black president. So if not Obama, there’ll be another very soon.”

“Hmm. Hereafter you can no longer say it’s a white man’s world.”

“Hang on. Don’t get carried away. They see Obama as a white man but other blacks won’t change colour!”

First Published: Nov 01, 2008 20:49 IST